In the opening pages of her book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt tells readers that her mother had an abortion in 1960. Her mother’s FBI file, which Katha read after her death, said she was in the care of a physician for “gynecological problems.” Pollitt says her father never knew about the abortion and neither did she, which made her angry “the way one can be angry at one’s mother for having a life outside her child’s ken.” (Yes, she manages to equate abortion with “having a life.”)
It’s unclear why she is convinced that unspecified “gynecological problems” meant her mother had an abortion instead of all the thousands of other things it could mean, but it’s an early indication of the way the book will jump to conclusions, focus on abortion as a moral good, and make claims that seem more fantasy than reality. A few pages later, Pollitt says she daydreams about “shiny and empty uteruses,” where clearing the womb is just another form of housekeeping. Her very last paragraph finds her dreaming of a future feminist heaven where “there will be abortion.”
And the pages in between are just as intriguingly unreal. She says that abortion is hard to get in the United States (where more than 1 million abortions are performed each year) and that “although abortion is legal, it might as well not be.”
Her first argument begins with a decidedly retro dehumanizing of children in utero as a clump of cells. She even uses the phrase “clump of cells” in the book. Also: a “stray sperm,” “homunculus,” a “zygote/embryo/fetus,” “a fertilized egg or lentil-sized embryo,” a “fertilized egg or pea-sized shrimplike embryo,” “the sex that conceived.” Ultrasound images of children in the womb are “really just a gray blur” and “fuzzy, high-tech smudges” that she compares to photos of the Loch Ness Monster. Stunning documentary images of pregnancies are misleading because an “embryo the size of a lime is made to look as large as a toddler.”
Now pause to note that the formation of the human embryo marks the beginning of a new human life. It’s new, it’s a complete organism, and it belongs to the human species. Yes, it’s a blob of cells, but that same euphemism applies to you or me. In that sense, terms such as “blastocyst,” “infant,” and “adult” denote not different types of beings but different stages of development for the same type of being.
As Ramesh Ponnuru notes in his 2006 book The Party of Death, “If human beings have intrinsic dignity and worth, then they have this dignity and worth simply because they are human beings. It follows that all human beings have this dignity and worth.” That position is consistent and clear. Pollitt doesn’t share this view, but she doesn’t articulate a compelling competing vision for when, how, or why human rights are obtained.
One of Pollitt’s strong points is that she demands consistency from people who are queasy about abortion. If we really believe preborn children should not be killed, she says, then neither should we play around with assisted reproductive technologies that warehouse and discard untold numbers of embryos. It’s a great point and one that many pro-lifers would agree with.
However, Pollitt’s own argument, such as it is, is riddled with inconsistencies. She says that pro-lifers secretly just “support a return to conservative sexual and family mores,” but later says that if pro-lifers really cared about women, they would “require a man who impregnates a woman to support her financially through pregnancy and delivery.” Of course, support for traditional morals and institutions such as marriage accomplishes just that.
She elides the fact that the definition of when pregnancy begins was changed in recent decades, from the moment of fertilization to the moment of implantation in the uterine wall. The definition was changed precisely so that people would be more accepting of intrauterine devices and other birth-control methods that work after a new human life begins. Even Pollitt concedes that the time lapsed between fertilization and “pregnancy” can be nearly two weeks. Still, she says opposition to birth control that ends human life prior to implantation must be motivated by the desire to control female sexuality.
She says of pro-lifers that “they correctly perceive that birth control and abortion are about much more than women’s health: They are what enable women to have at least a chance of shaping their lives.” But she never quotes a single pro-lifer saying any such thing. And she keeps repeating such scurrilous accusations throughout the book, as if wishing it were true would make it so.
Pollitt opposes pro-life rhetoric that focuses on how women face pressure to abort from others but then pivots to argue that abortion is enmeshed in our communities and requires the cooperation of many. She pivots once again to oppose the idea that women should have to tell their husbands about their abortion plans.
She cites data saying that two-thirds of people agree with Roe v. Wade — but she also notes that not even two-thirds can correctly identify what the case was about.
Most of the book seems to be a fight against nature. Pollitt hates the idea that men and women are different in any way that matters, particularly as it relates to the life of a child. It’s all quite simple, or rather simplistic: “Surely there is a question of sex discrimination when laws against abortion require women to lend their bodies to fetuses for nine months, not to mention childbirth, but men are never required to give so much as a pint of blood to their born child.” These might be good questions in some fantasy realm where biology and nature aren’t what they are.
Instead, she denigrates “motherhood” as “the last area in which the qualities we usually value — rationality, independent thinking, consulting our own best interests, planning for a better, more prosperous future, and dare I say it, pursuing happiness and dreams — are condemned as frivolity and selfishness.” By contrast, abortion means “self-determination, independence, and active decision making,” which she sees as bedrock American values, as opposed to being “self-sacrificing, other-oriented, maternal, and dependent.” One wonders why, in Pollitt’s fantasy realm, we must measure motherhood according to masculine values, instead of seeing it as a model for other parts of society.
After dehumanizing the preborn child and impugning the motivations of the energetic pro-life movement, Pollitt moves on to her big goal, one that is clearly part of an ongoing public-relations campaign. She says, “We need to talk about ending a pregnancy as a common, even normal, event in the reproductive lives of women.” In her view, “We need to see abortion as an urgent practical decision that is just as moral as the decision to have a child — indeed sometimes more moral.”
She doesn’t even like the idea that a woman should ever be encouraged to consider not killing the baby growing in her womb. “Terminating a pregnancy is always a woman’s right and often a deeply moral decision. It is not evil, even a necessary evil.” She takes this to such extremes that she mocks Juno, a movie with a favorable view of adoption. Pollitt is pretty skeptical about adoption, period.
And she knows no boundaries between ridicule and argument. A chapter devoted to common myths about abortion begins with a section on the Bible that is so illiterate it is embarrassing. According to Pollitt, the New Testament was a failed “second chance for God to make himself clear about abortion.” She mocks parental consent and ridicules a pro-choice woman who saw an ultrasound and said, “It made me think that there is definitely a life growing there.” She denigrates post-abortive women, the idea that partial-birth abortion is gruesome, and the entirety of the Roman Catholic Church teaching on sex and the sanctity of life.
Pollitt’s empty-uterus dreams beget an even more dystopic worldview. She recounts her thoughts leading up to the ultrasound on her own daughter as “blind fine, deaf fine — but what about blind and deaf?” God in his infinite mercy gave her a child she had no such excuse to kill. Elsewhere, an offhand remark that people should care more about what Beethoven’s mother’s life would have been like had she aborted him than the loss of Beethoven to abortion seems to miss the point spectacularly.
In many ways, Pollitt – talented writer though she may be — is her own worst enemy. Her obsessive focus on market-based metrics of success and value over the maternal virtues she derides isn’t going to make many friends. Her bizarre claims — such as that many women don’t find “penis–vagina” sex satisfying — seem straight out of a discarded feminist textbook.
For that matter, her triumphal feminist declaration that saying that “motherhood is the most important, hardest job in the world” is “obviously false” is also likely to land with a thud. You can argue that motherhood isn’t the most important job, but no serious person argues that it should take a backseat to preserving total sexual freedom and the broken culture it creates. “If we really valued motherhood, we would make sure every young person had excellent sex education and every girl and woman had access to birth control and abortion” represents an odd view of motherhood that will be a very tough sell, even with the pliant media.
In fact, pro-lifers should welcome Pollitt’s contribution to the debate. Pro is likely to horrify and alienate everyone who isn’t already initiated into her death cult.
— Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a senior editor at The Federalist. This review originally appeared in the November 3, 2014, issue of National Review.