Roe v. Wade at 40; The Message and the Meaning: Is 'Pro-choice' Passe?
1. This Is 'Roe' at 40
The Editors of The Nation
January 16, 2013 - This article appeared in the February 4,
2013 edition of The Nation.
"...after taking some hits, the movement for abortion
rights is pushing back - and has some new tricks up
Just two years ago, as Roe v. Wade headed into its late
thirties, it seemed to be losing its luster. States were
hacking away at abortion rights, passing ninety-two new
restrictions in 2011 alone - nearly triple the number of any
other year on record. Americans appeared ready to tolerate all
manner of barriers to abortion access, from parental
notification laws and restrictions on late-term procedures to
laws crippling the ability of clinics to provide care by
subjecting them to absurd requirements (such as having five-
foot-wide hallways, as one Virginia law demanded). These new
burdens added to the weight of a decades-long and alarmingly
successful campaign by the right to stigmatize women seeking
abortions and to persecute abortion providers. As a result, 87
percent of US counties lack an abortion provider, and several
states have only a clinic or two staffed by a doctor who flies
in from another state. "It's never been this frightening
before," one longtime clinic worker recently told The
What is taking shape looks increasingly like a patchwork
system where the right to abortion applies only to women lucky
enough to live in a state where the courts and legislature
have not whittled it away. How, four decades after women
celebrated the Supreme Court's historic embrace of their
privacy rights in Roe, has it come to this?
The short answer is that the piecemeal strategy of the anti-
choice movement has paid off, and the Republicans' ascendance
at the state level has been a disaster for choice. Fetal
personhood and other extreme measures may have been rejected
at the polls in Mississippi and North Dakota, but voters in
twenty-six states have elected conservative legislatures that
seem to delight in dreaming up ever more devious ways to
undermine women's reproductive health. And right-wing courts
can be counted on to approve: on January 11, for example, the
Alabama Supreme Court interpreted the term "child" in the
state's Chemical Endangerment Act to apply to fertilized eggs
and embryos, thereby allowing the prosecution of pregnant
women for endangering their fetuses.
As Roe entered its fortieth year, however, signs emerged that
this fight is still very much on. Protests against anti-choice
measures broke out from Virginia to Michigan to Oklahoma to
Idaho. In the 2012 elections, pro-choicers received a much-
needed boost in Congress, adding twenty to their ranks in the
House and two in the Senate, which now boasts nine women
senators backed by the pro-choice powerhouse EMILY's List.
What had begun for Republicans as a punitive and frivolous
congressional "investigation" of Planned Parenthood culminated
in an electorally calamitous war on women that has tarnished
the GOP's name for a new generation of women voters. Americans
may be wary of the "pro-choice" label, as Planned Parenthood
has concluded (see Katha Pollitt, in this issue), but they
still believe in the principle of Roe: that abortion is a
decision best left to a pregnant woman and her doctor.
The movement to protect this basic right is sharpening its
message as well as its strategy. In Washington, it just won
new protections for military women, and the pressure is on
President Obama to fill vacancies on the bench with judges who
will protect women's rights. In New York, a major push is
being mounted to pass the ten-point Women's Equality Act, a
landmark bill that includes anti-discrimination and equal pay
provisions as well as strong reproductive rights protections.
It's hard to imagine a more fitting birthday present for Roe.
2. The Message and the Meaning: Is 'Pro-choice' Passe?
by Katha Pollitt
January 16, 2013 - This article appeared in the February 4,
2013 edition of The Nation.
Forty years after Roe v. Wade, do you have a problem calling
yourself pro-choice? Apparently a lot of people do. In 2009,
abortion opponents broke out the champagne and the media went
wild when for the first time since polling began on this
issue, more people told Gallup they were pro-life than said
they were pro-choice. Despite annual fluctuations since, 50
percent of those polled last year described themselves as pro-
life, and 41 percent as pro-choice - a record low. Less noted
were Quinnipiac findings that nearly two-thirds of registered
voters agree with the Roe v. Wade decision, a number that has
actually increased a bit in recent years. Surprisingly, other
research has found that support for Roe includes 35 percent of
those who call themselves pro-life.
Planned Parenthood is betting there are a lot of people out
there who support abortion rights but are turned off by the
word "pro-choice." "The labels have become irrelevant," PP
president Cecile Richards said in a press briefing. People
don't want to see Roe overturned, but they feel "abortion is a
complex, deeply personal issue." Executive vice president Dawn
Laguens suggested that when Roe was decided, women had far
fewer choices, but today we are so bombarded with choices the
word sounds "frivolous" - "like choosing your cellphone
PP is not completely abandoning "pro-choice" - the word has a
history, and Richards acknowledged with a smile that the new
message won't exactly fit on a bumper sticker. But expect to
hear more often that "we're not in her shoes" when it comes to
a woman's "personal decision." Indeed, a PP Tumblr, Not In Her
Shoes, invites women to "Submit a picture of your own shoes -
tell us why no one can walk in them but you, and why no one
knows your personal situation."
In PP focus groups, people in the "middle ground" called for a
more nuanced conversation. Typical quotes: "It's not just
black or white, there's gray." "We define it so many times by
the extreme of the viewpoints rather than the moderation."
"Labels don't matter." In a follow-up e-mail, Laguens told me,
"It was clear from the research that, for most of them, their
struggle was with what their own decision would be and under
I often find public relations a bit bewildering, so maybe it's
my problem that I worry when people say the term "pro-choice"
is "oversimplifying" and "extreme" and call for "moderation"
and an acknowledgment of "gray areas." To me, "pro-choice"
means you believe that whether or not a woman keeps a
pregnancy is up to her - the position most Americans say they
support when asked about Roe. That is the "moderate" position.
The exact opposite of the pro-life position would be to
override the woman's will and let others - parents, doctors,
social services, the government - decide she must have an
abortion, as is happening in China. An "extreme" pro-choice
position would be the one pro-lifers falsely claim Roe
protects: it would permit abortion on demand up until the day
before birth. No pro-choice organization calls for that.
According to one poll PP handed out, 40 percent say their
personal view of abortion "depends on the situation." Polls
show a large majority support a woman's right to abortion in
cases of rape or risk to her life or health, and about half
would permit it when the fetus is mentally or physically
impaired. But a majority oppose abortion when the woman is
poor, young, wants to finish school or keep a job, has all the
kids she can handle, doesn't feel ready to be a mother - in
other words, they disapprove of about 90 percent of the
abortions women actually have. Does that mean people who say
abortion is a "gray area" would support more restrictions if
they were tailored to those preferences? Or do they just want
to feel they have the right to judge? In any case, I don't
know how we get from "it depends" to reclaiming the ground
we've lost, including overturning such restrictions as
parental notification and consent ("it depends" on parental
approval), waiting periods ("it depends" on proof that a woman
has thought hard), stricter time limits ("it depends" on the
woman overcoming obstacles more expeditiously than many of
them can) and bans on federal funding ("it depends" on
taxpayers not being involved in this morally suspect
I'm old-school about labels. I don't see what was gained by
dropping "liberal" - aka "the L-word" - for "progressive."
It just looked cowardly and evasive. I like "feminist" too.
People who say they identify with the goals but reject the
designation (I'm not a feminist, but...) may think they are
making fine ideological distinctions, but basically they are
fleeing stigma: "feminist" means you're a hairy man-hater, so
call yourself a womanist, a humanist, a slutwalker, a
supporter of gender justice. The trouble is, the stigma is not
about the word, but about the concept behind it, and
eventually the negative connotations migrate to the new term.
That girl may call herself a humanist, but the way she goes on
about rape, you can tell she's just a hairy man-hater!
As a message, "personal decision" is fine. It may even be
better than "choice." "Personal" reminds us both that abortion
comes down to a woman's own body and that we never know
another's whole circumstances; "decision" sounds thoughtful
and serious. But neither one is stigma-proof: after all,
"personal" has its own trivial connotations ("personal
hygiene" "personal pizza"), and decisions can be willful and
hasty as well as deliberate. If the problem is that lots of
people support Roe in the abstract but think it's too easy to
get an abortion and too many women who have them are heedless
sluts, it won't be long before "personal decision" sounds as
lightweight as "choice," and "you're not in her shoes" summons
up visions of Carrie Bradshaw's Manolos.
Meanwhile, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo got a standing
ovation when he thundered, "It's her body! It's her choice!"
while introducing a ten-point women's rights agenda in his
State of the State address. There's life in the old word yet.
[Katha Pollitt's "Subject to Debate" column, which debuted in
1995 and which the Washington Post called "the best place to
go for original thinking on the left," appears every other
week in The Nation; it is frequently reprinted in newspapers
across the country. In 2003, "Subject to Debate" won the
National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary. She is
also a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation
Pollitt has been contributing to The Nation since 1980. Her
1992 essay on the culture wars, "Why We Read: Canon to the
Right of Me..." won the National Magazine Award for essays and
criticism, and she won a Whiting Foundation Writing Award the
same year. In 1993 her essay "Why Do We Romanticize the
Fetus?" won the Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood
Federation of America.
Pollitt has also written essays and book reviews for The New
Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Harper's, Ms.,
Glamour, Mother Jones, the New York Times, and the London
Review of Books. She has appeared on NPR's Fresh Air and All
Things Considered, Charlie Rose, The McLaughlin Group, CNN,
Dateline NBC and the BBC. Her work has been republished in
many anthologies and is taught in many university classes.
For her poetry, Pollitt has received a National Endowment for
the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship.]
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