In her new book, "PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights," Katha Pollitt says the pro-choice movement has become too apologetic and defensive. And it’s a losing proposition.
In Katha Pollitt’s new book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, The Nation columnist argues that the pro-choice movement has become increasingly defensive, and even apologetic, about abortion. “Anywhere you look or listen,” she writes, “you find pro-choicers falling over themselves to use words like ‘thorny,’ ‘vexed,’ ‘complex,’ and ‘difficult.’” Pollitt laments this “awfulization” of abortion and claims pro-choicers have been complicit in its rise. The movement’s language has shifted radically since the pre-Roe v. Wade 1970s, she writes, when activists fought for “abortion on demand and without apology.”
And she’s right. We hear what Pollitt calls a “permit but deplore” attitude from high-profile pro-choice politicians: Sarah Erdreich, in Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, cites Hillary Clinton’s characterization of abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice” and John Kerry’s hope that it be “the rarest thing in the world.” It’s not altogether surprising to hear politicians hedging, but even the most ardent pro-choice activists often express reservations about the very thing they work to defend. Cristina Page, an advocate who has dedicated her career to abortion rights and authored How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, called abortion “something we don’t want to have happen at the frequency that it is, or even at all.”
Pollitt is not trying to pin the blame on pro-choicers. The bulk of the blame, of course, goes to the anti-choice movement, which perpetuates the idea of pregnancy as punishment for shameful, shameful sex, then fights to eliminate many of the structural supports (equal pay, affordable health care, nutritional support) mothers rely on to raise their children. But she doesn’t let pro-choicers off the hook so easily, either. If we are to keep abortion safe and legal and accessible, we need to look inward, too. Pollitt offers a few reasons for the shifting language of the movement—that the movement “sold itself too cheaply to the Democratic party” and “tailored its arguments…to avert immediate losses”—but the book is less concerned with explicating history than it is with reframing abortion as a social good. This focus is both warranted and expertly argued, but it does beg the question: how and when and why did the mainstream pro-choice movement adopt such a defensive position about the very thing for which it fights?
To even begin to excavate the complex history of a half-century-old movement, it helps to take a sociological perspective. Suzanne Staggenborg, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and author of The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict, emphasizes two important truths about the campaign: First, it is a movement in conflict with a counter-movement. And second, as she puts it, “Movements are not monolithic things.”
On the first point, Staggenborg offers that the pro-choice movement does not exist within a vacuum, and is, to the contrary, heavily defined by its opposition to anti-choice groups. Pollitt’s characterization of the pro-choice movement as defensive can be interpreted, in this framework, less as critique than as fact. The pro-choice movement is necessarily defensive because it exists to defend a right under ceaseless assault. A motto like “on demand and without apology” sounds more like the words of a movement on the offensive, which is exactly what pre-Roe proponents of legalized abortion were.
This movement-countermovement context also explains why the mainstream is not always inclusive of the more extreme demands of the “radical flank.” As Staggenborg explains, “The movement often adopts a more narrow focus when the countermovement is posing threats.” She points to the Hyde Amendment in 1976, which barred the use of federal funding to cover most abortions, severely restricting access for women who relied on Medicaid. The provision caused a rift among pro-choicers. While some groups argued that the movement needed to fight for poor women, groups at the fore, like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, reluctantly accepted the loss and spent their energies on ensuring that legal abortion wasn’t eliminated altogether.
This rift illustrates Staggenborg’s second point, that movements are not monolithic, and that despite the occasional infighting illustrated by Hyde, this is generally a good thing. “You have groups that take the more radical perspective, and groups that take the more narrow perspective,” she says, “and they complement one another. I don’t think it’s a necessarily a conflict within the movement.” The existence of the radical flank can actually make the mainstream’s objectives sound more reasonable, and they can push the mainstream to advocate for more ambitious goals as they rack up victories.
Defensiveness is, then, not only nothing new, but part of the movement’s very nature. There are political reasons why the mainstream waters down both its demands and the language it uses to make them. But Pollitt’s critique of the movement as defensive is less significant than her suggestion that it’s apologetic. Evidence of this critique is found in an attitude she summarizes as, “You can have your abortion as long as you feel really, really bad about it.”
This attitude also has roots in the movement-countermovement battle. After abortion became legal, the anti-choice movement adopted a strategy of stereotyping women who got abortions as sluts who took no responsibility for the consequences of their rampant sex-having. Although one response to this attack would have been (and was, among some circles) to fight for women’s agency as sexual beings, the movement made a political decision to counter with the image of the sad, noble woman devastated by her choice.
It is far safer for a woman, in a society so quick to shame, to express regret than pride or satisfaction about her abortion. Kate Cockrill is the Executive Director of Sea Change, an organization that studies and works to reduce stigma around reproductive decisions. She’s been studying abortion stigma for the better part of a decade. “When there’s a lot of stigma, or when people are speaking publicly about abortion and they have this understanding that at least a portion of the public is going to have antipathy,” she explains, “then people bring a lot of excuses and justifications into their language.”
The pressure to apologize for abortion dates back to Roe, and really, Roe itself was its greatest catalyst. But what now? Can the pro-choice movement in 2014 adopt the unrepentant ethos of its early ‘70s counterparts? Can it appropriate the morality argument from pro-choicers and avow that abortion itself is moral, because, as Pollitt says, “It’s good for children to be wanted”?
Since the battle’s being waged on both the political and the cultural front, let’s look at the implications of a less defensive approach in each arena. On the political front, Kelly Baden, Policy and Advocacy Advisor at the Center for Reproductive Rights, believes the movement does need to play better offense. It needs to be as proactive as it is reactive. “Post-2010, when there was an explosion in state abortion restrictions, we decided that we couldn’t spend all our time fighting back,” she says. “Instead, we needed to find ways to use policy-making to promote proactive policies.” She points to a series of legislative victories for abortion rights just this year, from a Colorado bill codifying reproductive freedom to a Washington bill requiring certain insurance providers to cover abortion care.
On the cultural front, individual women are coming forward in droves to share their abortion stories. And with projects like “I’m Not Sorry,” it’s clear they’re not here to apologize. But Cockrill says it’s crucial that organizations soliciting abortion stories support the women coming forward. In the case of Sea Change, this means connecting women with one another. It also means bringing the conversation from the Internet to the living room, as they do with readings of the stories from their forthcoming compilation, Untold Stories: Life, Love, and Reproduction.
Cockrill does caution against taking “on demand without apology” to unhealthy extremes. “Our political experience shouldn’t leave behind people who experience abortion in a complex way.” Pollitt, too, acknowledges the suffering of some women who choose to end their pregnancies, but she argues that we must not legislate to these emotions. She asks, “Why should the sad feelings of some constrain the choices of millions?” We must not discount or condemn those who have mixed feelings about their abortions, but we also can’t allow our legal protections to be dictated by feelings.
Perhaps it’s time for a new motto, or at least a variation on the old one. Abortion on demand, we might say, and without apology, and with whatever unique set of experiences a woman might bring to the table.
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