A confluence of events, political and literary, lead me to think that we need to take another look at how we talk about abortion.
The political landscape around this issue is obvious: Under pressure from Catholic bishops and other right-leaning forces, the Obama administration recently appeared to capitulate on the subject of contraceptive coverage for women. Here's how Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) put it on The Huffington Post: "The passage of the Affordable Care Act "led to"a new regulation requiring insurance coverage for birth control with no co-pays. "But recently, a number of anti-women health groups and their allies in Congress launched a massive campaign to take this vital coverage away from women. Republican leaders and many others are pressuring the Obama Administration to eliminate this coverage for millions of people who work at religiously-affiliated hospitals, universities, and other organizations."
That's just one assault on women's reproductive health and rights being mounted by the right wing, whose real agenda is -- law by law, state by state -- to reverse Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Women's health advocates were outraged when Secretary of HHS Kathleen Sebelius rejected the FDA's ruling that Plan B, the "morning after" contraceptive pill, could safely be sold over the counter to women of all ages. HHS had never before overruled the FDA on a drug recommendation and reproductive rights groups were quick to question whether the Obama administration was putting politics above science despite its campaign pledges.
There is no shortage of legislative maneuvering to reiterate with regard to the politics of abortion, but the real issue is this: It's time to remember what abortion is really about, and to move beyond political posturing, legislative and religious debates and, yes, patriarchal pontificating. Abortion is about women's lives.
That's where literature comes in. While preparing to teach a class on feminist writers (all of them women who deserve not to be tagged "women writers") I revisited the works of great writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Carolyn Heilbrunn, Tillie Olsen, Audre Lorde, and many others. All of them speak eloquently about women's lives, longings, silences, identities, and so much more.
For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writing in her 1898 classic work, Women and Economics, asked, "Why are women not socially relevant?" Making the case that marriage was necessary for fin de siècle women to gain respectability and economic security, she argued that enforced childbearing led many women into severe depression, a theme she reprised in her classic autobiographical story, "Escaping the Yellow Wallpaper." "That women are persons as well as females," she wrote, "is an unheard of proposition!"
No one, however, comes close (in my view) to writer Adrienne Rich, a working-class mother of four, in expressing women's need for personhood and thus for controlling her body and her life as she does in her iconic book Of Woman Born, published in 1976 at the height of the second wave of the women's movement. As the abortion debate fires up yet again in this election year, we would all do well to consider her wise and poignant words.
Recalling contraceptive crusader Margaret Sanger and the women who pleaded with her for birth control, Rich wrote, "All spoke of the health and strength to be better mothers to the children they already had, or of wanting to be physically affectionate to their husbands without dread of conceiving. None was refusing motherhood altogether or asking for an easy life. " Yet there has always been, and there remains, intense fear of the suggestion that women shall have the final say as to how our bodies are to be used. It is as if the suffering of the mother, the primary identification of woman as the mother, were so necessary to the emotional grounding of human society that the mitigation, or removal, of that suffering, that identification, must be fought at every level, including the level of refusing to question it at all."
"Patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications," Rich continued. "The feminist vision"will come to view our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny. In order to live a fully human life we require not only control of our bodies (though control is a prerequisite); we must touch the unity and resonance of our physicality, our bond with the natural order, the corporeal ground of our intelligence."
Rich was reminding us, so very beautifully, that biology is not destiny and that women represent all the diversity and complexity that humanity engenders. To restrict them to one role, one identity, one purpose is to deny them full personhood, and no individual or entity has the right to impose such suffocating limitations on another.
That is what is urgent to remember as the rhetoric of abortion re-emerges.