Writer discusses social justice aspects of abortion rights

Abortion activists at a pro-choice march on Jan. 17 in the Loop.

By Enrica Nicoli Aldini

Nearly one in three American women has had an abortion. Of these, 45 percent have had more than one. Thus, chances are that more often than not, whether in an elevator, a diner or a bar, anyone might be in the presence of at least one woman who has had an abortion.

This is one of the chief arguments Katha Pollitt, feminist poet and columnist at The Nation, uses to suggest that “abortion is a normal experience. It’s all around us.”

Not only that, these statistics present an interesting corollary, Pollitt said. “If you believe abortion is murder, then one in three women are murderers, and some are serial killers,” she said.

Pollitt advocated her pro-choice stance as she presented her latest book “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights” at the University of Chicago on Wednesday, the eve of the 43th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973. The presentation was hosted by the university’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and drew a few dozen students, faculty and Chicago residents.

Pollitt said that in her book, she seeks to frame abortion rights as connected to so much more than just mere access to a medical procedure. Reproductive rights are an issue of social justice, and efforts to increase free and safe access to abortion fall under the category of what Pollitt called “reproductive justice.”

“Abortion is about more than abortion,” she said. It’s about the way we see motherhood, family, social justice. Reproductive justice is about putting the personal right to abortion in a larger social context.”

This perspective, Pollitt said, casts women as the primary decision-maker in the debate on abortion. The choice of whether or not to seek an abortion should be entirely the pregnant woman’s decision. However, the shift in the debate on abortion from the realm of health care to the realm of religion has meant that the attention is now on the fetus instead.

“The fetus is the star now, and that’s one of the reason why we tend to not be doing well right now,” Pollitt said. Referring to the recent tendency among pro-life advocates to use photos of ultrasound to appeal to people’s emotions, Pollitt said that “the ultrasound erases the woman. You only see one thing, and that’s the fetus.”

Besides, Pollitt said, seeking an abortion is also about trying to be a good mother, and recognizing some pregnancies come at a point in life where a woman cannot provide for her child.

The emphasis on the fetus has also increased barriers to allowing abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. “There’s this highly disputed notion that the fetus feels pain after 20 weeks,” Pollitt said. “Political campaigns have delegitimized the possibility to have an abortion after 20 weeks, and it’s harder and harder to find providers that will do that.”

Pollitt also sought to debunk myths, stereotypes and stigmas surrounding abortion by providing statistics that testify to the normalcy of this experience. The fact that 60 percent of women who have abortions are mothers speaks against the stereotype of the abortion-seeking woman as irresponsible and reckless with sex and birth control, Pollitt said.

She also mentioned a University of California study revealing that 95 percent of women who have had an abortion do not regret their decision, either immediately after or three years later. But anti-abortion activists have made regret a central component of their campaigns, claiming that women who have had the procedure go through serious post-abortion syndromes.

“Why is regret so important?” Pollitt asked. “The insistence on post-abortion syndrome has a significant political effect. Anti-abortion advocates capitalize on it to push lawmakers to change laws. But why should women who regret outweigh women who don’t regret?”

According to Pollitt, the statistics she quoted are simple facts that, combined together, have the power to change the public perception on abortion in the hope of preventing further legislation to restrict access to it. But perhaps the most convincing argument of all, she said, is that abortion won’t cease to exist just because the laws in place restrict access to it.

“Countries where abortion is illegal have much higher rates of abortion than where it’s legal,” Pollitt said. “The absence of laws only means abortion is less safe.”

In welcoming Pollitt to stage, Linda Zerilli, faculty director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, praised her for situating abortion in the larger context of gender, class and race relations in the United States. She also said it’s essential to never quit the continuous struggle to hold on to the right to abortion.

“Rights exist only insofar as we reclaim them as rights,” she said.

Photo at top: Abortion activists picket at a pro-choice march on Jan. 17 in the Loop. (Enrica Nicoli Aldini/MEDILL)