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Katha Pollitt Favors Abortion Rights for Women (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 5, 2014: Katha Pollitt, a columnist for THE NATION, a magazine I rarely look at, clearly hopes that her new book PRO: RECLAIMING ABORTION RIGHTS (2014) will have a big impact in our national debate about legalized abortion. As her one-word main title indicates, she's for abortion rights.

In the past I have published a number of pieces at OpEdNews.com about the abortion debate, including pieces about certain anti-abortion issues that Pollitt discusses. In my various pieces about the abortion debate, I have repeatedly stated that I have no moral objection to legalized abortion in the first trimester. Neither does Pollitt. As a matter of fact, she has a strong chapter against the personhood argument advanced by some anti-abortion zealots (pages 65-99).

Pollitt's way of proceeding is to present her carefully targeted arguments. Time and again and again over 218 pages of text, she shoots down one carefully selected target of her criticism after another. If you are already on her side, you might relish her verbal sharp-shooting performances. Make no mistake about it -- she is a well-informed verbal sharp-shooter. Frequently her targets are conservatives, so progressives and liberals might find her verbal sharp-shooting entertaining to read.

Pollitt thinks that there are already many Americans who implicitly agree with her pro-choice position and that she can move them through the arguments she presents in her book to explicitly agree with her pro-choice position -- and stand up and fight against the anti-abortion forces.

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But Pollitt is under no illusions about the anti-abortion zealotry in the United States. Indeed, she has a remarkably clear-sighted understanding of the strength and effectiveness of the anti-abortion zealots. For example, she acknowledges that the pro-choice movement has not been as effective as the noisy anti-abortion movement has been. But will her new book help advance the pro-choice movement? She hopes it will.

The following lengthy paragraph sums up Pollitt's most salient historical arguments:

"Opponents [of legalized abortion] treat Roe v. Wade as a ghastly improvisation with no precedent since ancient Greeks and Romans put unwanted babies out to be eaten by wolves, but it's actually in tune with very old understandings of fetal development as a gradual process. Aristotle divided it into three stages: vegetable, animal, rational. Both Augustine and Aquinas believed ensoulment [with a distinctively human rational soul] took place after conception. Rabbinic authorities considered the embryo to be 'water' until the fortieth day. [In Judaism, "a fetus becomes a person when it takes its first breath," she says on page 98.] In colonial America and in most states until after the Civil War, abortion was permissible under common law until quickening, well into the second trimester. Abortion was legal when the Declaration of Independence declared that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were inalienable rights endowed by the Creator, and when the Constitution was written, too. If the Founding Fathers had wanted to ban abortion, they could have, but they did not. Until prevented by the Comstock laws in 1873, abortifacients with euphemistic names like Uterine Regulator and the Samaritan's Gift for Females were advertised in newspapers and readily available in shops" (page 190).

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Elsewhere Pollitt says, "Doctors helped criminalize abortions after the Civil War as part of their effort to professionalize medicine by marginalizing midwives and lay healers" (page 20).

Pollitt says, "In 1869, Pope Pius IX issued a bull (APOSTOLICATE SEDIS MODERATIONI) declaring the punishment for abortion at any stage of pregnancy would be the same as for murder: excommunication. It was not always so. Before the nineteenth century there were numerous respectable Catholic positions about the status of the embryo and fetus, and thus a multiplicity of positions about abortion" (page 70).

Pollitt says, "if you want to understand why there is so little significant organized resistance to legal abortion in France, Germany, Britain, and Scandinavia, the lower level of religiosity, and the much smaller role religion plays in national life, is much of the answer" (page 169).

QUESTION: Why are so many Americans anti-abortion zealots? Does American culture somehow bring out religious zealotry?

Pollitt says, "Among American states, there a correlation between white religiosity, Republican Party power, restrictions on abortion, and the status of women" (page 169).

Pollitt says, "Anti-abortion organizations [in the United States] either openly oppose contraception, or are silent about it" (page 148). "[N]ot one major anti-abortion organization supports making birth control more available, much less educating young people in its use" (page 148).

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Pollitt says, "At the beginning of the nineteenth century effective birth control barely existed and in the 1870s it was criminalized -- even mailing an informational pamphlet about contraceptive devices was against the law and remained so until 1936" (page 16).

For an accessible history of the pill, see Jonathan Eig's new book THE BIRTH OF THE PILL: HOW FOUR CRUSADERS REINVENTED SEX AND LAUNCHED A REVOLUTION (2014). The four crusaders are Margaret Sanger, Katharine McCormick, Dr. Gregory Pincus, and Dr. John Rock, a practicing Roman Catholic. Pollitt mentions Margaret Sanger several times (pages 113, 139, 140, 141).

The text of Pollitt's book includes references to a vast array of persons and organizations. However, even though her book comes equipped with numerous bibliographic notes at the end (pages 225-258), it does not come equipped with an index. If her book goes into a paperback edition, I would urge the publisher to add an index.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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