Beware of Pity: Katha Pollitt and the New Politics of Choice
Pro, Katha Pollitt, Picador, 2014
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 react[ing] 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.
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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. But in fact they are not persons; therefore we shouldn’t worry about killing them.
But that’s not her argument. In the sixty pages she devotes to chapters titled “What Is a Person?” and “Are Women People?” Pollitt mostly skirts the philosophical issue of personhood, focusing instead on how actions indicate what Americans believe a fetus to be. The idea that fetuses are persons is absurd, she concludes, because people don’t act as if fetuses (or at least embryos) really are persons. Her position then is something more akin to this:
If fetuses are persons, then it’s wrong to kill them and we shouldn’t do it. If many people don’t act as if they think it’s wrong to kill them, then fetuses can’t be persons. Many people act as if they think it’s not wrong to kill fetuses, therefore fetuses are not persons, and there is nothing wrong with killing them.
That’s not the extent of her discussion of the personhood issue, but it is the burden of it. People who think there might be something wrong about abortion yet support its legality (at least in some cases) are not acting as if they believe fetuses are persons, therefore they can’t really believe they are. So, if they don’t really believe in the personhood of the fetus, what is their problem with abortion?
Pollitt would have her mushy-middle readers understand that the real reason for their opposition to abortion—and especially that of hardline prolifers—is pathological disgust at women’s sexual pleasure and a fundamental fear of the idea of women having power. I remember believing this. It’s the basic worldview of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—that women’s sexuality and women’s power—not the personhood of the fetus—are at the heart of the abortion debate.
Reading The Handmaid’s Tale as a young woman made me feel the weight of something called the Patriarchy like a heavy stone on my chest. I remember that weight, the panic of it, the outrage it engendered in me. I remember believing that the right to an abortion guaranteed I would never end up like the heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s harrowing short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who was driven mad by a rest cure—imposed by her husband and her doctor—meant to cure her of ambition and discontent. I was, and am, ambitious; I believe women as well as men are called to be fruitful, expansive, creative; to spend themselves in a great purpose. The need for legal abortion was sold to me as a guarantee that I would be able to pursue such a life.
I remember being outraged by all these thoughts; but the argument that abortion is necessary to save women from patriarchal oppression is (in most ways, for most prolifers) so far from reality that I find it difficult to recall now what that outrage felt like. The people I know who are most passionately pro-life—myself included—consider little else than the personhood of the fetus: That’s why we are passionate. The panicky sense we get when we think of the numbers of unborn children dying every day has nothing—nothing—to do with a desire to repress women’s sexuality, or to deny them their rightful exercise of power.
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Sometimes I get tired of trying to talk about abortion logically, because the logic seems so self-evident to me. Why the disconnect? Perhaps because on some level pro-choicers sense the need to establish mental distance: Abortion can’t possibly be what they say it is, because then I’d be supporting something horrible, I’d be supporting the killing of babies, and I don’t want to kill babies; I am not that person. I believe this is a deeply hopeful reaction. Because the truth is that most who are pro-choice are not that person; they are not completely hardened (as others of us are not completely hardened to other wrongs that we don’t address as we should). There is something in nearly all of us that wants to stop engaging in doublethink, to recognize and protect the baby.
However, especially for those women who have had abortions—but not only for them—it can be very frightening to contemplate the guilt that might accompany an admission of what is really happening in an abortion. I became pro-life before I became a Christian; I don’t fully understand how. One of the things that Christianity offers those who are afraid to confront the reality of abortion is a safe space to call it wrong, a safe space to feel guilty, a safe space to grieve, not only for its tiny victims but for all those who have been complicit—mothers, fathers, friends, doctors; all who have silenced their own hearts—and for all the familial and cultural wreckage it has caused.
Wolf’s essay was muddled in many ways, not least because she misunderstands the nature and purpose of calling something a sin, although she sees value in the word. Repentance—the possibility of repentance—is in her vocabulary, but doesn’t include the idea of not doing the wrong thing anymore. The world where someone could acknowledge what is really happening in an abortion, receive the forgiveness he or she might need, and gain the power to stop committing this wrong, is one that Wolf seems to long for, but doesn’t believe is real. Pollitt doesn’t even want that kind of world. And she wants others not to want it as well.
In Katha Pollitt’s worldview, killing the whatever-it-is in the womb (for whatever the reason) is an existential act of freedom by which one self-actualizes, or escapes from a flat existence. But this has got it backward. We break through into real life not when we reject the moral calls that are placed upon us, but when we willingly take them up, even if we didn’t ask for them. Even if they are unplanned. Anything else leads to an increasing, if deceptive, sense that the world—including our own lives—is less rich, less real. The biggest quest we’re called to—life itself—is not one we were consulted about: We didn’t ask to be born, nor to be called to live in a kind of self-giving relational love that can be costly. But it is precisely this love that reshapes us into people who delight—consistently, completely, thoroughly—in real life, and in each other.
It has taken a conversion of the heart, an ongoing conversion, for me to come to believe on the deepest level that there is no conflict between my ability to live as richly and fully as I can, and the good of other people. There is no antithesis between my flourishing and God’s design. This means I don’t have to fear that admitting the claims others have on me—all the inconvenient calls to love, to give of myself—will result in my annihilation. Answering these calls—even when we didn’t ask for them—is what it means to show up for our own lives. Refusing them— above all, refusing them at the expense of fellow human creatures—does not and cannot result in my well-being.
Look, that’s all very abstract, and I’m a little self-conscious about it. But I’m just so tired of us talking past each other; I’m so tired of living in a world where my friend groups are divided into those who believe that pro-choicers are monsters, and those who believe that prolifers secretly want to enslave women. There has to be common ground; there must be. Katha Pollitt’s book is a logical mess, the product of terrifying moral deafness. It is important to understand that what Pro calls for is a restoration of the mind-clouding, heart-hardening, “mass of dependent protoplasm” rhetoric Naomi Wolf so thunderously—and successfully—denounced.
But even to Katha Pollitt, this is what I would say: The world we live in is one where it is safe to acknowledge that all fetuses are babies; it is safe to grieve for them; safe to ask for and receive forgiveness. The world we live in is one where we can affirm—wholeheartedly—the value of every human person, ourselves included. The world we live in is one where God Himself became a fetus—trusting Himself to the love of an unmarried teenage girl—then laid down His life so that all of us could have the power happily to choose life for those we are called to care for. And to choose the fullness of life for ourselves.
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Susannah Black is a writer and native New Yorker. She lives in Queens. People do live in Queens, you know.
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This is a wonderful review of a very bad book; thanks so much for posting it. Bravo, for such a sensitive and well-written (and personal, in all the right ways) essay!