Six Myths About Abortion From Katha Pollitt

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts