Magazine article The Human Life Review

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Article excerpt

PRO: RECLAIMING ABORTION RIGHTS Katha Pollitt (Picador, 2014), 272 pages

Review essay by Susannah Black

No one, we are told, is pro-abortion. No one thinks these are easy decisions. Abortion is something that will happen no matter what; it is up to us to tame it. In the words of Bill Clinton, abortion must be "safe, legal, and rare." Safe and legal, we are told, will help guarantee rare. What we are all committed to-as few abortions as possible-is best achieved by a regime of legalized abortion.

That has been the official pro-choice consensus-the respectable position on abortion-since the eighties, and it is this position that Katha Pollitt challenges in her new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. Pollitt wants to "help reframe the way we think about abortion." Rather than regarding it as a tragic or even difficult choice, she urges readers to "start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud."

Pollitt's primary audience are those who are pro-choice, but embarrassedly so. Holding on to the notion that abortion is sub-optimal, they believe there is reason to grieve, that there is something (if not someone) that is lost. To these people Pollitt would say: You must not grieve; indeed it is your obligation not to grieve, but to change the way you look at and feel about the world. Abortion is not the necessary evil Naomi Wolf famously declared it to be; it's not an evil at all.

Wolf, in her much-heralded 1995 New Republic essay, "Our Bodies, Our Souls," castigated Second Wave feminists like Pollitt for

reaching] to the dehumanization of women by dehumanizing the creatures within them. In the death-struggle to wrest what Simone de Beauvoir called transcendence out of biological immanence, some feminists developed a rhetoric that defined the unwanted fetus as at best valueless, at worst an adversary, a "mass of dependent protoplasm."

Yet that has left us with a bitter legacy. For when we defend abortion rights by emptying the act of moral gravity, we find ourselves cultivating a hardness of heart.

Wolf's solution to this hardening was not to make abortion illegal, but to encourage supporters to recognize the moral gravity of the act: "to be strong enough to acknowledge that America's high rate of abortion-which ends more than a quarter of all pregnancies-can only be rightly understood as a failure." We must have, Wolf insisted, "an abortion-rights movement willing publicly to mourn the evil-necessary evil though it may be-that is abortion. We must have a movement that acts with moral accountability and without euphemism."

The essay was a bombshell, and Wolf's readers reacted in a wide variety of ways: Some women-those who had had abortions and those who had not; those who were still against legal restriction and those who felt themselves beginning to waver-found in her argument fragments of a truth they had thought they needed to repress. However others, including Katha Pollitt, were outraged.

Nearly twenty years later, Pollitt's book is a sign of the enduring cultural fallout from Wolf's quasi-defection. If Wolf would do everything she could (well, everything short of actually opposing abortion) to keep hearts from hardening and the culture from dehumanizing the unborn, Pollitt aims to toughen up those in the mushy middle: to make them actively and proudly as "Pro" as she-and a subset of other Second Wave sisters-has always been.

If fetuses are persons, then it's wrong to kill them. If they are not persons, then there 's nothing wrong with killing them; there 's nothing regrettable about an abortion. But in fact they are persons; therefore we should not kill them.

That's the pro-life position in a nutshell. Pollitt's position, you might think, would be this:

If fetuses are persons, then it's wrong to kill them and we shouldn't do it. If they are not persons, then there 's nothing wrong with killing them; there 's nothing regrettable about an abortion. …

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