Pro by Katha Pollitt

20518909.jpgNonfiction — print. Picador, 2014. 272 pgs. Library copy.

When I was fourteen, I told a classmate that I was pro-choice as we worked on a group project for our English class at her house. She and, most especially, her older brother began taunting me, calling me a “baby killer”, and saying I was going to hell. I was so shaken and so upset that I asked her mother, who gave me a hug yet said nothing to her children, if I could use their phone to call my mom to come get it. That was my first experience with the vitriol judgment surrounding reproductive rights but, unfortunately, not the last, and in the interim years I have seen the debate continue with emotionally charged rhetoric on one side and quite a bit of silence on the other.

Pollitt’s book contributes a strong voice to shatter the silence, specifically addressing those in the middle who believe abortion should be legal but rare but often vote in line with or support policies meant to further restrict access. Such “middle of the road” people may not want to outright ban abortion, but they are often engaged in a discussion of who “deserves” to have an abortion imaging that no one they know has had one despite the fact that three in ten women have had an abortion.

She addresses such images – a “welfare queen”, a “slut” who uses abortion like birth control rather than facing the consequences of sex outside of marriage, a survivor of rape or incest – and the traumatic, judgmental language used to push either the anti-abortion or the pro-choice agenda.

(Like Pollitt, I refuse to use the term “pro-life” because it attributes a state that a fetus cannot exist in outside the womb before twenty-four weeks, which is well after 99 percent of all abortions are performed. In my personal experience, those who are “pro-life” are also pro-death penalty and anti-universal healthcare, which are incompatible positions to me.)

In this particular section, Pollitt comes down hard on both sides arguing that both the pro and anti-camps cling to imagery that is not an accurate picture of who actually has abortions in the United States – women who already have at least one child. It appeals to the emotional side of the debate rather than allowing people to rationally discuss the issue.

My favorite portion of her argument is when she addresses the anti-abortion camp’s contradictory rejection of both abortion and birth control measures. The Pill, condoms, and other contraception measures are proven as the best way to prevent pregnancy and, therefore, reduce the number of women seeking an abortion. Emergency contraception such as Plan B has been scientifically proven to prevent ovulation not implantation, which is necessary for a pregnancy to occur. Yet anti-abortion leaders are often also anti-birth control – the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case to support their position despite how scientifically unsound it is – demonstrating “what they really object to is sex without a significant threat of pregnancy and the social changes connected to that”.

Pollitt also devotes some time to reframing the ideal of motherhood. Not every woman wants to become a mother nor should they be forced to carry a fetus to term and surrender their infant for adoption. (Pollitt cites Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, which I highly recommend.) She argues that the elevation of motherhood as the sole aspiration for women works hand in hand with the elevation of the fetus’ rights over the pregnant woman as it erases women as an entity with rights. And it feeds right back into the anti-abortion argument because any woman who does not want to become a mother must be amoral and atypical. Never mind the fact that the average woman will spend thirty years of her life regulating her fertility on a monthly basis – yes, even those who choose to become mothers.

So, yes, I enjoying reading this book and would encourage others to read it. She points out the grey areas of both sides in the argument providing the clear, factual words needed to engage in a debate without resorting to such charges as the one I experienced at fourteen.


  1. I’d be interested in reading this one. The debates around abortion, death penalty and universal access has something of the unreal seen from a Western European perspective.


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