Morality play

By acknowledging painful emotional truths about abortion, pro-choice activists have reenergized their movement. But is all the talk about fetuses overshadowing women's rights?

By Rebecca Traister
Published February 9, 2005 8:47PM (EST)

When Hillary Clinton addressed the Family Planning Advocates of New York state on Jan. 24, she surprised her audience by talking about abortion as "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." She called for advocates on both sides of the bitter reproductive rights divide to find "common ground." She reminded the crowd of her mid-'90s endorsement of "teen celibacy," and she reached out to those who have opposed reproductive freedoms for women by saying, "I for one respect those who believe with all their heart and conscience that there are no circumstances under which abortion should be available."

Clinton's remarks, on the heels of similar comments from leading Democrats Howard Dean and John Kerry, were widely interpreted as part of a post-election Democratic move toward the center, a wooing of the nation's perceived "values voters." In Newsweek, Eleanor Clift wrote that Sen. Clinton, on her way to a likely 2008 presidential bid, is "leading her party to the Promised Land ... treading a path to red state America." The speech was hailed by some Democrats as a move in the right direction, questioned by others who point out that abortion was not a deciding issue in the presidential campaign. Some critics saw Clinton's speech as a betrayal of the pro-choice party line that has long been a part of the Democratic platform.

But the story is not simply about the direction of the Democratic Party. Clinton's sound bites may well have been a loud -- possibly misinterpreted, certainly oversimplified -- public signifier that a far more profound and uncomfortable discussion is heating up the women's movement itself. After years of intermittent jostling from the inside, a December essay by Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling on the value of the fetus seems to have cracked the hard ideological shell of the pro-choice community, exposing its messy theological, moral and emotional innards. The resulting scramble may not be the end of a movement, but rather a chance at rebirth before what could be the fight of its life.

This past year has seen a number of surprising -- and divergent -- eruptions in the pro-choice movement, which has remained relatively on-message since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade victory that made abortion legal in all 50 states. Since the passage of Roe, pro-choice advocates have been forced to maintain a defensive position, watching their victory seep away as antiabortion activists push through piece after piece of restrictive legislation. The pro-life movement -- energized by being on the losing end of Roe -- has deftly tugged at American heartstrings by parading photos of bloody fetuses before the Senate and in front of clinics and by claiming the vocabulary of life and loss as its own.

Now many in the pro-choice community are looking to reclaim that language, to warm up what has come to be regarded as an absolutist, clinical, chilly movement with language that is emotional, conciliatory, moralistic and even religious. In short, what the wildly different pro-choice projects launched in recent months have in common is a risky mission to put the heart back into the fight for abortion rights.

In January 2004, Alexander Sanger, chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council and grandson of organization founder Margaret Sanger, published "Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century." In the book, he presented what he called "a very simple but heretical question. How many more pieces of anti-choice legislation will it take to get the pro-choice movement to rethink its approach to the issue?" He wrote, "I believe that to win the judicial battles and political battles we first must win the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people ... If the American people have moral confusion about abortion, then the fault lies with [us] who argue on behalf of reproductive rights." The answer, Sanger went on to argue, is to reframe the debate in a way that makes clear that abortion is a moral choice, integral to the formation of happy, healthy families.

Some have been trying to preach a new gospel of abortion pride: Planned Parenthood sold T-shirts that proclaimed "I had an abortion"; one activist started a Web site called I'm Not Sorry.

In December, Frances Kissling, a beloved figure in the women's movement whose 30 years as a pro-choice advocate and Catholic leader lends her both moral and ideological credibility, swung back with an essay titled "Is There Life After Roe? How to Think About the Fetus." In it, she made the radical argument that the pro-choice movement must acknowledge the moral value of a fetus -- and the potentially painful reality of its loss -- in order to strengthen its claim that a woman's right to choose is ultimately worth more.

Kissling's 7,500-word piece, published in the Catholics for a Free Choice journal Conscience, raised alarm on both sides of the abortion debate. Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal was quoted in the Village Voice saying, "I don't buy it," suggesting that arguments like Kissling's distract advocates from the work of preventing women's suffering. And, she pointed out, "I don't hear [Kissling] saying that there's joy sometimes." Catholic League president William Donohue released a statement headlined "Pro-Abortion Camp Seeks to Hijack Religion."

Even the politicians are in on the act; Howard Dean has called on Democrats to "change our vocabulary" about the abortion issue, while John Kerry acknowledged he believed that life begins at conception but still supports a woman's right to get an abortion. And then there was Hillary.

"There is definitely this swirling," said Kissling by phone, about what appears to be a push to rethink the movement. "I take no credit or blame for what Hillary Clinton said," she continued. "Everybody's talking about this." Kissling said her opus stemmed mostly from the discussion within the pro-choice community about upcoming legislation (the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act) that would require physicians to discuss the possibility of fetal pain with women considering abortions after their 20th week of pregnancy. "I felt the fear that many of my colleagues had about confronting in public the status of the fetus," she said.

Confronting the status of the fetus is a scary proposition for pro-choice advocates. To acknowledge it as anything other than a mass of developing cells is to risk careering down a slippery slope to the word "murder." To write or speak a sentence on the subject of abortion rights is to face a field of semantic land mines; every reference to a fetus or its potential future must be preceded by the appropriate conditional. Kissling understands this as well as anyone. Later in the conversation, after talking about the ambivalence of patients who would ask her, when she worked in clinics in the 1970s, Will my fetus feel pain? Kissling paused and said, "and they didn't say 'fetus.'"

Even Kissling -- willing to break many taboos -- is unwilling to say that the word they used was "baby." Pro-choicers shy from "baby" in reference to unborn humans like horses from flames. That's precisely why the seemingly quiet notion of "changing vocabulary" within the debate has the potential to be explosive. That's also part of why work, like Kissling's, that asserts a language of feeling and loss regarding the termination of pregnancy has such an impact. "Is There Life After Roe?" struck a chord because it acknowledged an uncomfortable human truth: that for some happily, healthily expectant women -- and even for some who abort their fetuses -- the bump in their midsection is a baby.

"I think it makes all of us uncomfortable," said Kissling of her line of inquiry. "It is sometimes uncomfortable for me. How do we say this in ways that don't undercut our argument or aren't misinterpreted? This is a tough task, a difficult transition period." She added, "We have resisted the moral conversation for good reason. Historically, as well as in the present, the minute you raise morality, opponents of women's rights use it against us."

But, Kissling said, "I think it's pretty sad if the reality of pro-choice thought is that a discussion of morality leads to an antiabortion position." Kissling has always trod the delicate line between her pro-choice compatriots and her Catholic belief. The Roman Catholic hierarchy remains the mortal enemy of reproductive freedom -- be it abortion or birth control. "I've thought about the morality of this ad nauseam for 35 years and come to the conclusion that making the choice [to have an abortion] can be a profoundly morally correct decision," said Kissling. "It can be morally incorrect too, but so can having a baby."

Kissling continued, "To me a pro-choice movement that couldn't withstand moral scrutiny would be a very poor movement. And I don't think we have a poor movement." In fact, said Kissling, "Is There Life After Roe?" stemmed in part from internal debate among pro-choice leaders -- and not just Catholic ones -- about how to reconcile changing medical and cultural views of the fetus with an abortion-rights agenda. "You can't live in this society and not be affected by the enormous change that has happened in terms of the visibility of the fetus," she argued. Kissling talked about technologies that allow women to look at three-dimensional images of their fetuses early into gestation, and advances in medicine that help younger and younger premature babies to survive ex utero.

But Kissling insisted her interest in the fetus does not change her views on women's reproductive rights. "Abortion should be legal," she said unequivocally. "It should not be restricted. But that doesn't mean it's not complicated and doesn't mean that talking about morality leads to restriction!"

But it's so easy to see how it could. "Is There Life After Roe?" is not an easily digestible piece. Kissling presents a philosophically challenging argument that requires intense consideration from its reader. It's not the kind of thing that translates smoothly to the political stage, especially in a glib, "Need some wood?" political era. If ethicists and theologians find it challenging to absorb a philosophy in which we accept a fetus's value as well as the value of a woman's choice to abort it, how can we reasonably expect an electorate intolerant of dependent clauses to take the time to hash it out? And what happens when politicians eager to jump on what looks like a new centrist bandwagon simplify the message until they transform it into something straight from the mouths of the religious right?

Andrew Sullivan's response to Clinton's speech in the New Republic congratulated the senator on asserting both that "the right to legal abortion should remain" and that "abortion is always and everywhere a moral tragedy." It included a few words on the "horrors of partial-birth abortion" and ended by proclaiming that in order to win a values debate the Democrats need "a simple message: Saving one precious life at a time." Sullivan certainly is not the worst foe to face the pro-choice movement. Much about his piece is reasonable, especially his support of over-the-counter emergency contraception. And yet he slips into language that doesn't simply recognize a fetus but worships it.

This is part of what some consider dangerous about Kissling's work, or about Clinton's assertions about the "tragic choice" to abort. It's a reasonable desire to expand the discussion to recognize loss and conflict, but it should also be remembered that abortion is not always tragic or even complicated. Many women terminate pregnancies with joy and relief. Abortions, in addition to easing medical or economic problems, can mark the cessation of emotional and spiritual turmoil -- just as easily as they can provoke it. Many women feel no guilt at all.

Kissling -- who said she was "willing to talk strategy" but insisted that her arguments were based on belief, not politics -- said she thinks that nuance is the only way for the movement to once again grab America's attention. "It's only when you say something unexpected that you can even get people to listen to you. I have heard responses from Catholics who are neither pro-choice nor pro-life, who say, 'This is the first thing I've heard that makes me feel positively about the pro-choice movement.' I am not interested in the rank-and-file NARAL member. I am interested in the person who is conflicted about this issue."

"There is an old-line view that if you say this you are a traitor," Kissling continued. But, she argued, this is the time to risk accusations of treachery, in part because the Senate is stacked against reproductive rights. "This is probably the best time to take a communications risk, a message risk, because we can't win legislatively," she said. "We don't have the votes! So I see this as a time in which our energies should be focused on the cultural change."

By phone, "Beyond Choice" author Alexander Sanger spoke fondly of Kissling: "My only difference with Frances is that before we get to the theological we have to understand the biological. She skipped a step. That is understandable because she's coming from the Catholic perspective." But, Sanger said, "discussions of the fetus are important to have and we have a right to understand what biology is doing in a pregnancy. Once we understand that we can talk about how we draw a balance between the woman and her reproductive goals and the potential humanity of the fetus."

"But I think this discussion is long overdue," Sanger continued. "We, me included, have been talking a certain way for the last 30 years. And public opinion polls have not changed one iota. The amount of legislation enacted that restricts women's access and demeans women continues to grow. We are not winning this battle."

Sanger said that on many levels, he has been pleased that politicians have begun to rethink the approach to abortion rights. "There is no question in my mind that we, the pro-choice movement, ought to be leading the way to reframing how we talk about abortion," he said. "So if various leaders of the Democratic Party are beginning to have this discussion that is all to the good." But he warned, "We have to differentiate between the pro-choice movement and Democratic Party." What the politicians are saying may be sound, but their strategy may be suspect. "The Democrats are looking for a scapegoat for the loss in November, and they've picked the wrong one [in abortion]."

About Clinton, Sanger said: "Her speech was vintage Planned Parenthood for 98 percent of it. She was talking about prevention, and this is something we've been talking about for the last 90 years." On the other hand, he said: "I was disappointed that the value Hillary led off with is that abortion is bad. I don't believe we are ever going to win over the American public unless we make the case that abortion is a moral decision."

If the feeling among some leaders is that the movement is changing its footing, others were quick to smother the impact of Clinton's speech, as well as Kissling's essay. Feminist Majority president and former president of NOW Smeal didn't seem to think there was anything worth reporting. "You talk about a change in language," Smeal said by phone. "I read [Clinton's] whole speech and really she's been saying this for a long, long time. I don't think there's a change there." Smeal pooh-poohed what she called "that little sentence on 'common ground' -- that's not new either. I was having 'common ground' meetings [with antiabortion groups] in the '80s as a president of NOW."

Kate Michelman, who stepped down last year as president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, agreed. "It may sound new because Hillary chose to give it prime time, but it's not new," Michelman said. "Twenty-one years ago, when I was recruited for the presidency of NARAL, they asked me what kinds of things I thought were most important for the pro-choice movement to address. I said No. 1 is our message, the way that we talk about what it means to be pro-choice. As a woman who had to make the choice [to abort], and who had three girls, the language of the movement didn't speak to me and at times sounded strident and not inclusive of the women who chose to have children. I felt we needed to communicate better what it meant to be pro-choice and the values that underlie a pro-choice position." Two years ago, NARAL (the National Abortion Rights Action League) changed its name to the less abortion-centric NARAL Pro Choice America.

Michelman wrote a letter to the New York Times in the wake of Clinton's speech praising the senator for reaching out to antiabortion advocates but cautioning, "As one who has reached across the ideological chasm on that basis for many years, I regret to say she may find that few on the other side are reaching back." Asked whether she thinks that politicians like Kerry and Clinton have jumped the gun by communicating a boiled-down version of the movement's internal debate, Michelman told Salon, "In reality it's going to happen simultaneously ... and I think our movement must be partners in this with our political leaders."

As for Kissling's piece, Smeal said, "You saw what I said [in the Village Voice]." She continued, "Frances is not changing the discussion." When told that several other pro-choice advocates had spoken warmly -- if tentatively -- about Kissling's essay, Smeal said: "Personally, I think I know the leadership of this movement; I know this movement very well. And we are focused on keeping women's fundamental rights for reasons of her survival. Of course we are moral, feeling people. We're mothers and grandmothers and social workers and teachers and nurses. This isn't new."

"The polls have been the same for 30 years," Smeal said. "And in reality, so is the debate. At various stages someone says something that seems different for two minutes and then you realize that it's just more of the same, like the church's stand that abortion is immoral."

It's true that the movement has always implicitly included personal ambivalence about abortion under its "choice" umbrella. Starting with Margaret Sanger's assertion that every child should be a wanted child, family-planning advocates have always been family-friendly -- in theory. But backed into a corner, forced to defend a hard legal line that cannot afford gray areas, they have sometimes found it easy to confuse "pro-choice" with "pro-abortion."

Smeal is right that Clinton, Dean and Kissling are not exactly talking revolution. But she may also have an investment in behaving as if nothing new is being said. Clinton's dropping of the term "common ground" with reference to right-to-lifers in the wake of the election, in a media climate where all anyone can write about is the left's attempts to make inroads into the red states, is surely calculated. This is gift-wrapped for the press for maximum exposure and impact. And that impact could alter perceptions about the strength and cohesion of the pro-choice movement -- just as it must fight for pro-choice judges and address the possibility that Roe could be overturned and the abortion decision sent back to the states. It's a moment when perceived signs of discord are not good. As Smeal stressed with exasperation, "I feel like I'm chasing at windmills. Ever since the election, the press has been determined to start infighting on the liberal side."

She also pointed out a very real danger in the "make abortion rare" Clinton speak: Nothing is going to change unless contraception becomes cheaper and more readily available to everyone, and that looks increasingly unlikely. While Smeal and her supporters advocate over-the-counter sales of birth control pills and emergency contraception, several states have recently passed laws that allow pharmacists who don't believe in contraception to refuse to sell it to consumers.

As she considered the impact of a morality debate on the movement's ability to focus on more pressing medical concerns, Smeal became nearly apoplectic. "We're sitting around saying, 'Oh, is she a good girl or a bad girl?' It's sad for [some women], so they talk about morality when children in homes for unwanted children don't have clothing? I think that's sick. Children are naked and we're not doing anything about AIDS or clean water ... So basically, I'm sick of reading about this. Am I a moral person? Come on! I was raised a Catholic! I was raised with this theology!"

Smeal's point here is compelling. Even if there were no legislative risks to pursuing questions of reproductive morality, doesn't it lay an additional burden on women who choose to abort? Why should we bring good-girl/bad-girl questions of guilt into it? Kissling's argument -- not in response to Smeal but in our earlier conversation -- is, "Women are already having this conversation with themselves ... Do you think women don't know there is something inside them? Duh. Come on. Do you think they are not bombarded with talk that is moralistic and negative every day? Do we not have something better to offer them in the way of moral framework? Women are dealing with this, and I don't think we should infantilize them."

Kissling also said, warning that she knew this response might sound "a little harsh": "I don't think that the right to choose abortion or the right to be treated as an autonomous empowered woman means you are entitled never to hear anything that might be troubling ... Life is not without its complexity ... In critical areas of moral inquiry we have to speak the full truth."

Asked whether the women's movement needs to make changes, Smeal said, "What the women's movement needs to do is put women back in the picture and put girls back in the picture. Because if [abortion becomes illegal again] girls and women will be maimed, they will die, they will be hurt, they will suffer needlessly."

Amy Richards, co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, an organization of younger feminist activists, wrote in an e-mail, "Sadly ... the reaction to Clinton's remarks and Kissling's proposal seems to be resistance to understanding the current state of things, which is an evolution of abortion rights, not backpedaling." Later by phone she said that Smeal "and the other leaders of the pro-choice movement need to listen more to their constituents and what they're saying. I think she and they lived in a time when abortion was illegal, so they can only foresee two scenarios: legal and illegal. But now there is confidence -- which they might describe as naiveté on the part of younger women -- that no one is going to take the right to an abortion from them."

Richards said that years ago, when approached by someone who asked her if it was possible to be pro-life and a feminist, she said "absolutely not." "That's because I interpreted being pro-life as being anti-women's choices," she said. "But what people were really saying is, Can I be a feminist and be someone who is conflicted about this issue? Do I have to say I'm pro-abortion? And the answer to that is no."

"It's interesting that it's happening right now," Richards said of what she perceives as the shifting attitudes within the movement, noting that Michelman's departure from NARAL earlier this year preceded Planned Parenthood chief Gloria Feldt's resignation two weeks ago. Richards wondered if "this isn't a moment at which the old guard is stepping down."

There are certainly generational land mines in a women's movement that hasn't been cohesive for generations. Younger women are anxious to participate; they clogged the streets of Washington during April's March for Women's Lives. But some may wonder what their role is. Technology and mating practices are not the only things that have morphed over the decades; so has the attitude of the generations of women who have grown up without fear of coat hangers or back alleys. Smeal said that in her experiences on campuses -- the Feminist Majority is the major liaison between the movement and college kids -- she has observed more anger. "Young women are going to be tougher than any of us ever were. They have no hesitancy, no apology, no shame. They don't feel [abortion] is moral or immoral. They feel it's necessary, and they feel proud of it."

But Richards said they may also feel more hesitant. "Older women have always been more likely to talk about abortion because for them it was something heroic," she said. "Younger women, we don't have to talk about it. That doesn't mean we're ashamed, but it's the same way I don't talk about having warts removed." Richards, 34, recalled a conversation with some of her younger colleagues who argued that the term "reproductive rights" should be replaced by "reproductive health and justice." "The younger women were saying 'reproductive rights' is a dated term," said Richards. "And they were right. I was too entrenched in my own view."

Women who consider abortion normal -- such a given that it doesn't even count as a "right" but simply as "health and justice" -- may also have more psychological space -- not taken up by fears of injustice -- to consider their own emotional, spiritual or moral ambivalence about abortion.

But this lack of fear, the lack of historical perspective on the threats they may face in their lifetime, the assumption that the right to control their bodies will never be snatched from them, are precisely why people like Susan Hill are so worried.

Hill is the president of the National Women's Health Organization, which runs women's health clinics in six midsize cities, including the only abortion clinic in Mississippi. "I have been so frustrated by hearing all this," said Hill, a trained social worker who has provided abortion services since the week after Roe was passed in 1973. "I am so frustrated by the apologetic approach toward abortion rights. It's so frustrating to hear people discussing the fetus but not discussing the woman.

"When I first started in the '70s, the image we saw was of a dead woman on the floor after an illegal abortion, with blood all around her. We were fighting for whether or not there were going to be dead women on dirty bathroom floors. We're two generations past that now, and that picture -- well, you almost have to explain it to people who are in their 20s now, because, thank God, they've never had to see it."

She continued: "When I heard Hillary and John Kerry saying we need more money for education I thought, This is crap! These are not uneducated women!" Hill also dismissed as naive and classist the assumption that women born into a world where abortion is legal will never see their rights reversed. "This isn't going to end until the middle-class and upper-middle-class think it's going to affect them. Someone will always say, 'Rich women will always be able to get abortions.' But in cities where we're located, private doctors aren't doing private abortions. And this is when abortion is legal. I truly believe that if something changes with Roe, the wealthy and middle-class will not be able to get them either. It's going to affect everybody."

She pointed out that despite improved sex-education programs and abstinence movements, the abortion rate has remained steady at between 1.3 million and 1.5 million abortions each year. "When I hear it should be safe but rare, it makes me crazy," Hill said. "What's rare? What does that mean if it's been steady for 30 years that 1.3 million women needed abortions? I think it's a cop-out."

Hill also attacked the antiabortion movement's focus on late-term abortions, pointing out that when she began providing services, there were very few second-term abortions. That changed in 1977, when the Hyde Amendment restricted Medicaid-funded abortions to poor women, who were then forced to save money and schedule later terminations. "The same people create a need for later abortions, and then they attack it! I think our community has lost sight of who we are fighting for. We have got to redefine it and give it a face again."

In this regard, Hill agrees with even the speakers who are driving her nuts -- the movement needs energy, she said: "You have to make it personal to people."

Hill said that when she was in her 20s, an older doctor told her, "Before you start this, you have to sit down and search your soul. In the issue of abortion you have to identify with either the fetus or the woman, because at some point there's a choice and you cannot identify with both. You decide which one you're going to be the advocate for." Hill said firmly, "Thirty-two years later, my choice is always to help the woman."

There is, of course, no right answer, no correct choice. The notion that 32 years later society is still working from the same two-pronged woman or fetus blueprint might be problematic. That blueprint could be exactly what's creating this internal pressure to evaluate, grow and reach out before things get ugly again.

"We are two justices away from seeing Roe vs. Wade overturned," Sanger said. "So I think we need to have the discussion that I'm calling for, that Frances is calling for. Have it be now, have it be loud, get a new framework and perspective out to the American people so that they understand that when we demand that senators oppose a nominee who wants to overturn Roe that we have a reason behind it."

But if the discussion is loud, and if it does change a framework, Smeal will be right to take the press to task for painting this moment as riven by internecine discord. In fact, what all the ideological jousting might suggest is not a movement coming apart at the seams but a community benefiting from the engaged, fresh, multigenerational vigor of internal debate that could propel it into a new era. For the first time in decades, there seems to be a lot of life in the pro-choice movement.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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