For seven seasons the television drama Mad Men depicted and deplored life in the pre-feminist America of the 1960s. In a final episode Peggy Olson, the advertising agency secretary who rose to become chief copywriter, laments her unplanned pregnancy. “[N]o one should have to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on,” she says, distilling second-wave feminism’s male-normative concept of equality. “She should be able to live the rest of her life just like a man.”
Sexual autonomy—consensual, pleasurable sex from which a woman can “move on … just like a man”—is the moral lodestar of two recent pro-abortion books, Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, and Sarah Endreich’s Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement. Neither work, however, evinces any awareness that the sexual revolution was flawed and in many ways tragic, or that enhancing women’s lives and authentic equality might require a different sort of sexual ethic altogether.
Poet and essayist Pollitt, for example, begins her book with the dream of a magical potion that “women could drink after sex…[to] keep them unpregnant.” If only women’s bodies could be more like men’s, women would be equal, free, and happy; they’d have less poverty and better sex. When recalcitrant biology or human error defeats contraception, abortionists must step in to right the wrong once and for all—at least until the next contraceptive failure.
This doesn’t sound like a feminist argument to me, though it did 20 years ago when I was a women’s studies student and leader of my college’s Women’s Center. Then, I too thought it was unfair for sex to burden women’s bodies in ways it didn’t burden men’s. The contrarian feminist Camille Paglia blames this unfortunate asymmetry on “nature,” but more orthodox feminists, including Pollitt, blame the “patriarchy” for “punishing” women who have and enjoy sex by giving them babies—babies that men can simply ignore and abandon. The fear of women’s sexual freedom and power, in this view, causes abortion opponents to want to keep women barefoot and pregnant, and so often quite poor.
For Pollitt, the pro-life movement has prevailed insofar as it has convinced most pro-choicers to speak of abortion as a necessary evil. Pollitt wants them instead to jettison Clinton-era triangulation about abortion being “safe, legal, and rare.” Abortion advocates must proclaim once again: “Abortion on demand, without apology.” Defending abortion, in other words, requires insisting it’s a positive social good.
She’ll get no argument from feisty millennial Sarah Endreich, who urges her generation of abortion advocates to “demystify” abortion by engaging in “radical” and “aggressive” politics, in contrast to the sluggish, compromising mainstream pro-choice movement. “Don’t ask politely,” she advises. Talk unashamedly about your abortion, even in casual conversation with acquaintances; use social media to normalize the procedure (abortion videos are best); demand that Hollywood depict abortion as a positive choice; and support the “heroic” work of your local abortionist.
Endreich can’t fathom “how central the idea of unborn children is to the success and emotional power of anti-choice beliefs.” The “anti-choice” movement has “carefully constructed [the angelic unborn child], with all its tiny fingers and toes intact.” It’s as though “anti-choicers” have paid off National Geographic and biologists everywhere to ensure the “so-called unborn child” looks innocent and peaceful, nothing like those demanding two-year-olds they soon become.
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In her youthful zeal for abortion, Endreich misapprehends the reason her elders at NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood long ago retreated from even using the “A-word”: half of Americans—including more than a third of Democrats—think abortion morally wrong. But, Endreich contends, “Supporting abortion does not mean you support death.”
Scientists would dispute this claim, and Pollitt chooses to argue on different grounds, locating the pro-life error in conflating mere “human beings” with rights-bearing “human persons.” This attempt to erect a distinction between the two to justify killing “non-rights bearing human beings” is the leading hobbyhorse of academic pro-choicers. But a characteristics-based approach to human dignity is philosophically untenable, as the shameful legacy of American slavery reminds us.
To her credit, Pollitt concludes with an attempt to find “common ground” with pro-lifers—an effort of no interest to the younger Endreich—and to “give mothers their due.” But, unable to refrain from ridiculing the pro-life movement for what she deems to be its many internal contradictions, she undermines her otherwise worthy intentions. By contrast, Robin West, a Georgetown law professor, makes a genuine effort to conciliate differences with prolifers, going so far as to worry that, in the effort to support mothers, the bigger contradictions might be on the pro-choice side. Her impressive volume, In Search of Common Ground: From Culture Wars to Reproductive Justice, edited with attorneys Justin Murray and Meredith Esser, argues that “those with radically different worldviews might nevertheless have overlapping goals.” Common Ground’s good will, a virtue entirely missing from Pollitt’s and Endreich’s books, provides such insights, the sort that make dialogue possible.
West’s chapter in the volume reveals the myriad ways the “negative” right to abortion constitutionalized in Roe v. Wade has militated against arguments for positive supports for the vulnerable and those who care for them. Both the pro-life and pro-choice movements have an interest in policies that direct men to their task as fathers, honor the essential work of caregiving, assist single mothers, and support innovative ways to balance work and family. But this starts with understanding that the mother-child bond is unique among relationships, and as such should be honored and supported by all in society.
Shari Motro, a pro-choice contributor to West’s volume, notes that the most common forms of sexual insurance—contraception and abortion—impair women’s health but not men’s, and make parenting more costly. They have also cheapened sex, thereby facilitating a culture of casual sex that works against those seeking attachment and commitment. As a result, women often have “consensual” sex with deep misgivings, which then affects them physiologically and emotionally in ways men neither suffer nor comprehend. The ethos of casual sex harms poor and otherwise vulnerable women most severely, mocking the notion that women now enjoy greater sexual freedom and power than the victims portrayed on “Mad Men.”
The quest for sexual autonomy has hardly been the boon for women most pro-choice feminists seem to think. A genuinely feminist sexual ethic is needed, one that doesn’t reduce women to biologically challenged men. Pollitt and Endreich would like to make the deep divide between abortion’s defenders and its opponents deeper still. But the good, courageous work of West and her contributors gives hope that the antagonists in our culture war may yet reach an armistice on the basis of their shared concern for the well-being of every woman: copywriter, poet, activist—or mother.