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Krista Jacob's Abortion Under Attack: Women on the Challenges Facing Choice [11 April, 2007]

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Edited by Krista Jacob; Seal Press; 250 pages.

Presidential candidates may be scrutinized for their stances on both gay marriage and abortion, but their ideas on the latter are more likely to determine their political futures. Abortion Under Attack: Women on the Challenges Facing Choice, an anthology with a pro-choice perspective, is the latest contribution to this intensely polarizing topic.

As the writers demonstrate, language is the key to how abortion is framed and to how the Right nearly destroyed our ability to discuss it in reasonable terms.  Around 1995, the pro-life forces renamed the rarely used dilation and extraction (D&X) process “partial-birth abortion,” implying that a viable life was being wrongfully terminated.  Since then, over thirty states have passed laws that go so far as to deem D&X a second-degree felony.

The power of such rhetorical moves, which result in the political disempowerment of women, is not the only obstacle faced by those who seek abortion.  Patricia Justine Tumang is a young, queer Filipina-American who had to research abortion options on her own, finally choosing RU-486.  The process caused her intense pain and bleeding until “one night, clumps of bloody tissue and embryonic remains fell into the toilet.”  The post-abortion experience was nearly as painful.  When she asked for a queer-sensitive therapist of color, her white female doctor aggressively quizzed her for her reasons.

Jenny Higgins points out that poor women are coerced into Norplant implants and tubal ligations by doctors, “sometimes even while the woman [is] in the throes of labor pain,” because they are convinced that their patients are incapable of using condoms or oral contraceptives.

Abortion under Attack does a commendable job in presenting these perspectives.  But it replicates the middle-class-centered ideology critiqued by Higgins and Tumang.  The right to an abortion is a moot point for poor women without access to safe contraceptives, and for young women without the legal or economic means to terminate their pregnancies.

Much of Abortion under Attack is interesting, but too many of the writers engage in the apologist discourse of abortion as a tragic choice, rather than acknowledging that it is frequently a necessity—especially when the woman cannot afford to raise children.  Such rhetoric also fails to acknowledge that many women are glad to be able to continue their lives unhampered by children.

Frances Kissling, in a now-famous essay “Is there Life after Roe?,” reprinted in the book, will have none of that.  President of Catholics for a Free Choice, she sanctimoniously criticizes the pro-abortion side’s refusal to discuss abortion in simple moral terms, rather than political or legal terms.  She’s critical of pro-choicers who argued against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which endowed a legal status on a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus.  Pro-choicers rightly saw this as one more attempt to end abortion rights; Kissling insists that their responses “made us seem heartless.”  With friends like these, who needs the pro-lifers?

Inevitably, writers reveal their unconscious biases.  Jacqueline Lalley suggests a reframing of the partial-birth abortion debate by informing people that, “A great number of women who need this procedure are married and already have children.”  So, are the unmarried sluts among us who have abortions less deserving of protection from anti-abortion zealots?

These fracture points are symptomatic of the contemporary abortion rights movement, perennially caught between fighting for a right and the perceived need to gain cultural acceptance.  Abortion is framed by both sides as a gendered and heterosexual issue.  Yet, we enable gay men to adopt the children of poor women who can’t afford to keep their children or seek abortions.  Paradoxically, we enhance the reproductive capabilities of privileged women, straight and queer, with fertility drugs.  Abortion is ultimately about how we regulate, scrutinize, and render immobile the bodies of the poorest among us.  Technologies of non-reproduction, foisted upon poorer men and women, are technologies of reproductive surveillance.

Questions about morality and values blind us to these issues.  Kissling claims she’s writing about her belief, not politics, and is hence being nuanced.  But enunciating a belief is not about providing nuance—it’s about believing that you are in the right.  Our views on abortion reflect our beliefs in the rightness or wrongness of it.  Those of us who stand for a person’s right to have an abortion need to be less ashamed of our belief that it’s right to think so.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 11 April, 2007


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