The Abortion Closet (with a Note on Rules and Standards)

By Pozen, David E. | Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

The Abortion Closet (with a Note on Rules and Standards)


Pozen, David E., Columbia Journal of Gender and Law


An enormous amount of information and insight is packed into Carol Sanger's About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First Century America. The book is anchored in post-1973 American case law. Yet it repeatedly incorporates examples and ideas from popular culture, prior historical periods, moral philosophy, feminist theory, medicine, literature and the visual arts, and more.

The panoramic ambition of the book, and its correspondingly multi-disciplinary method, are established in the first chapter, in a section titled "What Abortion Is About." (1) By the end of this section, the reader has learned something about: Roe v. Wade; (2) various international treaties on the rights of women; (3) abortion training protocols in medical schools; (4) the neurological development of a fetus; (5) the 2004 and 2012 presidential primaries; (6) a 1995 papal encyclical; (7) a 1984 lecture by the New York Governor; (8) a 2001 concurrence by a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice; (9) the 2003 recommendation by a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee to approve the "morning-after-pill for over-the-counter sale; (10) the anti-abortion turn within certain Protestant denominations in the 1970s and 80s; (11) sociological research on pro-life activists and their views on sex; (12) anthropological research on pregnancy termination decisions following a diagnosis of fetal disability; (13) prostitution laws in New York; (14) abstinence-only programs in Texas; (15) President George W. Bush's Culture of Life; (16) the rise and rise of parental involvement statutes and personhood amendments; (17) the rise and fall of federal support for family planning organizations and abortion services to pregnant soldiers; (18) the intensifying politics of abortion in state judicial elections; (19) the recent Hobby Lobby litigation over the Affordable Care Act; (20) and the Supreme Court's decision last Term in Whole Woman's Health. (21)

This section lasts fourteen pages. It is a testament to Sanger's skill as a writer and to her synthetic capacities as a thinker that one comes away from this whirlwind tour feeling not vertigo, but rather an enhanced sense of clarity about the arc of abortion regulation. While the pace soon slows down, the rest of the book maintains a relentless inquisitiveness, ever collecting and connecting data points to help guide the reader through complex socio-legal terrain.

Most of the chapters could stand on their own as original accounts of one facet or another of American abortion controversies. Chapter Seven, on "Sending Pregnant Teenagers to Court," advances an especially powerful critique of judicial bypass hearings as cruel and frequently arbitrary degradation ceremonies. (22) But the main throughline of the book is its catalog of the ways in which Sanger believes this country's abortion discourse, or "abortion talk," (23) has been lacking--and in consequence how abortion policymaking has been lacking. Not in passion or commitment, to be sure, but lacking in evidence, lacking in candor, and lacking in appreciation and respect for the distinctive circumstances and perspectives of women.

Secrecy is a big part of this story. The book's "central argument," Sanger writes in the preface, is that "the secrecy surrounding women's personal experience of abortion has massively ... distorted how the subject of abortion is discussed and how it is regulated." (24) These "distortions" take myriad forms. Politically, secrecy means that our debates about abortion often paint a misleading picture, as by overstating its health risks or understating its bases of support. Culturally, secrecy means that abortion often gets coded as a deviant practice, which reinforces the desire for concealment regarding abortion decisions, which in turn reinforces the sense that there is something ignominious to be hidden away, and on and on in a self-perpetuating cycle. And throughout the public sphere, secrecy means that any number of dubious, paternalistic, or factually erroneous claims about the harms of abortion are able to circulate with less pushback than one might expect in a more open conversational climate, while "claims about abortion's benefits . …

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