Katha Pollitt: America is a "fiesta of licentiousness," but we're still conflicted about sex

The author of "Pro" on the far right, abortion-shaming, and America's crisis of conscience on women's rights

Published October 14, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Katha Pollitt       (kathapollitt.blogspot.com)
Katha Pollitt (kathapollitt.blogspot.com)

Katha Pollitt’s latest work of nonfiction is a refreshing and comprehensive look at abortion rights, in which she lays out systematic arguments for a woman’s right to choose. A columnist for The Nation and the author of several books, Pollitt’s "Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights" is a must-read for women and anyone who cares about them.  There are many preconceived notions about abortion that lead to one terrible conclusion: our society doesn’t value women nearly enough. “If we allow women’s lives to be derailed by a single sperm, if bearing and raising children is something she should be ready to do at any moment, we must not think women matter too much to begin with,” Pollitt writes. “What matters is that they had sex.”

Many women who have abortions are already mothers or go on to have children in the future. "It is precisely because having a baby determines so much about a woman’s life, and because women take maternal responsibilities so seriously, that they have abortions,” Pollitt argues. Deciding not to have a child can be about many things, including bad timing, financial hardship, sexual abuse/rape, and those who just know they aren’t cut out to be a mother. One would think that in 2014, all women in the United States would have easy access, but that’s somehow not the case.  "Pro" is a passionate plea--and a book that is needed now more than ever.

I interviewed Katha Pollitt recently over breakfast at a diner on the Upper West Side.

In the introduction, you mention that you’ve never had an abortion but your mother has. Is that one of the reasons you wrote this book?

I suppose the biggest reason was the rollback of abortion rights and abortion discourse that’s been going on now for quite some time where we’re seeing – most obviously, the closing of clinics and the heaping up of these idiotic restrictions. 72 hours in Missouri now that you have to wait. And along with that has gone a shrinking, it seems to me, of abortion discourse – the way we talk about abortion – that in several ways I think feeds into that mentality. For example, rape and incest, totally different. Life and hell, totally different. Well, in some ways they are, but it’s the idea that there are these good abortions and these bad abortions. And once you start talking like that, you basically pull the rug out from under your average abortion patient who is there for social and economic and personal reasons.

In the first chapter, you talk about how “abortion is part of being a mother and of caring for children, because part of caring for children is knowing when it’s not a good idea to bring them into the world.” What about those who argue that there are adults out there who would want to adopt them?

I don’t think it’s up to women to provide children for other people. If they want to do that as an altruistic thing or because, again, they’re anti-choice or for whatever reason, that’s fine. That’s great. But adoption is not a solution to abortion. And if you just think about it in terms of the numbers, if there are over a million abortions every year, are there going to be a million more adoptions every year? It just doesn’t work. But I think, also, it’s a way of increasing the shame of abortion. It’s really saying “You could have made this nice couple so happy, but you chose to kill your baby instead.”

Do you think we’ll ever reach a point where the majority of women do not judge each other’s choices, whether it’s to have an abortion or not to have kids or to have one kid or to have three kids? 

I mean, if you go back a hundred years, there was a lot more judgment of women by women around issues of sexuality. Getting divorced was shameful, for example. Not being a virgin when you were married was shameful. Having a child out of wedlock was shameful. So, little by little, it changed…But people are not very charitable towards each other in general. There are always people that want to feel “I’m doing everything right. That person is doing everything wrong.” And if they’ve done things wrong, they want to feel someone else did it worse so they don’t have to feel that they messed up.

You addressed this book to those who are in the middle of the abortion debate, “…those millions of Americans—more than half—who don’t want to ban abortion, exactly, but don’t want it to be widely available, either.” Why do you think so many people are in the middle on such a controversial and important topic?

Well, I think it’s because abortion is connected with sex. It’s connected with sex and women. I mean, it’s connected with sex and men, too. That’s the part, as I was saying, we don’t talk about.


And we’re very conflicted about sex in this country, a fiesta of licentiousness if you look at it one way, to a degree that would be very surprising fifty years ago. At the same time, we don’t really want to have a lot of judgment. It’s impossible to stay on the right side of all these judgments. I mean, just look at any issue of any magazine where it’s a celebrity, and it’s the rise and fall on a weekly basis of someone, usually a woman who has risen very high, but oh no, she did something bad. Now we can hate her.

So, I think that’s definitely part of it. But also I think people don’t really want to think about abortion for this reason. It feels like a failure. It feels like somebody messed up. You know, we don’t look at it from a public health point-of-view, which is why do we have all these unwanted pregnancies? …Why do we make it so hard for mothers or women who might be ambivalent about having another child because they’re poor or they’re struggling, why do we make that such a hard choice for them? Maybe they’d like to have that baby but they can’t. We don’t want to think about that. We want to think about it in terms of the individual moral failings of women.

I was shocked when I read in your book that only 62 percent of Americans and only 44 percent under the age of 30 know what Roe v. Wade is.

There it is, yes.

What’s wrong with our educational system? Is it the religious right partly to blame? 

I think definitely a piece of this is about the decline of civics education in our country, you know? It seems like that’s been relegated to the sidelines along with art, music, gym and many other important subjects. But, you know, this is something that people need to think about when they see a poll. Polls do not measure what you know, unless they ask that question, “What is Roe v. Wade?” They don’t ask you, “When you say you’re pro-life or when you say you’re pro-choice, what do you mean? What does that word mean to you?” They assume – the pro-taker assumes – oh, pro-life means I want abortions to be illegal whereas most pro-lifers, most people who say I’m pro-life, do not have that view. Many people who call themselves pro-life also call themselves pro-choice. Peoples’ views are more complicated.

I didn’t realize that only about one percent of Americans think abortion is the most important issue in our country while at the same time you said half the people in America say it’s murder. So, what’s with that disconnect?

Exactly. Exactly. And if you think, too, this goes to sort of when they say murder, what do they mean exactly? Is this some kind of murder-lite? Because I don’t know if you remember, but when a woman kills a child, this is an enormous news story. Susan Smith, remember her? Or Casey Anthony, when there is actually – well, we have to say Casey allegedly killed her child, because she was found not guilty. But we take the murder of children incredibly seriously in this country, including the murder of little babies just born. So why is it that if the anti-choice people really believe it’s murder, they don’t want to put women – or they say they don’t want to-- put any woman who has an abortion in prison like they do in many countries where the anti-choice point-of-view makes the law? Where the Catholic Church is very powerful like El Salvador, there are women in prison.

So, I think there is something in there that people want to make a very strong statement: “We really don’t like this. This is terrible. It shouldn’t happen. We should make it a crime to have abortions.” But when it comes to actually treating women who have had abortions as if they were murderers, we save that for cases of self-abortion. Those women go to prison or are going to prison. Or, that mother in Pennsylvania who bought an abortion drug on the Internet and gave it to her daughter who wanted it because the abortion clinic was too far away and there were too many restrictions and it was very expensive. Whereas you can get a pill on the Internet for $50. She is now in jail for a year. And they went after her very, very deliberately. You know, the hospital, when her daughter went for a check-up . . . well, when her daughter had some pain and her daughter was fine, the hospital turned her in... This was a first trimester abortion, by the way.

Many people think “We should make it harder. Not after 21 weeks. Not under this circumstance. Not under that. It should be legal.” But what they forget, first of all, is to do some of those things you have to get rid of Roe v. Wade. If people say “Yeah, most Americans think abortion should be legal in the first trimester but not after that,” well, Roe v. Wade says it has to be legal in the second trimester and it has to be legal in the third. So, once you get rid of Roe v. Wade, bar the door because there are states where the anti-choice point-of-view is very powerful. And once you get rid of Roe v. Wade, the laws that existed in those states before could come back into force. It’s all very murky. But anyway, it’s not really possible to make laws that are so precisely designed that they only get into trouble – the people you don’t like.

“Well, she had an abortion for a reason I approve of, so that’s fine. But this one over here? Throw the book at her.” You can’t make laws like that.

Do you think we as a nation value controlling motherhood above motherhood itself?

I would put it a little differently. There is a kind of individualism that is strong in this country that says you can do whatever you want but I don’t have to pay for it. That even applies to abortion a little bit. There are a lot of people who say “Okay, have your abortion, but not on my tax dollars.” And they would say “Have your baby, but not on my tax dollars.” And we’re seeing a hardening of that point-of-view now. I mean, we used to have welfare. We used to have the idea that if a woman had children, she and those children deserved help from society. Now, we have the idea that she’s done something terrible and we have to move her into the worst part of the workforce as fast as we can and her children go into not very high-quality care that there isn’t even enough of, and now we’re seeing these cases where a woman with a job interview leaves the kids in the car and she gets arrested or she sends them to the park while she does what needs to be done and she gets arrested, which is shocking.

We do not have this because I think it gets to racism and classism. We do not have the idea that all children are valuable parts of society. We only have the idea that our own children are.

It’s a narcissistic view.

It is a very narcissistic view. We simply have written off vast numbers of people. Then we promote this ideology that you can do it if you really try.

But that’s sort of like saying well, if one person becomes an astronaut, everyone can become an astronaut. No, they only need five astronauts.

Besides having people read your book, what steps can we take to reach people who are in the middle?

I think my book is not a book of stories; it’s more a book of ideas and arguments. But I think that it’s very powerful when people tell their own story. We saw how tremendously important that was in the gay rights movement, and it really transformed how people saw gays, lesbians, LGBT and all the rest. I think that although not every woman is in a position to do this, as it can be quite dangerous and explosive and it’s not something you can take back, I think when women can tell their ordinary abortion story, that will make a difference. I really do. I think there is a piece of all this that is about puritanism and cruelty and misogyny but there is also a piece that’s just about ignorance. And if we can work on that second piece, then we’ll be in a better position to work on the first piece.

By Michele Filgate

Michele Filgate's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Vulture, Capital New York, Time Out New York, The Star Tribune, O: The Oprah Magazine, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation and other publications

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