Katha Pollitt, a New York Times notable author, was in town earlier this week at the invitation of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, appearing at a luncheon and an Auraria campus town hall to talk about feminism and her book PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.
During her visit, she spoke to us about viewing "a positive choice for abortion as a normal part of women's reproductive life. Almost one in three women will have had at least one abortion by menopause, and when you've got numbers like that, you can really see that it is an integral, normal, although much-stigmatized part of the lives of women and also of men. To criminalize abortion is to go back to where we were in the '50s, and what you had then was a tremendous amount of illegal abortion, which was often quite dangerous. I can't think why people would want to go back to that."
In the past, Pollitt acknowledges, the pro-choice movement tended to "stress extreme cases like rape, incest or the life of the mother" as reasons for fighting against laws to limit or ban abortion. "And it's important to talk about that, because those things are not uncommon."
However, she continues, "most women who have abortions are having them for socioeconomic and personal reasons, and it's important to defend that. It's important to say that women have had an abortion because they want to finish their education, because they're not in a relationship that would make for good parenting or they don't want to be a single mother. They want to focus on their work life, they feel they're too young, they're not in a good place themselves, they have all the children they want."
Statistics show that "most women who have abortions are mothers," Pollitt notes. "This fact and the one about one-in-three women gives you a completely different perspective on the issue than the one the anti-choice movement gives, which is that women have abortions because they are frivolous, they're cold-hearted career women, they just want to hang out and have a lot of sex, they're sluts, they're bad, they haven't found God yet — all that kind of thing."
Her main argument: "We will all be better as a society when children are born when parents are ready to take care of them. I'm all for people rising to a moral challenge if that's what they want to do — the moral challenge of having a child after an unplanned or originally unwanted pregnancy. If that's what people decide to do, fine. But I think as a society, men, women and children will be better off if child-bearing isn't based on some random sperm that finds its way to an egg. I don't think that's a good way to run a society. A good way is for women to have children in an intentional way when they're ready to do that, and for society to help them in their parenting."
Among PRO's most memorable chapters is one titled "Six Myths About Abortion." We asked Pollitt about each one, and her responses are fascinating. Her comments are enumerated below, with the last one followed by a passionate pitch about the upcoming presidential race.
1. The Bible Forbids Abortion
Most anti-abortion people insist that the Bible bans abortion, which isn't true. Abortion isn't mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Not once. If you look at Judaism — and Jews wrote the Old Testament — the fetus is not considered a human being until it's born, and if it's a question of the life of the mother or the life of the fetus, abortion is mandatory. Her life supersedes his life.
There are lots of little passages in the Bible where anti-choice people have tried to tease out the meaning they want — like, "God is obviously against abortion, because he says, 'Thou shalt not kill.'" But actually, what he says is, "Thou shalt not murder," and if you believe the fetus isn't a person, there is no murder.
There's a quote where God says, "I knew you from in the womb." But the Bible is written in a very poetic way, and "I knew you in the womb" doesn't mean you were a person when you were a fertilized egg. And I would also argue that whatever the Bible says shouldn't be the way we run our country. This is not a Christian nation. This is not a nation where fundamentalists and bishops get to decide what the law should be.
There are also some passages that can be used to argue that in the Bible, the fetus is not a person. There's one in Exodus that says, "If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life." Contemporary abortion opponents interpret this passage and sometimes translate this passage to mean if you cause a miscarriage, then you should get the death penalty. But 1,000 years of rabbinical scholarship interprets it differently — that you get a fine for causing the miscarriage and the death penalty is if you cause the death of the pregnant woman. What's interesting about all this is, everybody says the Bible is thousands of years old, but interpretations change over the years. So now, anti-abortion people say, "Oh, in this rather obscure passage, there's the evidence for an absolute biblical ban on abortion that somehow nobody noticed before." All those Hebrew scholars, all those rabbis who would read it in the original, just didn't get it. But I think that's just not true.
2. Women Are Coerced Into Having Abortions
This is also based on some very, very faulty survey-taking. I looked at one survey [a 2004 article in the Medical Science Monitor] that's often quoted to say some fantastic percentage of women [64 percent] felt pressured to have an abortion. But in a study by the Guttmacher Institute, they asked 1,209 women what were their reasons for choosing abortion. And 14 percent said their husband or partner wants me to have it, 6 percent said their parents want me to have it — and these numbers are down from twenty years earlier. But these women could choose as many reasons they wanted on the survey, and when they were asked to choose the single most important reason, less than .5 percent cited the wishes of husband/partner or parent. So that suggests it's really one in 200 who think something like, "I would like to have this baby, but if I do, Mom and Dad will kick me out of the house. I have to do this."
I'm not saying it never happens. I'm sure it does happen. But that experience is not the reason to ban abortion for the vast majority of women who are not coerced into having an abortion and have chosen to have an abortion out of their own sense of what's best for them.
3. Abortion Is Dangerous
It is truly amazing how much misinformation there is. If you go to a crisis pregnancy center, which have received fantastic amounts of government funding to dissuade women from having abortions, they'll tell you abortion will give you breast cancer, abortion will make you sterile, abortion will drive you insane, abortion will cause you to become an abuser of drugs and alcohol, abortion is very likely to kill you or leave you with lasting injuries. And none of this is true.
Abortion is a remarkably safe procedure. You are more likely to die in a dentist's chair. You are more likely to die from a colonoscopy. You are twelve to fourteen times more likely to die in childbirth — and that's the relevant comparison. One of those two things is going to happen to you: You're going to have a baby or you're going to have an abortion. And having a baby is much more dangerous.
And what is really unfortunate about all these lies about the dangers of abortion is, it drives laws like the ones overturned in Texas, of extreme regulation that are actually aimed at shutting down abortion clinics but are billed as, "This is about protecting women's health. This is about keeping women safe." Many people believe abortion is dangerous and abortion doctors are the lowest of the low. It's very easy to persuade them that they should support this regulation — like, "Of course. It's about women's health." Fortunately, the Supreme Court saw through that in its recent decision. So we may see a little less of that going forward. But the lies and the emotional manipulation of the anti-choice movement have driven a lot of the public discussion and the lawmaking around abortion.
Continue to read author Katha Pollitt's takes on what she describes as three more abortion myths.
4. There Are Too Many Abortions
There are a lot of abortions — almost a million [per year] now. It's been going down since the late 1980s, but there are still a lot. And of course, the anti-abortion people are saying, "There are so many abortions because women are bullied into having them. They don't want to have them. They're bullied into it — and those evil, greedy abortion doctors somehow lure these unwilling women into the clinic."
The truth is, we don't know what the right number of abortions would be if every woman could have a choice. There are many, many women who can't have an abortion because of the Hyde Amendment, which bans the federal government from funding abortions through Medicaid. Some states make up those funds, but many do not.
We don't know how many women would have an abortion if there were a clinic they could get to. Now there are many women who drive all day to get to a clinic, and then there's a waiting period of 72 hours, so they have to find a place to stay, which drives up the price significantly. And if you're not a woman with money to spare, you can just give up in despair.
On the other hand, you could say, "If we had health care for all, if we had paid maternity leave, if parents were supported in taking care of their kids and there was daycare" and all the things they have in some countries in Western Europe, then maybe some women would decide to keep their children. So we really don't know how many abortions there would be if they were easily available.
5. Abortion Is Racist
This is a claim often made by anti-choicers — that because the number of abortions in the black community is higher than the white community, therefore abortions must be racist, and it's an evil plot to get rid of black people. And it's also compared to slavery. What this really says is that black women are the slave-masters of their fetuses. Their body is like a plantation.
This is so insulting. If these people cared about the rate of abortion in black communities, they would be pushing for good health care in black communities, including good access to reproductive health care, good methods of birth control that really work.
Black women have more pregnancies than white women because they have less access to good health care and less access to effective birth control. And these same people should also be saying, "We've really got to take care of black families," but they don't do that, either. It's all about just demonizing women who have abortions.
6. Abortion Opponents Would Never Punish Women
We saw how false that is when Donald Trump said, "Of course, we would have to punish women who have abortions" — but then he had to take it back, because that wasn't the party line.
We're already punishing women who have abortions. Purvi Patel gave herself an abortion and she was put in prison in Indiana for twenty years. Now she's been let out; the court overturned the verdict. But there's a tremendous willingness to punish women who have abortions. There's another case that's like that, too: Bei Bei Shuai, also in Indiana, the home state of the Republican vice presidential candidate, Mike Pence, tried to kill herself and ended up giving birth to a baby who soon died. And she, too, was put in prison.
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There are many, many women who are in jail for using drugs during their pregnancy and for giving birth to a baby that is drug-positive, too. So I think there is a great willingness to punish women around reproduction, and I see no reason why women wouldn't be punished for having abortions, as they are in countries where the Catholic Church really runs the show, like in Nicaragua and El Salvador. There are many women in those countries who in jail for having an abortion, even though they may just be miscarriages.
I'd just like to emphasize that a lot of people seem to feel about the upcoming presidential election, "Oh, yeah, Hillary, Trump, it's all the same." It's not the same. Hillary Clinton is for women's reproductive rights. She's for getting rid of the Hyde Amendment so that poor women will have the same opportunity to make choices about their child-bearing that better-off women can do. And Donald Trump, the first thought off the top of his head was, "Let's punish women." He's totally allied with the anti-choice movement now, both by his choice of Mike Pence and by other people in his campaign. He says, "I will nominate justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade." That really tells you where he's coming from. It's very easy to be cynical and persuade yourself, "They're all politicians. Who cares?" But sometimes there are real issues at stake that will impact people's lives — their personal lives and choices — in a very direct way.