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Abortion. We need to talk about it. I know, sometimes it seems as if we talk of little else, so perhaps I should say we need to talk about it differently. Not as something we all agree is a bad thing about which we shake our heads sadly and then debate its precise degree of badness, preening ourselves on our judiciousness and moral seriousness as we argue about this or that restriction on this or that kind of woman. We need to talk about ending a pregnancy as a common, even normal, event in the reproductive lives of women—and not just modern American women either, but women throughout history and all over the world, from ancient Egypt to medieval Catholic Europe, from today's sprawling cities to rural villages barely touched by modern ideas about women's roles and rights. Abortion takes place in Canada and Greece and France, where it is legal, performed by medical professionals, and covered by national health insurance, and also in Kenya, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, where it is a crime and a woman who terminates a pregnancy takes her life in her hands. According to anthropologists, abortion is found in virtually every society, going back at least 4,000 years. American women had great numbers of abortions throughout our history, when it was legal and when it was not. Consider this: At the beginning of the nineteenth century effective birth control barely existed and in the 1870s it was criminalized—even mailing an informational pamphlet about contraceptive devices was against the law and remained so until 1936.1 Yet the average number of births per woman declined from around 7 in 1800 to around 3.5 in 1900 to just over 2 in 1930.2 How do you think that happened?
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. Pro-choicers often say no one is "pro-abortion," but what is so virtuous about adding another child to the ones you're already overwhelmed by? Why do we make young women feel guilty for wanting to feel ready for motherhood before they have a baby? Isn't it a good thing that women think carefully about what it means to bring a child into this world—what, for example, it means to the children she already has? We tend to think of abortion as anti-child and anti-motherhood. In media iconography, it's the fetus versus the coat hanger: that is, abortion kills an "unborn baby," but banning it makes women injure themselves. Actually, 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.
We need to put abortion back into its context, which is the lives and bodies of women, but also the lives of men, and families, and the children those women already have or will have. Since nearly 1 in 5 American women end their childbearing years without having borne a child (compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s), we need to acknowledge that motherhood is not for everyone; there are other ways of living a useful, happy life.3
We need to talk about abortion in its full human setting: sex and sexuality, love, violence, privilege, class, race, school and work, men, the scarcity of excellent, respectful reproductive health care, and of realistic, accurate information about sex and reproduction. We need to talk about why there are so many unplanned and unwanted pregnancies—which means we need to talk about birth control, but also about so much more than that: about poverty and violence and family troubles, about sexual shyness and shame and ignorance and the lack of power so many women experience in bed and in their relationships with men. Why is it such a huge big deal to ask a man to wear a condom? Or for a man to do so without being asked? Why do so many women not realize they are pregnant until they are fifteen or twenty or even twenty-five weeks along, and what does that say about the extraordinary degree of vigilance we demand women exercise over their reproductive systems? And speaking of that vigilance, what about the fact that some 16 percent of women, according to a Brown University study, have experienced reproductive coercion in at least one relationship—a male partner who used threats or violence to control a woman's contraception or pregnancy outcomes—with a remarkable 9 percent experiencing "birth control sabotage," a male partner who disposed of her pills, poked holes in condoms, or prevented her from getting contraception. One-third of the women reporting reproductive coercion also reported partner abuse in the same relationship.4 Behind America's high rate of unintended pregnancy—almost half of all pregnancies—and high rates of abortion lies a world of hurt.
We need to talk about the scarcity of resources for single mothers and even for two-parent families, and the extraordinary, contradictory demands we make upon young girls to be simultaneously sexually alluring and withholding: hot virgins. We need to talk about blood and mess and periods and pregnancy and childbirth and what women go through to bring new life into the world and whether deep in our hearts we believe that those bodies mean women were put on Earth to serve and sacrifice and suffer in a way that men are not. Because when we talk about abortion as a bad thing, and worry that there's too much of it, sometimes we mean there's too much unwanted pregnancy and that women and men need more and better sex education and birth control, and sometimes we mean there's too much poverty, especially for children and their mothers, but a lot of the time we mean a woman should have a good cry, and then do the right thing and have the baby. She can always put it up for adoption, can't she, like Juno in the movie? And that is close to saying that a woman can have no needs, desires, purpose, or calling so compelling and so important that she should not set it aside in an instant, because of a stray sperm.
Abortion has been legal across the United States for more than four decades. More than a million abortions are performed every year—some 55 million since 1973, when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. A few facts: By menopause, 3 in 10 American women will have terminated at least one pregnancy; about half of all US women who have an abortion have already had a prior abortion; excluding miscarriages, 21 percent of pregnancies end in abortion. Contrary to the popular stereotype of abortion-seeking women as promiscuous teenagers or child-hating professionals, around 6 in 10 women who have abortions are already mothers. And 7 in 10 are poor or low-income.5 Abortion, in other words, is part of the fabric of American life, and yet it is arguably more stigmatized than it was when Roe was decided. Of the seven Supreme Court justices who made up the majority in Roe, five were nominated by a Republican president. These men were hardly radicals: Potter Stewart, nominated by President Eisenhower, had dissented in the court's 1965 landmark decision, Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down that state's ban on the sale or use of contraceptives even by married couples; in two separate decisions he upheld prayer and Bible readings in public schools. Warren Burger, Richard Nixon's choice for Chief Justice, went on to rule in favor of laws criminalizing "sodomy" in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) on the grounds that historically homosexuality had been viewed as heinous and wrong. What made these staid, gray-haired gentlemen permit abortion virtually on demand in the first six months of pregnancy?
To understand that, we have to see what those men saw. In the law, they were witnessing a rapid evolution toward increased personal freedom, and in particular increased freedom for women: These were the years when feminism was a true grassroots movement, one that achieved remarkable success in a very short time, knocking down hundreds of laws and regulations, challenging centuries of tradition and custom, and expanding women's rights and opportunities in almost every area of life. Ten million women were taking birth-control pills, and two-thirds of all Catholic women were using some form of contraception. Women were pouring into colleges and the workforce.6 The year before the Roe decision, the Senate had passed the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.
In tandem with these huge social shifts, elite views were changing on abortion. Doctors had helped criminalize abortions after the Civil War as part of their effort to professionalize medicine by marginalizing midwives and lay healers. Now significant numbers of them saw abortion bans as a constraint on their right to care for their patients: Barring malpractice, there was no other circumstance in which a doctor had to defend his professional decisions as a matter of law. There had always been a little wiggle room in state abortion laws, because doctors were still permitted to perform them for "therapeutic" reasons—to save a woman's life, for example.7 But what did that mean, exactly? An amicus curiae brief in Roe from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and several other medical groups observed that "a woman suffering from heart disease, diabetes or cancer whose pregnancy worsens the underlying pathology may be denied a medically indicated therapeutic abortion under the statute because death is not certain."8 Meanwhile, the definition of "therapeutic" was being quietly expanded—for women with money, connections, and luck. Certain psychiatrists were willing to bend the rules by certifying abortion-seeking patients as mentally ill or suicidal (of course, you had to pay them for this service, and know how to find them in the first place). Beginning in the late 1940s, hospitals in many states set up abortion committees to which a woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy could appeal.9 It was a humiliating process, which could involve multiple physical examinations and interrogations by unsympathetic doctors. For some women, the price of an abortion was sterilization. But it meant that some small fraction of middle-class white girls and women were able to obtain legal abortions, especially if they happened to be related to one of the doctors on the committee.
As a matter of public discussion, abortion was coming out of the shadows. In 1962, Sherri Chessen Finkbine was granted a legal abortion because she had taken Thalidomide, a sleeping medication her husband had brought back from a trip to Europe that, she belatedly discovered, had resulted in the births of thousands of babies with disastrous deformities. When the abortion was canceled after a newspaper article about her situation created an uproar, Finkbine publicly went to Sweden and terminated her pregnancy there. Her story was featured on the cover of Life magazine and helped break the silence around abortion.10 But it did more than that. It presented an abortion-seeking woman as sympathetic, rational, and capable. Finkbine was not a college student or low-income single mother to be either pitied as a victim or scorned as a slut. She was a white, middle-class married mother of four, well known as Miss Sherri on the local version of Romper Room, a popular children's television show. In the early 1960s, epidemics of rubella, which is linked to birth defects, had the same effect: Americans had to listen to respectable white women unapologetically demanding the right to end their pregnancies. At the same time, Americans had to face the fact that illegal abortion was already common.
The more exceptions there were to the criminalization of abortion, the more glaringly unfair and hypocritical the whole system was seen to be. By the time Roe came to the court, well-off, savvy women could flock to New York or several other states where laws had been relaxed and get a safe, legal termination; poor women, trapped in states that banned abortion, bore the brunt of harm from illegal procedures. There was a racial angle, too: Not only did women of color, then as now, have far more abortions than whites in proportion to their numbers, they were much more likely to be injured or die in botched illegal procedures. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1972 to 1974, the mortality rate due to illegal abortion for nonwhite women was 12 times that for white women.11 The injustice of a patchwork system, in which a simple medical procedure could leave a woman dead or injured based purely on where it took place, was obvious.
Women were speaking up, too, about their abortions. In 1969 feminists invaded and disrupted the New York state legislature's "expert hearing" on abortion (the experts consisted of fourteen men and a nun). Women talked about ending their pregnancies in public speak-outs. In 1972 the first issue of Ms. magazine carried a statement headlined "We Have Had Abortions" that was signed by more than fifty prominent women, including Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron, Billie Jean King, Lee Grant, and Lillian Hellman. In Chicago, the Jane Collective began by connecting women with an illegal provider and ended up performing abortions themselves. And if you assume the churches were united against abortion, think again: Beginning in 1967, the Clergy Consultation Service founded by the Rev. Howard R. Moody, a Baptist, along with Lawrence Lader, Arlene Carmen, and others, helped thousands of women across the country find their way to safe illegal abortions. In the years leading up to Roe, legalization of abortion under at least some circumstances was endorsed by the Union for Reform Judaism, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, and other mainstream denominations.
Because so much of this history has been forgotten—what, the Southern Baptists supported legalization?—we tend to see Roe as a bolt out of the blue. But to the Supreme Court—and to the public, a majority of which supported liberalization—the ruling ratified and expanded social changes that were already under way.12 At the time, what its supporters saw as its chief effect was to transform an operation that was commonplace, criminal and sometimes extremely dangerous into an operation that was commonplace, legal, remarkably safe—and becoming ever safer: "Deaths from legal abortion declined fivefold between 1973 and 1985 (from 3.3 deaths to 0.4 deaths per 100,000 procedures)," reported the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs, reflecting increased physician education and skills, improvements in medical technology, and, notably, the earlier termination of pregnancy. The mortality rate for childbirth from 1979 to 1985 was more than ten times higher than that from abortion in the same period.13
Today the real-life harms Roe was intended to rectify have receded from memory. Few doctors remember the hospital wards filled with injured and infected women. The coat-hanger symbol seems as exotic as the rack and thumbscrew, a relic waved by gray-haired "radical feminists," even as anti-abortion advocates use rare examples of injury and death to paint all abortions as unsafe. They seized on the horrifying case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who ran a filthy Philadelphia "clinic" where a teenage girl administered anesthesia, a patient died and others were injured, fetuses were aborted well into the third trimester, and the ones who survived had their spines "snipped." You wouldn't know from their reporting that what Gosnell was doing was completely against the law; he was found guilty of three acts of first-degree murder on May 13, 2013.14 Using deceptively edited secretly videoed encounters, abortion opponents tar all abortion clinics as inhumane "mills" staffed by callous, greedy people—transferring the century-old taint of the criminal "abortionist" to legitimate providers. Yet paradoxically, abortion opponents deny that when abortion was illegal it was both widespread and sometimes (though not always) dangerous. Look, they say, in 1960, Mary Steichen Calderone, medical director of Planned Parenthood, herself said there had been "only 260 deaths" in 1957. (They don't mention that she also said it was likely that there were one million abortions a year—almost as many as today, in a much smaller population—and this was in the supposedly staid and moral 1950s, before the sexual revolution or the women's movement.) Years ago I debated a leader of Massachusetts for Life who pooh-poohed the health risks of recriminalizing abortion: Thanks to suction machines and antibiotics (which illegal providers would all have access to) illegal procedures would be reasonably nonfatal. So there it is. Legal abortion: very dangerous. Illegal abortion: remarkably safe!
For many years after Roe, abortion opponents talked a lot about the need to overturn the decision, and worked hard to elect officials who would install anti-abortion justices on the Supreme Court. So far, they have not seen that dream realized. But they have been shockingly successful in making abortion hard to get in much of the nation. Between 2011 and 2013, states enacted 205 new restrictions—more than in the previous ten years: waiting periods, inaccurate scripts that doctors must read to patients (abortion causes breast cancer, mental illness, suicide), bans on state Medicaid payments, restrictions on insurance coverage, and parental notification and consent laws.15 In Ohio, lawmakers have taken money from TANF, the welfare program that supports poor families, and given it to so-called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) whose mission is to discourage pregnant women from having abortions. (That's right: Embryos and fetuses deserve government support, not the actual, living children they may become.)16 Twenty-seven states have passed laws forcing clinics into expensive and unnecessary renovations and burdening them with medical regulations intended to make them impossible to staff. Largely as a result, between 2011 and 2013 at least 73 clinics closed or stopped performing abortions.17 When these laws have been challenged in court, judges have set aside some of them, but not all. The result: In 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, around one-third of American women of reproductive age lived in states hostile to abortion rights, one-third lived in states that supported abortion rights, and one-third lived in states with a middle position. As of 2011, more than half of women lived in hostile states.18 Middle-ground states, such as North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin, have moved in an anti-choice direction. Only twenty-three states could be said to have a strong commitment to abortion rights. In 2013, only one state, California, made abortion easier to obtain.
What this means is that although abortion has been legal for four full decades, for many women in America it might as well not be. It is inaccessible—too far away, too expensive to pay for out of pocket, and too encumbered by restrictions and regulations and humiliations, many of which might not seem to be one of those "undue burdens" the Supreme Court has ruled are impermissible curbs on a woman's ability to terminate a pregnancy, but which, taken together, do place abortion out of reach. It would be nice to believe that no woman is deterred from an act so crucial to her future by having to wait a mere twenty-four hours between state-mandated counseling and the actual procedure, but what if the waiting period means two long round trips from your rural home to a distant city while trying to juggle work and child care, and because the clinic has to fly in a doctor from out of state, the twenty-four hours actually means a week, and that puts the woman into the second trimester but the clinic only does abortions through twelve weeks? What about the teenage girls who must tell their parents in order to get an abortion and can't bear to do so until it's too late? (Thirty-eight states currently require parental involvement in a minor's decision to have an abortion.) What about low-income women who live in one of the thirty-three states without Medicaid abortion coverage? What if, while she is putting together the $500 for a first-trimester abortion, a low-income woman goes over into the second trimester, and now the abortion costs $1,000? It is as if a woman has a right to vote, but the polling place is across the state and casting a ballot costs two weeks' pay, and as if she has a right to be a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist, but her place of worship is a four-hour bus ride away, and before she can go to services she has to listen to a fundamentalist Christian sermon warning her that if she doesn't accept Jesus as her personal savior she's going straight to hell. We would never accept the kinds of restrictions on our other constitutional rights that we have allowed to hamper the right to end a pregnancy.
How has this happened?
One answer is that the Republican Party, home base of the organized anti-abortion-rights movement, has won a lot of elections. The midterm elections in 2010 were crucial: The GOP won the House of Representatives and, even more important, in twenty states it had "trifectas"—control of both statehouses and the governorship. By 2013 it had twenty-four. Democrats, by contrast had only fourteen. (It's important to note that not all Democratic politicians are pro-choice, especially in red states. In 2014, Louisiana's bill that requires doctors at abortion clinics to have hospital admitting privileges, a measure that could close three out of the state's five clinics, was written by a Democrat, Katrina Jackson.)
But there's a deeper, more troubling answer. The self-described pro-life movement may not represent a numerical majority—only 7 to 20 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want to ban abortion—but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in intensity, dedication, cohesion, and savvy. It is the closest thing we have right now to a mass social movement. It works in multiple ways at once—through its own organizations, electoral politics, abstinence-only sex education in the public schools, the Catholic and fundamentalist/evangelical churches, public protests like the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, and "sidewalk counseling" in front of clinics. It reaches all the way from a terrorist fringe that it regularly disowns but that has very effectively discouraged doctors from performing abortions to popular radio and TV haranguers like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh to respectable journals like National Review and the Weekly Standard. Indeed, it is hard to think of American conservatism today without its opposition to abortion. You would never know that Ayn Rand and Barry Goldwater were pro-choice, and that in 1967, the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, signed what was then the most liberal abortion law in the nation. Some of this hostility to abortion is surely for political reasons: Right-wing Christians vote. But the fact that opposition to abortion is de rigueur even for mainstream Republicans like Mitt Romney shows the movement's power.
The anti-abortion movement has made abortion a lot harder to get in many states, but even more important, it has reframed the issue. It has placed the zygote/embryo/fetus at the moral center, while relegating women and their rights to the periphery. Over time, it has altered the way we talk about abortion and the way many people feel about it, even if they remain pro-choice. It has made abortion seem risky, when in fact it is remarkably safe—twelve to fourteen times safer than the alternative, which is continued pregnancy and childbirth.19 It has made people think the abortion of viable fetuses happens all the time when in fact it is illegal in most states except for serious medical reasons, and happens very rarely: According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 1.5 percent of abortions occur after twenty weeks' gestation.20 (The Supreme Court has said twenty-four weeks is the threshold of viability.) It has made practices that are virtually unknown in the United States, like sex-selective abortions, seem routine and clinics like Dr. Gosnell's seem typical.
Most of all, abortion opponents have made ending a pregnancy shameful, even for women who don't believe a fertilized egg or a lentil-sized embryo is a child. It is hard now to believe, or even remember, that for a brief moment in the 1970s (let alone when abortion was an illegal but common practice), it was permissible not to consider your abortion a personal tragedy and failure. You were not automatically a callous, superficial person if you felt nothing but relief that you were no longer pregnant, and you were not a monster if you said so.
Nowadays, we take it for granted that having an abortion is a sorrowful, troubling, even traumatic experience, involving much ambivalence and emotional struggle, even though studies and surveys consistently tell us it usually is not.21 Even pro-choicers use negative language: Hillary Clinton called abortion "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women."22 True as far as it goes, but you'll notice she didn't add, "and for many others, a blessing and a lifesaver." For decades, the Democratic Party mantra has been "safe, legal, and rare," with the accent on the rare. Among hard-core opponents, the language is completely over the top: Abortion is a Holocaust, providers are Nazis, the womb is the most dangerous place on Earth for a child, the Democratic Party is the Party of Death.
As long as abortion has been legal, pro-choice activists have complained that abortion opponents have stolen the language of morality and used it to twist public opinion. Who can be against "life," after all? Or responsibility, family, babies, motherhood? But it's not just opponents who paint abortion as awful and tormented. Pro-choicers do so too.
We may roll our eyes when abortion opponents contrast the anguish of abortion with the joys of unwanted babies, and the selfishness of women who end their pregnancies with the nobility of women who keep theirs whatever the difficulty, but over time it seeps in. So defensive has the pro-choice community become since the 1970s, when activists proudly defended "abortion on demand and without apology," that in 2013 Planned Parenthood announced that it was moving away from the term "pro-choice," which was itself a bit of a euphemism: Choose what? In mass-media messaging you're likely to hear about "defending Roe," even though only 62 percent of Americans (and only 44 percent of those under thirty) know what Roe is.23 When abortion opponents at the Susan G. Komen Foundation canceled its grants in 2012, Planned Parenthood's response emphasized that "More than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood health care is preventive, including lifesaving cancer screenings, birth control, prevention and treatment of STDs, breast health services, Pap tests, and sexual health education and information."24 True, this cautious approach won the day—Komen was forced to restore the grants, and the anti-choice faction left the organization. But was there no room for Planned Parenthood to add, "Yes, we perform abortions, and we are proud to offer that service to women who make the decision not to bear a child at that time, because abortion is a normal part of health care"?
It's not just our leaders and spokespeople at major organizations who unwittingly participate in what's been rather uneuphoniously called the "awfulization" of abortion. Anywhere you look or listen, you find pro-choicers falling over themselves to use words like "thorny," "vexed," "complex," and "difficult." How often have you heard abortion described as "the hardest decision" or "the most painful choice" a woman ever makes, as if every single woman who gets pregnant by accident seriously considers having a baby, only a few weeks earlier the furthest thing from her mind and for very good reason? Or more accurately, as if every accidentally pregnant woman really should seriously consider having that baby—and if she doesn't at least claim she thought long and hard about it and only reluctantly and sadly realized it was impossible, she's a bad woman who thinks only of her own pleasure and convenience.
Until quite recently, arguments against abortion openly focused on sexual morality. Abortion was wrong for the same reasons birth control was wrong: It let unmarried women escape detection and punishment for having sex outside marriage, it let wives have small families instead of the big ones God meant them to have, it encouraged people to see sex as an end in itself, and it gave women too much power in matters of reproduction and too much freedom from their proper domestic role. In mid-to-late nineteenth-century America, the state-by-state banning of abortion was connected with fears of the growing independence and social power of middle-class white women, and in particular with the fear that native-born white Protestants were being "outbred" by immigrants. It's not an accident that those were the same years Anthony Comstock was busy banning birth control and even dissemination of information about it.
Those old social and economic arguments are still being made today, but they carry much less weight with the public. It is hard to sell contemporary adults on the notion that sex for pleasure and intimacy is a bad thing even within marriage, and that having lots of children is a white woman's patriotic duty. That's why today the official focus is on "life": the argument that from "the moment of conception," long before she even suspects she's pregnant—in fact, before she actually is pregnant as standard medicine defines it—a woman is carrying a human being who has, like other human beings, a right not to be killed.
Do abortion opponents really believe that a fertilized egg or a pea-sized shrimplike embryo is a child? True believers surely must. After all, American life is full of things large numbers of people consider coarse and callous and wrong, but nobody shoots up porn studios or burns down gambling casinos or physically waylays men seeking to enter massage parlors. The investment bankers who caused the worldwide financial collapse may be hated by millions, but they don't need to go to work in bulletproof vests.
The anti-abortion movement, however, is not just about "the unborn." It is also a protest against women's growing freedom and power, including their sexual freedom and power. That is why it is based in churches with explicitly limited roles and inferior status for women—not just the famously patriarchal Catholic Church but the Southern Baptists and other fundamentalist/evangelical Protestant denominations where women are barred from leadership and the submission of wives to their husbands is an official tenet. The anti-abortion movement is a crucial chunk of the base of the Republican Party, which in recent years has opposed just about every legislative proposal that would benefit women: the Violence Against Women Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Act (which merely restored long-standing equal pay protections overturned by the Supreme Court), the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which almost every country in the world has signed. Despite its extremism, the anti-abortion movement has been able to capitalize on widespread ambivalence about feminism and social change.
Legal abortion presents the issue of women's emancipation in particularly stark form. It takes a woman's body out of the public realm and puts her, not men and not children, at the center of her own life. It is thus not just a matter of women's physical health but a deep challenge to traditional views of women. Abortion did not always have this meaning: As long as women were firmly ensconced in the family as wives and mothers with few rights and little social power, 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. It was part of women's messy private business, like periods and miscarriages and giving birth, things men were well advised to leave alone. But once middle-class white women began to emancipate themselves and get involved in public and political life, even if only to join a women's club or take on charity projects, 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. Even though most women who have abortions go on to have children (if they are not already mothers, as we've seen the majority are), legal abortion challenges the social meaning of womanhood, and that makes a lot of people uneasy, even forty-odd years after Roe.
This anxiety explains why opinions about abortion have changed so little since Roe, even as Americans have become more liberal and more tolerant on many other issues. Abortion exemplifies a much deeper and more radical social change. Same-sex marriage and gays and lesbians in the military are causes that seek to bring more people into beloved bedrock conservative institutions, not to abolish them or even to change them. All the high-tech ways of creating a baby are still basically aimed at letting infertile people make a family like the rest of us. That's why abortion opponents have never been able to get people riled up over the discarding of unused pre-embryos—children!—created in vitro for fertility procedures: It's all for a good cause. But granting women total power over their wombs? It's not enough that they have the right to remain single, to divorce, to earn a decent living, to own property, to keep their names, to have all the crazy sex they can find, or good lord, accuse their own husbands of rape? "They can have the baby, they can kill the baby, they can do whatever they want," says my friend the writer Deirdre English. "Women aren't supposed to have that much power." Never mind that in real life, women who have abortions include some of the least powerful women in America—low-income single mothers, working-class students trying to get to college or stay there, teenage girls, women trying to extricate themselves from abusive relationships. Forget too that most of the time, women do involve their man, and girls their parents, in the decision to terminate a pregnancy. In the collective imagination, women who have abortions are privileged, licentious, or both, and ready access to abortion means women run wild, take over, and all hell breaks loose.
In this book I make many arguments, but let me mention three. First, the concept of personhood, as applied to the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and, at least until late in pregnancy, fetus, makes no sense: It's an incoherent, covertly religious idea that falls apart if you look at it closely. Few people actually believe it, as is shown by the exceptions they are willing to make. Second, the absolutist argument that abortion is murder is a mask by which people opposed to the sexual revolution and women's advancement obscure their real motives and agenda: turning back the clock to an idealized, oversimplified past when sex was confined within marriage, men were the breadwinners and heads of families, Christianity was America's not-quite-official religion, and society was firmly ordered. Third, since critiquing what came before does not necessarily help us move forward, I want to help reframe the way we think about abortion. There are definitely short-term advantages to stressing the anguish some women feel when facing the need to end a pregnancy, but in the long run presenting that as a general truth will hurt the pro-choice cause: It comes close to demanding that women accept grief, shame, and stigma as the price of ending a pregnancy. I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud. The anti-abortion movement has been far too successful at painting abortion as bad for women. I want to argue, to the contrary, that it is an essential option for women—not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul-destroying situations, but all women—and thus benefits society as a whole.
Twenty years ago, abortion opponents portrayed women who sought abortions as frivolous and unfeeling: the girl who wanted to fit into a prom dress, the woman who didn't want to miss her planned European vacation. (There was a class angle to these apocryphal stories: It was always a trip to Europe, never camping in the Ozarks.) Those characterizations didn't go over well: They made abortion opponents look misogynistic and mean. Today, abortion opponents blame everybody but the woman—parents, boyfriend, husband, "the abortion industry," Democrats, the "throwaway culture" of modern life—and present themselves as the woman's friend, defending her from physical and psychological harm. Somehow the "Abortion Holocaust" takes place without her active participation: She's one of those good Germans who didn't know what was going on.
The new message is cast as concern for women themselves: Even if your abortion does not kill you right away, down the road lurk breast cancer, infertility, depression, drug addiction, failed relationships, and suicide. The woman is "abortion's other victim." As one Feminist for Life put it to me, how can it not harm a woman to kill her baby? The whole burgeoning network of CPCs relies on a paternalistic view of women seeking abortion as childlike, ignorant, and confused. It's worked well: There are now 2,500 such centers in the United States.25 As of 2013, thirteen states fund them directly (and many more through "Choose Life" license plates and similar programs). In 2011, Texas increased funding for CPCs while cutting family planning money by two-thirds. The money came straight out of the budget for women's health. In Virginia, an investigation by NARAL Pro-Choice America found that the state's Department of Health refers low-income women to a list of CPCs where they can receive a free ultrasound before having an abortion.26 It does not matter that CPCs have been repeatedly exposed as presenting themselves as abortion clinics to lure in the unsuspecting, that they proselytize Christianity, or that they tell women lies: that abortion will harm them in all sorts of ways, that birth-control pills are "abortifacients" and condoms don't prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
I don't expect to convince many abortion opponents to see my point of view. But I do want to speak to the so-called "muddled middle," those millions of Americans—more than half—who don't want to ban abortion, exactly, but don't want it to be widely available, either.27 This is the view that is echoed and reinforced endlessly in the mainstream media. Many commentators and pundits take a position of "permit but discourage" or maybe a better way to put it in their own case is "permit but deplore." They want abortion to be legal, at least in the early weeks, but they want to make clear it's a bad thing and there's way too much of it—not because our high rates of abortion indicate that women aren't getting good sexual information and good birth control or lack power in their relationships with men, or because poverty and lack of support are making women terminate wanted pregnancies, but because abortion, in and of itself, is morally troubling. It's a seductive position for people who make their living by staking out intellectual positions that resist, or appear to resist, tired pieties. Defying both camps lets one feel sensitive and judicious and mature, alert to moral complexities, above the vulgar slogan war—a plague on both your houses! "Here's an uninhibited insult that the professional ‘life' and ‘choice' agitators can listen to for free," wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank in 2012: "If these groups cared as much about the issue as they claim, and didn't have such strong financial incentives to avoid consensus and compromise, they'd cancel the carnivals and get to work on the one thing everybody agrees would be worthwhile—reducing unwanted pregnancies."28 Right, Planned Parenthood, stop keeping contraception away from people. In a much-reprinted 1995 essay, Naomi Wolf chalked abortion up to lazy sluttishness ("It was such good Chardonnay") and urged women who ended their pregnancies to feel guilt and to mourn their fetuses; she even claimed that emergency contraception is a form of abortion (it's not).29 Andrew Sullivan, another reluctant semi-pro-choicer, thinks "abortion is always and everywhere a moral tragedy."30 Always? Everywhere? The safest position for a member of the commentariat seems to be: You can have your abortion as long as you feel really, really bad about it.
I'm not going to take that route here.
Terminating a pregnancy is always a woman's right and often a deeply moral decision. It is not evil, even a necessary evil. You might make a different decision from a particular woman who chooses not to continue a pregnancy, and you might think your decision is morally superior—but beside the fact that you don't actually know what you would do faced with those exact same circumstances (how many people have said abortion should be legal but they would never have one, and who then end up having one?), your judgment about a woman's decision is not relevant to the legal status of abortion as a whole, any more than someone giving a speech you consider foolish reflects on the First Amendment, or someone voting for a corrupt candidate raises questions about suffrage. A right includes the freedom to use it in ways others find distressing or even wrong. Your judgment of that woman is not even an interesting fact about yourself. There are many things other people do that you think you would never do (especially if there is, in fact, no possibility that you will ever be called upon to decide, as is the case with men and abortion). That tells us you have a certain idea about yourself, that's all.
Abortion is often seen as a bad thing for society, a sign of hedonism, materialism, and hyperindividualism. I argue that, on the contrary, access to legal abortion is a good thing for society and helping a woman obtain one is a good deed. Instead of shaming women for ending a pregnancy, we should acknowledge their realism and self-knowledge. We should accept that it's good for everyone if women have only the children they want and can raise well. Society benefits when women can commit to education and work and dreams without having at the back of their mind a concern that maybe it's all provisional, because at any moment an accidental pregnancy could derail them for life. It's good for children to be wanted, and to come into this life when their parents are ready for them. It's good for people to be able to have sexual experiences and know that birth-control failure need not be the last word. It would not make us a better country if more girls and women were nudged and bullied and cajoled and humiliated and frightened into bearing children they are ill-equipped to raise, even if more men could somehow be lassoed into marrying or supporting them. It would simply mean more lost hope, more bad marriages and family misery, more poverty and struggle for women, their partners, and their kids. Don't we have way too much of all that already?
Honestly, given how rarely we talk about abortion in a social context, you would think that all those women who have them were living on their own individual desert islands. But of course, the opposite is true. In addition to the 1 in 3 women who will have at least one abortion during their fertile years, there are at least as many men and women, and probably a lot more than that, who've helped them with money, transportation, information, emotional support, child care: husbands and boyfriends, parents and other relatives, friends and coworkers, therapists … even, sometimes, clergy. I've taken two friends to the clinic. Both kept their abortions secret from their extremely religious families, who to this day have no idea, but I was not the only person who helped them. Their boyfriends had been part of the decision and helped pay; in one case, other friends showed up after work to sympathize and share tea and takeout. (Abortion opponents tell women their relationships will fall apart if they have an abortion, but both of these women went on to marry the men they were with and to have kids—one a son, the other four daughters.) Multiply that situation by well over a million abortions a year, and maybe half the people in the country have not only been aware that someone they knew was planning an abortion, but played an active part in moving the process along. The involvement of others is particularly the case with later abortions; in fact, since the later an abortion is, the more expensive it is, the more travel is involved and the longer the recovery time, the very abortions that are the most despised and disapproved of are likely to be the ones that require the most help from others. There are few women, after all, who can come up with several thousand dollars on their own.
Abortion, in other words, does not happen on the edge of society, community, and family. It is enmeshed in the way we live, it requires the cooperation of many people beyond the woman herself. But that is not the way we talk about it, as something pervasive in American life, without which, indeed, that life would be radically different, and worse. We talk about it as if the pregnant woman exists in social isolation. The man who has impregnated her is useless, if indeed he has not already abandoned her; she has no friends; her family would disown her if they knew, or she is too ashamed to tell them. All alone, she is making a radical existential decision to terminate a pregnancy. Of course, there are women for whom this is true—some women are very private, some have no support system at all. But as a typical picture it's less a reflection of reality than of the way mainstream America prefers to see abortion: as a lonely, individual act chosen by a desperate woman making a fearsome decision in the dark. Abortion opponents use this picture to pose as this beleaguered, confused woman's helper: Shouldn't she have to think it over at a CPC and be made to consider the gravity of her choice by looking at a sonogram or listening to a fetal heartbeat or hearing a description of fetal development and all the awful things that could go wrong with the procedure? Shouldn't she know that she is increasing her risk of suicide and cancer, never mind that the studies actually don't show that?
Pro-choicers are so intent on resisting the image of the confused woman, preserving the woman's moral autonomy, honoring the courage of those who do indeed have no one to help them, and reminding the world of how truly extreme are some women's circumstances, that they inadvertently deemphasize the supportive role of others in the abortion decision. For them, too, the woman tends to be a solitary figure. That allows abortion opponents to fill in the blanks of her social world with negative stereotypes: the boyfriend who threatens to leave if she keeps the pregnancy; the parents who threaten to throw her out of the house if she has a baby; the callous friends who just want to party on; the brusque and unfeeling doctor at the money-grubbing "abortion mill"; the pimp.
Forty years of apologetic rhetoric, forty years of searching for arguments that will support legal abortion while never, ever implying that it is an easy decision or a good thing—for women, men, children, families, society—have left the pro-choice movement making the same limited, defensive arguments again and again. We hear endlessly about rape victims, incest victims, women at risk of death and injury, women carrying fetuses with rare fatal conditions—and make no mistake, those girls and women exist and their rights need to be defended, because the laws now being passed in many states will harm them greatly. But we don't hear much about the vast majority of women who choose abortion, who are basically trying to get their life on track or keep it there.
Women like Jan F, who responded to a request for abortion stories I ran in my column in The Nation and posted on Facebook and Twitter:
43 years ago, I had an abortion. Not for a single nanosecond have I ever regretted it. I was 23, a new college grad from Wisconsin, and was planning on a career using my dual foreign language degree, in the Big Apple where such opportunities abounded. My white Midwest boyfriend came out to visit for a weekend and before we broke up, had the sex that conceived. Roe v. Wade was not law then, but the Village Voice had a contact number. I made an appointment to travel to England for my weekend off and met another gal from Chicago in similar circumstances. I told the boyfriend that it would cost about $900 but he never contacted me again. I was able to pursue my career, and using all my savings for that one preventative action was the best money I ever spent.
Or Cinny, whose husband left her with three small children, and who had two abortions, flying to New York, where abortion was legal before Roe:
For me the issue has always been quality of life. As a single mother with three young children, I knew I couldn't take care of more babies, so twice I made the decision to abort. I felt comfortable with the decision then, and I've never had regrets.
I realize that my perspective is going to sound insufficiently nuanced to those who pride themselves on being judicious and balanced and above the fray. In American political discourse, the safest place to be is in the middle, lamenting "extremes on both sides." The woman, the fetus—can't they just get along? Isn't there some combination of rules and regulations and birth control and women not being drunken tramps that will just make this whole tedious business go away? And while we wait for that to happen, let's wring our hands to show how moral and thoughtful we are, not forgetting to mention "new" developments like ultrasound that supposedly have changed everything.
That attitude is definitely the one to take if you want to be seen as ethically serious four decades after Roe. But what does that approach do, really, but let us feel superior, up on Pundit Mountain, to all those messy women down there in the steamy valley, trying to make a reasonable life for themselves as best they can? We talk about respecting life. But what if we tried respecting them?
In every other area of life, we praise careful consideration, intentionality, and weighing of options. We don't decide whom to marry, what kind of work to do, where to live by simply acquiescing to chance and calling it fate. We don't turn those decisions over to others—certainly not to state legislators or judges. Other societies may practice arranged marriages, but in America we like to make our own mistakes. We would never accept that we should be forced into particular jobs because society wanted more people to do that work—we don't even have a military draft anymore.
Motherhood is the last area in which the qualities we usually value—rationality, independent thinking, consulting our own best interests, planning for a better, more prosperous future, and dare I say it, pursuing happiness and dreams—are condemned as frivolity and selfishness. We certainly don't expect a man who accidentally impregnates a woman to drop everything and accept a life of difficulties and dimmed hopes in order to co-parent a baby. No college for you, young man—maybe you can pick up some courses later, when your child is in school. If a woman wants to put a baby up for adoption, we don't badger and humiliate the biological father into taking the child to keep it connected to its family of origin. We don't even legally require a man who impregnates a woman to support her financially through pregnancy and delivery, although lack of money is one reason women give for choosing abortion, and stress during pregnancy is a significant cause of miscarriage and premature delivery.31 As for child support, few single mothers can expect the father of their child to pay anything remotely like half the true costs of raising it to adulthood, even if he is financially able to do so. We don't like the idea that a man might be severely constrained for life by a single ejaculation. He has places to go and things to do. That a woman's life may be stunted by unwanted childbearing is not so troubling. Childbearing, after all, is what women are for.
The common wisdom is that the battle lines on abortion have long been fixed. There is a huge temptation to say ho-hum, especially among the vaguely liberal, or to pull out of one's hat the magic solution, the compromise that will make this embarrassing, tiresome subject go away forever. Even I sometimes wonder if we have reached a permanent stalemate—except that you can't really call it a stalemate when the momentum is so clearly on the side of greater restrictions. Certainly abortion qualifies as one of those subjects about which people have not only their own opinions but their own facts. Still, I hope that by laying out the logic—or rather, the illogic—of the anti-choice position, and proposing an alternative way of looking at abortion, I might persuade a few people who think they are in the middle to realize that they in fact support legal abortion "on demand," and indeed, have always done so, but didn't realize it.
Copyright © 2014 by Katha Pollitt