This past weekend I attended the well-known Texas Book Festival in Austin, where I saw feminist writer Katha Pollitt speak about her recently published book “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.” This particular work, which has received considerable praise in the pro-choice community, aims to explain how and why abortion is not only a moral right, but also “a positive social good,” thus worthy of reverent respect.
Pollitt opened her speech by telling the audience why she is so preoccupied with abortion rights and its societal de-stigmatization. [Click here to view her whole talk.] She immediately informed the audience that long ago her mother had an illegal abortion. Her mother never did tell her about it, though. She never even told her husband. Not for as long as she lived. Granted, she did die young, at age 54, from years of alcohol abuse. Pollitt only found out about the clandestine abortion after her mother’s death, when her father uncovered FBI files that revealed the painful life-long secret she had kept from them both.
The news changed Pollitt: She was saddened and resentful that her mother had to live buried in shame because of her abortion. She was saddened and resentful that her mother had to resort to illegal means to end a pregnancy that she did not want. This resentment, and the personal pain that fueled it, manifested itself throughout Pollitt’s talk and in the excerpt she read from the abortion manifesto she was there to promote.
As such, it became increasingly clear that her ardent insistence on abortion’s virtues did not stem from a perverse belief that ending human life in utero is inherently ethical. Rather, it stemmed single-mindedly from her desperate desire to redeem the lifelong suffering of her beloved mother.
Indeed, in the feminist ‘utopia’ that Pollitt promotes in her book, women who abort no longer experience the shame, guilt, and secrecy that tormented her mother. What’s more, their abortions are not only accepted, but also deeply respected. Having an abortion is no longer the sort of thing one keeps secret as her mother did, but rather the sort of thing a woman parades publicly as a banner of her social responsibility and moral prowess.
Yes, in this alternate universe that Pollitt so passionately advocates, all the pain and shame and grief that swallowed up her mother and eventually ended her life, are utterly reversed. In the worldview Pollitt envisions, her mother would have thrived. She would not have felt the need to drink so much. She would not be dead.
But in envisioning a society where abortion is lauded and her mother still alive, Pollitt does no justice to her mother’s lifelong suffering. She does not redeem her shame or her pain. She is incapable of it, for the simple reason that her view of abortion wholly dismisses that element which causes the most pain for every woman who aborts. That is, the scientific reality that abortion ends human life. Every single time.
As long as abortion ends human life, women who abort will hurt because of it. They will hurt because they sense instinctively that ending human life is not a ‘positive’ experience, and it is surely not virtuous.
Pollitt is powerless to change the facts, and thus powerless to root out the pain that is innately a part of ending a pregnancy. If only she could admit to herself, and to the world, that her mother did not suffer because she transgressed societal norms, but because she deeply regretted her decision to end another human’s life.