Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Planned Parenthood rally in Washington, D.C., April 7, 2011 (American Life League / Flickr)
This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by Dorothy Roberts, click here.

How can the reproductive rights movement start to win again?

“Start” is the operative word. We’re getting crushed out there. Since 2010, 283 abortion restrictions have been passed in the United States. Women’s access to contraception is under attack, not just from religious employers, now empowered by the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, but also in some state legislatures. Abstinence-only sex education continues to receive millions in government funding, even though studies show it doesn’t work. Women who have stillbirths or miscarriages are being arrested for their conduct during pregnancy. As one repro-rights activist wrote on a listserv recently, it’s not even a question of David versus Goliath anymore. It’s David versus the Empire State Building.

What to do? In the short term, we need to elect a pro-choice Democratic president and Senate and hope Justices Scalia (age seventy-nine) or Kennedy (also seventy-nine)—with luck, both—retire. (It would be nice if Justice Thomas decided to kick back and relax too, but he is only sixty-seven.) A solid pro-choice majority on the Supreme Court, plus strong support in the White House and Senate, won’t solve all our problems, but will buy pro-choicers some time for broader activism and persuasion. If the next president is a Republican, game over.

We also need to put more energy and resources into winning elections at the state and local levels, because that’s where most legislation against reproductive rights is enacted and that’s where women seeking abortions face violence, harassment, and ostracism. Right now, Republicans control sixty-eight out of ninety-nine state chambers, and thirty-one out of fifty governorships. They have total control of twenty-four states. How to change that is, to quote President Obama, above my pay grade. Pro-choicers took back Virginia after the mandatory transvaginal ultrasound scandal blew up in 2012, but the reelection of anti-choice governors Sam Brownback, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie shows that even Republicans who mess up their states’ economies and have unpopular positions on things people care about, like public-school funding, can win at the polls. At some point, Democrats and progressives will have to deal with the fact that a lot of our voters only cast a ballot in presidential election years. If we can’t change that, we’ll eventually be powerless, even if no Republican ever wins the White House again.

In the long term, we need to change the discourse and the thinking around reproductive rights. The majority of Americans say they support Roe v. Wade, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily oppose abortion restrictions that flagrantly violate it, as we’ve seen with the passive acceptance of twenty-week bans, seventy-two-hour waiting periods, restrictions on insurance coverage, and laws like the ones in Texas that claim to protect women’s health but are actually intended to shut clinics down. Most anti-abortion legislation happens in legislatures. When they are given the chance to cast a ballot and have to think hard about the pros and cons, voters often reject anti-abortion measures. That happened in 2013 in Albuquerque, where energetic grassroots organizing persuaded voters to reject a twenty-week ban that would have closed one of a handful of clinics that perform abortions after twenty-four weeks. But direct balloting on reproductive rights issues is rare. And sadly, the same voters who reject an anti-abortion ballot measure too often reelect anti-abortion legislators.

In the ordinary course of electoral politics, it matters a lot that abortion opponents are far more likely to be single-issue voters than abortion rights supporters are. They just care more. As one veteran pro-choice activist said to me, “the majority of people do not give a hoot about abortion law so long as it is not illegal.” Even now, with abortion so threatened and in the news all the time, I am constantly meeting pro-choicers who don’t really grasp what’s going on. What? There’s only one abortion clinic in all of Missouri?

The real problem is stigma. Too many pro-choicers and people in what I call the “muddled middle” accept the anti-abortion framing: abortion is terrible, clinics are dangerous, providers are cold and money-grubbing, and women with unwanted pregnancies are careless and promiscuous and impulsive and selfish. Because the disapproval of abortion is so great and goes so deep, it’s hard for women to tell even family and friends that they have had one, and so the stereotype of women who’ve ended pregnancies as sluts and child-haters persists. Since Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights came out, I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking, and the two statistics that always make the audience sit up are that nearly one in three women will have had at least one abortion by menopause and 61 percent of women who have abortions are already mothers. Those two facts cut right through so many assumptions: that women who end pregnancies are a different kind of person than women who keep them, that abortions are some weird, awful, desperate act and not a normal part of life in a female body.

Right now, pro-choice activists are putting a lot of energy into combating stigma through abortion story-telling. New groups like Sea Change, the Abortion Conversation Project, and the Abortion Diary podcast are encouraging women to speak out about their own experiences. Women have tweeted their abortions; Emily Letts videoed hers and put it on YouTube. Coming out was crucial to changing attitudes about gays and lesbians: will people feel differently about abortion if they know their mother, their aunt, or their friend had one? The framing of abortion as reproductive justice rather than simple choice is important too, especially given that most women who have abortions are poor or nearly poor and are disproportionately women of color. Viewing childbearing through an anti-racist and anti-poverty lens means that we should also accept that women don’t just have a right not to have children, but also to have them, and to raise them safely and well.

It is hard to tell how far these new kinds of activism have reached beyond the circles of activists themselves. But they’re a start. In Pro I argued that we need to see abortion as a social good: it’s good for everyone if women have children intentionally, when they are best able to raise them while fulfilling their other plans and dreams, not because they happened to get pregnant at some random moment. I hoped that message would counteract the dominant one of abortion as moral failure and proof of social decay. For that to happen, though, we would need to see women as more valuable than fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses. These days, we seem farther from that than ever.


Katha Pollitt is a poet, essayist, and Nation columnist. Her most recent book is Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (Picador, 2014).

This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by Dorothy Roberts, click here.

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