Review: Katha Pollitt’s ‘Pro’

PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. Katha Pollitt. Picador. 258 pages. $25.
PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. Katha Pollitt. Picador. 258 pages. $25.

Like most other women who support abortion rights, Katha Pollitt celebrates motherhood as a choice. The poet and columnist for the Nation is also one of the most eloquent champions for women’s reproductive freedom, and her latest book is a manifesto.

“People think of pregnant women as weak and vulnerable, but when I was pregnant with my daughter I felt as if I could put my hand in fire and it would only glow,” she writes in the small but powerful Pro. “I never felt alone: There were two of us, right there. I didn’t think of my child as an embryo or fetus. … I thought of her first as a funny little sea creature of indeterminate sex, and later, yes, as a baby, even though she was only a baby in my thoughts.”

It is long past time, Pollitt argues, for abortion to be cast as a social good. “We need to see abortion as an urgent practical decision that is just as moral as the decision to have a child — indeed, sometimes more moral,” she writes. “Abortion is part of being a mother and of caring for children, because part of caring for children is knowing when it’s not a good idea to bring them into the world.”

Pollitt masterfully employs an eye-popping history of abortion rights to track the trajectory of our nation’s current obsession with the private lives of women. Abortion, she reminds us, is at least 4,000 years old, and we didn’t always condemn women who sought one. Ayn Rand and Barry Goldwater were pro-choice, as was California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who signed what was “the most liberal abortion law in the country” at the time.

In 1962, a Life magazine cover story chronicled the ordeal of Sherri Chessen Finkbine, a white, middle-class mother of four and a local Romper Room host who publicly traveled from the United States to Sweden for an abortion. She had belatedly discovered that the Thalidomide she took to help her sleep had caused deformities in thousands of babies.

In that same decade, a rubella epidemic that caused thousands of babies to be born with disabilities forced Americans “to listen to respectable white women unapologetically demanding the right to end their pregnancies,” Pollitt writes. Also in the 1960s, a number of mainstream religious organizations supported abortion in at least some circumstances. This included the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church.

So what happened?

Women started to matter, politically and economically. For this, we had to pay. “As long as women were firmly ensconced in the family as wives and mothers with few rights and little social power,” Pollitt writes, “abortion was legal or tolerated as a way to save unmarried daughters from shame, limit family size, and protect exhausted mothers from the rigors of yet more pregnancies and births. … But once middle-class white women began to emancipate themselves and get involved in public and political life … abortion took on its modern meaning of self-determination and independence and active decision-making. Those are bedrock American values for men, but not for women, who are supposed to be self-sacrificing, other-oriented, maternal, and dependent.”

Abortion opponents are limited by their extremist language of “personhood,” she writes, imprisoned by rhetoric that “forces them into impossible positions and arid arguments that few believe and fewer live by.” She has tough questions for them: If you really think abortion is murder, how can you carve out exceptions? If it’s murder, who goes to jail? The doctor? The support staff? The woman who sought the abortion?

She brings in the Second Amendment, too, to telling effect. “If abortion is different because it’s about life and death, so too, potentially, are guns, yet we seem positively loathe to examine people’s reasons for wanting to own them. … And unlike abortion, guns kill more than 32,000 actually existing people every year.”

Occasionally, her columnist’s sarcasm gets the best of her, resulting in biting asides that dilute powerful arguments grounded in stellar reporting. To those pundits who feel entitled to question why a woman would get an abortion, she snipes, “Your judgment of that woman is not even an interesting fact about yourself” — an entertaining retort that will win her no converts. Her ridicule of a Texas state senator’s grammar comes off as elitist and beside the point. But these are rare missteps in a book otherwise noted for its conversational tone.

In a testament to Pollitt’s sense of urgency, Pro is already in need of updating. The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, had yet to decide the Hobby Lobby case, in which the Court allowed owners of corporations to cite their religious beliefs in denying insurance coverage of contraception. And Texas, Pollitt noted, was on the verge of closing all but six abortion clinics. She was off by two. Eight abortion clinics remained open in Texas, but as the Houston Chronicle reported recently, about 750,000 women of reproductive age now live more than 200 miles away from any of them. A subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision has in effect allowed some clinics to remain open while lower-level court proceedings continue. The future of those clinics remains uncertain, and some full-time staff reportedly have already left in the volleying.

As Pollitt notes, abortion opponents “make up in passion what they lack in numbers.” Consider the cost of such unfettered fury.

Connie Schultz reviewed this book for The Washington Post.