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NY Times Op-Ed: Abortion-Rights Movement Must Break From 'Defensive Mode,' Combat Abortion Stigma

NY Times Op-Ed: Abortion-Rights Movement Must Break From 'Defensive Mode,' Combat Abortion Stigma

August 5, 2015 — Katha Pollitt -- a columnist at The Nation and author of "Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights" -- discusses how the abortion-rights "movement so often find[s] itself in a defensive crouch" and urges advocates to break free from that "narrow path" in a New York Times opinion piece.

Pollitt suggests "two reasons [why] abortion rights activists have been boxed in." First, she notes that advocates have "been reactive rather than proactive," adding, "To deflect immediate attacks, we fall in with messaging that unconsciously encodes the vision of the other side." For example, Pollitt notes that abortion-rights supporters might bring up instances of "rape, incest, fatal fetal" anomalies, and "life-risking pregnancies" when opponents claim that "[w]omen have abortions because they have irresponsible sex."

While such responses to antiabortion-rights claims "aren't false," Pollitt notes that they exclude women "who had sex willingly, made a decision to end the pregnancy and faced no special threatening medical conditions." Abortion-rights supporters instead "need to say that women have sex, have abortions, are at peace with the decision and move on with their lives," Pollitt continues, adding, "We need to say that is their right, and, moreover, it's good for everyone that they have this right: The whole society benefits when motherhood is voluntary." She writes, "When we gloss over these truths we unintentionally promote the very stigma we're trying to combat."

According to Pollitt, the second reason abortion-rights supporters are "stuck in a defensive mode is that too many pro-choice people are way too quiet." She cites data that found that nearly one-third of women will have at least one abortion in their lifetime, adding that she suspects many women had "someone who helped them," such as a spouse, friend or parent, and questions, "Why don't we hear more from them?" She writes, "It's not that [women] think they did something wrong," as research has found that 95% of women "felt the abortion was the right decision, both immediately after the procedure and three years later." Rather, it is because "[t]hey've been shamed into silence by stigma," Pollitt writes.

Meanwhile, "opponents are delighted to fill that silence with testimony from their own ranks," Pollitt continues, adding, "Make no mistake: Those voices are heard in high places." For example, she writes that Justice Anthony Kennedy "specifically mentioned the 'unexceptionable' likelihood that a woman might come to regret her choice" in a 2007 ruling banning a certain type of abortion procedure. "That women need to be protected from decisions they might feel bad about later -- not that there was any evidence supporting this notion -- is now a legal precedent," she writes.

Pollitt urges "women who have ended pregnancies" to speak out in support of abortion rights, noting, "Without the voices and support of millions of ordinary women behind them, providers and advocates can be too easily dismissed as ideologues out of touch with the American people." Similarly, she calls for support from "men grateful not to be forced into fatherhood," physicians "who object to the way anti-abortion lawmakers are interfering with the practice of medicine" and from the scientific community conducting fetal tissue research.

According to Pollitt, the misleading videos targeting Planned Parenthood "and the congressional scrutiny Planned Parenthood now faces" are not merely about the organization itself, but "about whether Americans will let anti-abortion extremists control the discourse and dictate the agenda around reproductive rights, medicine and scientific research" (Pollitt, New York Times, 8/5).