Back in 1992, when Roe v. Wade and I were both very young, I hopped a bus with college friends for the National Organization for Women’s pro-choice March for Women’s Lives. We boarded in New Haven, Conn., around 2 a.m. to get to Washington, D.C., by 9 a.m. We ate fries from the Roy Rogers off I-95 and practiced our chants. We arrived exhausted and elated, and stayed that way all day, straining to hear greats like Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem shout for our freedom from a podium in the distance.
Roe turns 42 today. My buddies and I are likewise no spring chickens. The rights won by the leaders on that platform, and their contemporaries, have shaped our adult lives. Over the years some have needed abortions; others needed fertility treatments. We mostly have jobs we like and families we chose. And yet that march — which took place before we had e-mail accounts or cellphones — was the last time I participated in a public dialogue about abortion.
As a playwright and a writing teacher, I have covered a range of controversial subjects — prostitution, female genital mutilation, lesbian families, Gaza — but not abortion. I am a pro-choice passive, and I’m not proud.
Many Americans who value abortion rights do little or nothing about it, out of a mix of complacency and ambivalence. Abortion is upsetting and un-hot; the kind of 42-year-old no one wants to be. By contrast, those who seek to end or limit abortion rights care a lot. They fight every day.
Now, no American-born woman of childbearing age has to contemplate pregnancy with zero access to abortion. Liberals cluster in big cities in blue states, where, for the most part, there’s still good access to safe abortions. Some of the restrictive laws passed elsewhere recently seem unimaginable to us, so we don’t imagine what it would be like to live under them. Too many of us leave the long-term battle to dedicated professionals in established organizations, as if we were still the kids in the crowd.
Our lack of alarm also allows solidly pro-choice women to focus on emotional ambivalence rather than legal rights. Recently, I had a conversation with a mother who described being shocked to learn she was bearing twins when she’d only planned on one more child. She is pro-choice but did not consider an abortion. She’s married; her husband was excited about a larger family; they can afford it. But this mom, in sorting out the question for herself, also concluded that while of course abortion should be legal, and any woman who wants one should have access to one, women should “think more about it.”
This is one position that Katha Pollitt describes in her new book “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights” as “the muddled middle” — people who believe in abortion rights but shy away from advocacy. I wanted to speak further with this mother, but we were at a work-related event and frankly pursuing the conversation would have seemed a little extreme. It’s never the right time to talk about abortion.
Yet 60 percent of abortions are performed on women who are already mothers. And according to a recent study in Britain, abortion among women in their 40s has increased 40 percent in 10 years.That’s my demographic. If we can talk about “surprise” babies and pregnancy loss, why not abortion?
Last summer I moderated a discussion between almost 200 women leaders, managers and artists at the national Theater Communications Group conference, about how to achieve greater representation for women in the theater. Afterward it occurred to me that, based on statistics, about 70 women in that room have had or will have an abortion. Furthermore, in each case, the decision to have an abortion was part of how those individual women gained the education, work experience and time to be in that room.
It’s so obvious: For a woman to participate fully in public life, she needs to control when and whether she has children. Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” barely mentions abortion, but every opportunity she outlines presumes the right to control fertility.
We should not presume. According to the Guttmacher Institute, states enacted 231 new abortion restrictions in the past four years. Twenty-three states now mandate abortion providers to perform ultrasounds. In Pennsylvania, a mother of three went to jail for helping her 16-year-old daughter obtain medication to induce a miscarriage — mifepristone and misoprostol — because the family could not navigate the distance, cost and wait restrictions for an abortion in a clinic. In Utah, a woman who gave birth to twins, one of them stillborn, was arrested on charges of “fetal homicide.” In Louisiana, a woman who had a miscarriage was accused of ending the pregnancy on purpose and was locked up for more than a year on charges of second-degree murder.
To reclaim political ground, we must first reclaim the conversation. This means many conversations, ideally in person, together.
In honor of Roe v. Wade, I propose that every person who believes in abortion rights sets a time in the next month to dedicate book clubs, group jogs, rehearsals or other meetings of like-minded individuals to the issue of abortion. This is not a project to change anyone’s mind, but to activate the base. An emergency broadcast.
Talk politically or talk personally, talk strategy or talk gratitude. A book club can read Pollitt’s “Pro.” A close group of friends might talk about their personal experiences. A work or school-based group can start with this thought: Wherever women gather to advocate, celebrate, worship, rebel, grieve and fight for and inspire our sons and daughters, some have benefited from legal abortion.
We yelled in 1992, “We won’t go back!” But we did.
Girls who were born after we marched enter fertility with far fewer rights than my generation had, and less discourse about it. We must change that, and we can.
Janet Harris: Stop calling abortion a difficult decision