Abortion isn't about the right to privacy. It's about women's right to equality
There are certain polite terms that even the most well intentioned, prudent pro-choice people use when they talk about abortion. The most difficult decision. Tragic. Safe, legal and rare. But as state after state makes abortion effectively illegal in the United States – and as the anti-choice movement prepares for a US supreme court fight to end the right entirely – it’s time for the pro-choice movement to lose the protective talking points and stop dancing around the bigger truth: Abortion is goodfor women.
In Katha Pollitt’s new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, she argues that, as much as abortion is a private medical decision, it’s also a necessary public good. “We should accept that it’s good for everyone if women only have the children they want and can raise well,” she writes. The Nation columnist and long-time abortion rights supporter continues:
Society benefits when women can commit to education and work and dreams without having at the back of their mind that maybe it’s all provisional, because at any moment an accidental pregnancy could derail them for life.
Pollitt notes, for example, that between 1970 and 1990, “the Pill accounted for nearly three quarters of the increase in the number of women who became doctors and lawyers.” The right to abortion contributed significantly to the same phenomenon: it allowed women an unprecedented amount of control over their futures (which perhaps is part of the problem for abortion opponents).
The ability to control if and when we parent determines how we participate in society. Yes, women can be mothers while being lawyers or senators or students. But those of us who became parents after the widespread availability of birth control and the ruling in Roe v Wade were largely able to decide when to have children.
Thus, as Pollitt and others have argued, the right to an abortion is fundamental to women’s equality, not just our privacy. Pollitt even notes that feminist legal experts – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg among them – believe the supreme court should have made abortion legal on those grounds. After all, reproductive rights don’t end at our bodies.
The hard part about arguing that abortion is necessary for women’s equality, of course, is that there are still too many people who don’t see women’s pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right. For anti-choicers, anything other than seeking an abortion to save your life (and sometimes not even then) is a matter of “convenience”. But Pollit’s arguments force those who oppose reproductive rights to show their true colors – and effectively parries the “abortion hurts women” nonsense.
But going on pro-choice offense also forces those who identify as pro-choice to stop equivocating about the morality of abortion and take a more hardline approach to our rights. Abortion isn’t just necessary because people will get them anyway, or because our privacy is important – but because women’s desire to seek the life they want in the way that men can is our right and its purpose, not a side effect.
Disclosure: The author is a contributing editor at The Nation, where Katha Pollitt is a columnist.