On the wall of our family room hangs a picture of me, pregnant, carrying a sign at an abortion-rights march in 1989. The sign says, Pregnant and pro-choice. The phrase sums up my not uncommon history–youthful years of fearing birth control failure, later years of fertility treatments, miscarriages and, eventually, pregnancy and my three beloved children. At that march, protesters screamed at me. They seemed unable to believe that anyone could love children and also be “pro.” To be truthful, I had private questions–about those tears at miscarriage, the grainy ultrasounds–but was on some level too squeamish to think clearly about what felt like contradictory ideas.
Many of my fellow squeamish Americans have the same trouble reconciling abortion and love. Polls reveal murky thinking, with more than half of respondents saying they don’t want to ban abortion but don’t want it widely available either. How would that work? Either abortion’s O.K. and accessible or it isn’t. Clear logic minus the moralizing has not been easy to find. Now Katha Pollitt’s brilliant new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, arrives like an urgent letter as rights are fast eroding. A poet and prominent feminist, Pollitt is not preaching here to a choir of pro-choicers nor expecting to change the minds of abortion foes–she’s addressing the “muddled middle.” It’s past time, she writes, to explore a thicket of questions that pollsters–not to mention conversations at the dinner table–don’t get at with any nuance. Chief among them: Who is the abortion debate really about?
The answer here is that it should be about women, not embryos. With Pollitt’s characteristic wit and logic, Pro marshals science, history, medicine, religion, statistics and stories of real women’s lives–with all the “tangled secret misfortunes” of families–to make a myth-busting argument that abortion is a social good. It’s good for women. It’s good for children. It’s good for men. It’s a normal fact of life and has been since ancient times. All of which might sound shocking, so rarely do we hear about abortion’s benefits.
Instead, the conciliatory tagline, even among staunch pro-choicers, is that “no one is for abortion.” We hear pro-choice politicians like Hillary Clinton say abortion is a “sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.” Wendy Davis, a candidate for Texas governor, talks bravely in her new memoir about her own abortions–one for severe fetal anomalies and another for an ectopic pregnancy, which, left untreated, would have eventually threatened Davis’ life. But as Pollitt asks, have we really reached a point where a woman’s child must be fatally compromised or she must be near death or suicidal or have been raped in order for her to have an abortion? Is abortion always tragic, always agonizing?
Contrary to abortion opponents’ claims that abortion restrictions protect women’s health, a new study from Ibis Reproductive Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights shows that states with the most such restrictions performed worse on health indicators for women and children. It’s those women and children who should be at the center of our concerns.
Women have always had abortions. Pollitt’s analysis of the Bible leads her to conclude that the book makes no mention of, let alone judgment on, the procedure–“Not one word,” she writes, deconstructing scriptural interpretations that have been used to frame the debate. Yet abortions were happening: the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian text dating from circa 1500 B.C., describes an abortifacient plant-fiber tampon coated with honey. Over the centuries, women have ingested poisons, syringed themselves with lye and turpentine or used dangerous probes–without anesthesia–risking death and injury to end unwanted pregnancies. While abortion is now one of the safest procedures available, new restrictions put it out of reach for women in 87% of U.S. counties.
Pollitt writes about Janelle, 25, who traveled from one such county to New York State for an abortion. Janelle is a mother who wanted to give her three kids a better life by getting a job that would pay enough to send them to college. Having an abortion meant she could pursue that dream. For her, it was not a difficult decision, not a selfish act but one of self-preservation. It was an act of love–for her family.
We are not different, Janelle and I, in our love for our children and for our dreams–not that different, I bet, from squeamish Americans whose reluctance to think deeply about abortion has allowed a radical movement against abortion rights to steamroll us. The only thing making me squeamish these days is contemplating the dangerous measures women will resort to as abortion rights are lost and how women and children suffer as a consequence of government intrusion on the most sacred and private decision a woman can make: whether or not to bear a child.
Manning is the author of My Notorious Life, a novel about a 19th century midwife
This appears in the October 27, 2014 issue of TIME.