Katha Pollitt talks to Jill Filipovic about her new book on why abortion matters.
You’ve been a pro-choice writer for decades. Why this book now?
It was surprising to me that this book wasn’t already out there.
There are some books of reporting about abortion, where people go and interview a lot of people or they write about the political struggle, but there isn’t a book that actually lays out the more philosophical arguments around abortion rights. I have a friend who is a brilliant, very important social theorist who said to me at a dinner party, “I’m only telling you this because we’re friends, but I oppose abortion except for rape. The only reason I think it’s OK is because women would die if it were illegal. But for myself, the only reason I think women should have them is because of rape.” I said, “So someone should have a baby because they have sex?” And he said, “They made their bed, they should lie in it.” This man proved to me that you can be really smart, you can think you’re thinking, but you’re not — you’re repeating a lot of reactionary platitudes that have been handed down to you. I thought, what about a book where I try to talk about that, to the people in the mushy middle?
Books where we try to talk to people who haven’t really thought about [whatever it is] yet are an important and useful category of book.
At the end, the filter question comes up.
Can you be a pro-life feminist?
You can be a pro-life feminist for yourself. You can say, “I would never have an abortion,” and then when you got pregnant, you never would have an abortion — because a lot of people who say, “I would never have an abortion” actually have abortions. But I don’t think you can restrict freedom for women in such a fundamental way and be a feminist.
That’s what I think too. And I have thought about it.
Why would you say “I would never have an abortion,” and then never have an abortion, if you didn’t think there was something fundamentally wrong about having an abortion? Something that surely isn’t limited to yourself?
The notion of being a “pro-life feminist for yourself,” or being a pro-life anything for yourself, is nonsensical to me. Pro-life and pro-choice are political standpoints, not preferences. It’s trivially meaningful to say that people who have dogs are pro-dog and people who would never have a dog are anti-dog (or pro-not-dog), but nobody declares themselves these things because being “pro” or “anti” something is usually a decision you make about that thing, not about yourself.
Jeff Engel says
You can think both that something is wrong _and_ that it is no business of governments and society’s entire enforcement apparatus to get involved in it. If you aren’t into totalitarian states, or just don’t think all that much is a subject of ethics, you’re practically committed to that position.
I know a number of people who think eating meat is wrong, even immoral, and something they just wouldn’t do themselves, but none of the ones I know want to make it illegal for me to eat meat.
There’s actually a number of these things where a person thinks the activity is wrong and even immoral but doesn’t wish to make it illegal for others.
Indeed. The difference is between “wrong for me” and “wrong for everybody”. I would be horrified if any of my friends didn’t support the right of people to choose to be Catholic, but I would be almost equally horrified if they actually turned Catholic. Well, perhaps that isn’t the best example. But I think the same principle holds.
Marcus Ranum says
People act differently when the hypothetical becomes real. I know someone who used to say “If I am ever diagnosed with cancer, I’ll shoot myself.” 6 years later, still dealing with a Stage IV cancer, that obviously didn’t happen.
I don’t think that anyone who says “I don’t believe I’d ever have an abortion” has really thought about the problem – because, if they did, they’d realize that they are not qualified to have that opinion, at that time.
I wonder how many anti=abortion proponents would abandon ship if every piece of proposed legislation to limit or deny abortions, or clinics, also required mandatory DNA registration for all males over the age of 12 in order to determine paternity of all children and requiring mandatory minimum sentencing for failure to pay child support. I suspect that not a single piece of legislation would make it to a vote, much less get passed.
Tom Foss says
I’m a teetotaler, and the closest I’ve ever come to any illegal drug is being in the room when a couple of people were lighting up joints. I don’t have any desire to use drugs or drink alcohol for a variety of personal reasons. That said, I fully support decriminalization and think people ought to be able to do whatever they want to their bodies, so long as they’re able to give informed consent and aren’t harming others.
To put it another way, I have friends who never want to have kids, and think having kids would be terrible for them (and the hypothetical children). So far as I know, none of them think that having kids should be made illegal.
“The notion of being a “pro-life feminist for yourself,” or being a pro-life anything for yourself, is nonsensical to me. Pro-life and pro-choice are political standpoints, not preferences.”
Gretchen, they’re political when applied to other people. The reason “pro-life” can only apply to the individual who holds the belief is precisely because it is a belief. Imposing it on others is like imposing a religion on others. There’s nothing wrong with having your own beliefs about something and arranging your own life accordingly. It’s criminal to impose your beliefs on somebody else.
And being anti-choice is very much a belief, in case I need to make that point. It’s a matter of shared social/religious belief that defines who is human and who must therefore not be killed. There is no cell surface marker that lights up when you achieve personhood.
“They made their bed, they should lie in it.”
So the baby that is eventually born is not a person in his or her own right, but a punishment for having sex.
A lot of people seem to think like that.
Thing is, “pro-life” as a label is opposed to “pro-choice”. If you think abortion is wrong but it’s up to the individual whether or not to have one, that makes you pro-choice, yes? It’s less like saying “I’m a teetotaler, but that doesn’t mean I think alcohol should be illegal” and more like saying “I’m a prohibitionist, but only for myself”. It’s weird and messy and a matter of historical and political contingency rather than logical necessity, but there you are.
I suppose you could say that’s an unfair characterization of “pro-life” as equal to “anti-choice”, but honestly I don’t think that is unfair. It’s not a label that makes sense except read that way. There’s no “pro-life” position you can stake out in opposition to anyone “anti-life”, after all. The other side from “no abortions allowed!” is not “mandatory abortions for everyone!”.
Abortions for some, miniature american flags for other?
‘I don’t think you can restrict freedom for women in such a fundamental way and be a feminist.’
Succinct, and really a complete argument in one sentence.
Sure, sex-selection abortion is not an acceptable practice, sure abortion is too invasive and after-the-fact to be an acceptable population control strategy. But in the west, in real life, abortion is a vital right. For far too many women, ‘choice’ has not been involved until far too late. Rape, statutory rape, incest, obligatory breeding for religious reasons… Can we even guess how many pregnancies would never have begun if women were really exercising ‘choice?’
Yes, exactly. When people decide that something is “wrong for me,” what they generally mean is that it’s a preference they’ve chosen against, as I mentioned, or possibly that it’s physically unwise (if I had an abortion it would hurt my body too much for me to justify it to myself) or inappropriate, or imprudent. Things like that. They’re not saying that it’s immoral for me to get an abortion. *
So as you say, being personally pro-life is like being personally prohibitionist. And a person who thinks that abortion is immoral but doesn’t want to ban it is, in fact, pro-choice. Just as I’m for freedom of religion even though I think religion is a bad idea and often actually immoral. I’m not anti-freedom-of-religion for myself.
*Ethical vegetarians are in fact people who have decided that eating meat is immoral for everyone, but generally speaking are unwilling to actually enforce that moral belief. If they were willing to enforce that moral belief, “anti-meat” would, I think, be a better name for them.
This discussion points out the fundamental absurdity of taking propaganda terms seriously. Some people believe the state should prevent women from ever obtaining abortions and/or punish those who do. Some people believe that a fetus has some sort of moral right to have its existence sustained by a woman’s body. Those are fundamentally different positions that are conflated, often with still other positions, into the label ‘pro-life.’
Well, obviously. I mean I thought it was obvious. It is unethical, immoral, and should be illegal to force beliefs on others. If basic human rights are recognized, being pro-choice is not optional. You can be pro-life for yourself. Hence, you can be pro-life (for yourself) and a feminist (pro-choice politically).
John Horstman says
It’s false to conflate “something I do not wish to do” with “something that is inherently Wrong” with “something that should be illegal”. The first is a personal preference, the second a moral/ethical judgement, the third a public policy position. I’ve noticed that one common thread for Right-wing authoritarians (and not them exclusively, but overwhelmingly) is the insistence that their personal preferences are moral absolutes that should also be legislated – they frequently conflate the three as a single concept.
[Note: I’m using cis-normative binary language for convenience, but as always it should be understood that not all women are capable of pregnancy and some men are capable of pregnancy.] As for feminists opposed to abortion, it really matters a lot WHY they are opposed and under what conditions they are opposed. We can’t really pass a sweeping judgement on whether a “Pro-Life” stance is compatible with any coherent definition of “feminism” becasue a whole lot of different philosophical and practical outlooks are swept up under the banner “Pro-Life” (and also “feminism”; when a broad definition is required, I tend to prefer the broad definition of “anti-patriarchy” as it centers the systemic issues – while not erasing the ways those systemic problems play out for individuals – and seems to me to be the shared aspect of all of the various feminist movements). I assert that it is impossible to insist that another woman should not be allowed to get an abortion and legitimately consider oneself a feminist, becasue that implicitly denies that woman bodily agency (and thus demands systemic control of women’s bodies particularly, through norms or laws, which counts as patriarchy as I understand the concept). It is at the very least problematic from a feminist standpoint to assert that a woman deciding she doesn’t want another organism growing inside her body is Wrong for the same reasons, though I’m less ready to categorically insist such people are not ‘legitimate’ feminists (were it even my place to determine who gets to count as a feminist or not).