Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

By Katha Pollitt

(Picador, $25, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Katha Pollitt, who describes herself on her blog as  a “polemicist, poet, feminist,”  is a prize-winning author, whose awards include a National Book Critics Award for her first collection of poems, Antarctic Traveler, and two National Magazine Awards for Essays and Criticism. She is a poet, an essayist and a longtime columnist for The Nation magazine. You may also have read her work in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Ms. Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Glamour, Mother Jones, and the London Review of Books or heard or seen her on NPR’s Fresh Air and All Things Considered, Charlie Rose, The McLaughlin Group, CNN, Dateline NBC and the BBC. She is known as a feminist with a strong interest in the politics of sexuality.

What is this book about?

Pollitt makes the case that abortion, which has been legal but a polarizing issue in the U.S. for more than 40 years, can be a moral right and a social good. If that shocks you, it proves a central point she makes in Pro. She says even after 42 years, and despite studies that show that one in three American women will have terminated at least one pregnancy by menopause, abortion remains controversial, abhorred by the pro-life movement that has been successfully chipping away at its legality and too often  weakly defended by pro-choicers and feminists, who have absorbed the idea that the choice of terminating a pregnancy is always “agonizing” or “a bad thing,” even when there are moral and rational reasons for doing so. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of her book:

“We need to talk about the scarcity of resources for single mothers and even for two-parent families, and the extraordinary, contradictory demands we make upon young girls to be simultaneously sexually alluring and withholding: hot virgins. We need to talk about blood and mess and periods and pregnancy and childbirth and what women go through to bring new life into the world and whether deep in our hearts we believe that those bodies mean women were put on Earth to serve and sacrifice and suffer in a way that men are not. Because when we talk about abortion as a bad thing, and worry that there’s too much of it, sometimes we mean there’s too much unwanted pregnancy and that women and men need more and better sex education and birth control, and sometimes we mean there’s too much poverty, especially for children and their mothers, but a lot of the time we mean a woman should have a good cry, and then do the right thing and have the baby. She can always put it up for adoption, can’t she, like Juno in the movie? And that is close to saying that a woman can have no needs, desires, purpose, or calling so compelling and so important that she should not set it aside in an instant, because of a stray sperm.”

Why you’ll like it:

If you enjoy reading the words of a strong-minded woman who has done her research, synthesized its findings and is unafraid to speak out about a subject that so many avoid, you will find this book fascinating even if you disagree with Pollitt’s conclusions. And if you agree that abortion can be necessary and justified, you will find plenty to like about Pro. This is a powerful and provocative book, written by an author who pulls no punches.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Even though abortion “is found in virtually every society going back at least 4,000 years,” it continues to be a divisive, controversial issue in the United States. Pollitt, a columnist at the Nation, regards abortion as a fact of life and makes an impassioned, persuasive case for understanding it in its proper context—“the lives and bodies of women” and their families. With wit and logic, Pollitt debunks the many myths surrounding abortion, and analyzes what abortion opponents really oppose: namely, women’s growing sexual freedom and power. She similarly addresses the notion of the “personhood” of the zygote/embryo/fetus and shows how, in spite of its small numbers (“only 7 to 20% of Americans tell pollsters they want to ban abortion”), the anti-abortion movement succeeds by focusing the debate on “life.” As Pollitt explains, objections to abortion have only surfaced within the past 140 years, and she illuminates the “anti-feminist, anti-modern view of relations between the sexes” at the core of today’s opposition, showing how its connection to patriarchal religious institutions provides much of its political power and funding. Finally, Pollitt brings readers up to date on the positive changes she sees in the current pro-choice movement—the growth in the number of women sharing their abortion stories, and in the support for reproductive justice for targeted groups—and offers suggestions of her own. With arguments that are both lucid and sensible, Pollitt successfully reframes the abortion debate to show that, “in the end, abortion is an issue of fundamental human rights.”

The New York Times Book Review  says: “ …Pollitt argues that many abortion opponents are less concerned with the plight of any one embryo—and the fate of that embryo if carried to term—than they are with curtailing women’s sexual and economic freedom. This isn’t exactly a novel concept to students of feminist theory. But Pollitt’s exploration of the hypocrisy of abortion opponents…is so witheringly encyclopedic it will be an eye opener for those who have never darkened the door of a women’s studies classroom.

“Katha Pollitt’s brilliant new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, arrives like an urgent letter as rights are fast eroding….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,” says Kate Manning in Time.

Says Ms. Magazine: “[This] shouldn’t be a radical message, but in an era when some feminists feel the need to defend the birth control pill by highlighting its use for reasons other than contraception, the very idea that we should insist that abortion is a good thing because it’s good for women feels incredibly bold…. ‘No one is pro-abortion’ is a common refrain among liberals defending the right to choose. In the abstract, no, but if you need an abortion to live your life as you see fit, then pro-abortion is exactly what you are. Katha Pollitt has your back on this, and more pro-choicers should embrace her unapologetic approach.”

“A dramatic, persuasive argument for abortion…Bolstered by dramatic statistics (‘excluding miscarriages, 21 percent of pregnancies end in abortion’), personal interviews, and historical references reaching as far back as ancient Greece and Egypt, Pollitt impressively makes her case while admitting that abortion clinics have become increasingly inaccessible and certain ‘pronatalist pundits’ are holding women’s intimately private pregnancy decisions up for public scrutiny…Pollitt’s cogent opinion presents potent testimony on a woman’s right to choose,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

Pro can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain branch.

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