An Interview with Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt is an American feminist, poet, essayist, and critic. Best known for her bimonthly column, The Nation’s “Subject to Debate,” she is the author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. She sat down with me for a Skype interview on February 22. Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.


Sarah Sadlier: When did you become “pro”? Was the revelation that your mother had had an abortion a turning point?

Katha Pollitt: I don’t think there was a turning point. I was never against abortion rights. I was mostly unaware of this issue when I was in college, and Roe was decided in 1973 when I was 23 or 24. When I began to think about it more, it seemed obvious to me that women should be able to control their fertility. I found out about my mother’s abortion after her death in 1979. It was upsetting for me to think of my mother going through all of that without support, having an illegal abortion … it is a very sad thing to think about.

SS: Why do you ask your audience to “reclaim” rather than “claim” their rights as women and mothers? Why is it important to frame the issue as one of reclaiming rather than claiming?

KP: I said reclaiming because I’m alluding to the fact that we are losing the right to end a pregnancy. I want us to reclaim  arguments that were much more common in the past, that abortion is about women’s human rights — all we talk about now is fetus, fetus, fetus. One way to combat this is to reclaim the discourse and the rights themselves, many of which have been taken from us in recent years.

SS: With state laws eroding the reproductive rights upheld by the Supreme Court, what do you see as the immediate and long-term futures of the abortion rights movement?

KP: Well, I think that there are a number of things that would improve the situation. Getting rid of the Hyde Amendment, which bars the federal government from paying for abortions for women on Medicaid. Improving access is crucial: If you can’t get to a clinic, if you can’t pay for the procedure, if legal restrictions make getting an abortion impossibly difficult, then what does it mean to have the right to an abortion?

There are also legal questions, and we are seeing the legal right to abortion being hemmed in in all kinds of ways. For example: parental notification and consent. We’ve lived with this for so long that it has come to seem bizarre to say that a 16-year-old girl should decide for herself whether or not to continue a pregnancy. Essentially, we have said that parents should be able to force their daughter to have a baby. When we object to parental notification and consent, we talk about girls being unable to tell their parents, out of shame or fear of violence. But while that can all be true, the deeper problem is that the law basically says that parents should decide whether or not their pregnant daughter has a baby. Why should they have that power over her?

SS: One in three women will have terminated at least one pregnancy by the time they reach menopause. There are more than a million procedures a year, and half of all pregnancies are accidental. How well do you think these numbers are known, and how will statistics like these influence debate over abortion rights?  Do you think that if more people knew them they would be more inclined to help “take back the right”?

KP: I definitely think that people have many illusions about abortions. There are a lot of things they believe that aren’t true. The typical mental picture people have of women who get abortions is one of a teenage girl who runs around or a twenty-something who doesn’t want to be tied down. Then, there is the ever-popular image of the selfish career woman who hates children. However, 60 percent of women who have abortions are already mothers. Their decision has nothing to do with not loving children. Forty percent of women who have abortions are poor. These are struggling women who really can’t take on the burden of another child. I think that if people knew that they might feel a little more compassionate, especially if they could imagine these women’s circumstances with some detail.

Is a girl really supposed to give up her one chance at a decent education? In what imaginary world is it good when women are having children while they are not well-equipped to be good mothers and they are developing their own selves and lives? If a struggling woman wants to have a baby, that is fine, but we shouldn’t force a woman who doesn’t want a baby to have one. What kind of a society do we want to have?

SS: In PRO, you claim that there is a need for abortion to be widely accepted as a “positive social good” because it is “an essential option for women—not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul-destroying situations, but all women—and thus benefits society as a whole.”  Often, the word “abortion” is met with hostility. In your ideal world, when people think of the word “abortion,” what do you want it to invoke?

KP: I see abortion on a continuum with motherhood. To me, this is women doing what is best—not just for themselves, but for their other children and often for the men. We should see abortion in a more practical, less moralistic light. It is part of healthcare. Pregnancy and childbirth are not without significant risks. It is only right that women should undertake those risks voluntarily.

It is very interesting that in so many other industrialized Western countries, abortion is not the flashpoint of high emotion that it is in the United States. I think it is the way it is in this country because of our weird combination of puritanism and religiosity. We are obsessed with sex in a very mean way. We are obsessed with keeping information from young people; other countries don’t expect people to be virgins when they get married. The obsession with abortion fits in with that, with hostility to the idea that sex can be separated from procreation. The idea of “evil women” who get abortions can flourish here because abortion is so stigmatized that there is no reality that contradicts it. That is why I think it is great when women who have had abortions speak out about it. They might really change people’s minds.

SS: Do you think that Pro has been well received by the “muddled middle” — that is, those who are ambivalent about the widespread availability of abortion, but also about banning it entirely? What message do you want to send to this group? If there is one thing that you hope to convey about being “pro” in your upcoming talk at Stanford, what would that be?

KP: My book has been surprisingly well-received. I think that  as with  most books, most people who read Pro already agree with what is in it. What is interesting is that the book is part of an attempt to change the discourse of pro-choicers. It goes along with other activism that tries to reduce the stigma around abortion…. I think that people have to see abortion as part of the very complex picture of reproductive life rather than an act that makes someone a “bad “woman.

Sarah Sadlier, a junior studying history, American studies, Iberian and Latin American cultures, and political science, is the interviews editor of Stanford Political Journal.