August 2004

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Leslie Cannold

The two extremes of the abortion debate are well represented. The anti-choice movement shrieks that women who have abortions are murderers while the pro-choice movement shrieks that an abortion a fundamental right of every woman and no more amoral than a haircut. In the middle is a large population of men and women who believe a fetus is a living being, even if not the equivalent of a baby. So far, the anti-choicers have been able to sway the greater number of people as the pro-choicers refuse to discuss abortion on a moral level.

Enter Leslie Cannold. Her book The Abortion Myth: Feminism, Morality, and the Hard Choices Women Make was strangely one of the first books on abortion to talk to the women who have had them as well as those who are strictly opposed to them. While trying to address "the mushy middle" of the debate, Cannold offers some sanity to the morality part of abortion: fetuses are alive, women who have abortions are acting as moral agents when they make their decisions, and one can still believe abortion is a form of killing and still be pro-choice. She posits that perhaps the "abortion" debate should be renamed the "motherhood" debate, as that is what it boils down to, whether women are willing and capable of becoming mothers.

Leslie Cannold spoke with from her home in Australia.

I came across your book kind of randomly and immediately fell in love with it. I worked at pro-choice organizations for years, so it's something I have a passionate belief in, and your book was very interesting to me because it took a completely different approach than any of the other pro-choice literature I've read.

That was the attempt, so I'm really pleased to hear it. Although it wasn't entirely loved for that reason.

Are you talking about in Australia or the American response to it?

Here it was incredibly well reviewed. People who read it just generally loved it. There were a few feminist publications who were not enamored of it, but mostly it was well reviewed, it just didn't sell. It was kind of interesting, that, because the suspicion was, and that became more obvious to me as time went on, it was consistently out of the libraries, both at my local library and my university library, it was just constantly out. And yet people didn't buy it. When people started coming up to me and saying "Oh, I loved your book, it was life changing for me," it came out through those conversations that they hadn't actually bought the book. One woman who actually came to interview me for a film she was making, she loved the book so much -- she was a student, a film student -- she wanted to make a film about me. It came out again that she hadn't bought the book. I felt comfortable enough with her to ask why that was, and she said she didn't feel comfortable. She looked at me like I was crazy, like I didn't understand. "Well, I couldn't have it on my shelf. I couldn't let anyone... like on the tram, that's where I usually read."

So it's kind of been odd here because abortion is much less, um, I’m American by birth. I grew up in New York, so it's easy for me to compare the two. In America, abortion is a much more discussed topic, people are not so shy about it, and that's largely because the law's a lot clearer in terms of enabling women to have terminations whereas here the law is much less clear and that's kind of lead to a culture of trying not to talk about things too much because it could stir things up and it could shift the legal situation which is already quite tenuous. So that was quite different, and in the States it's selling relatively well. Really it wasn't reviewed pretty much at all, and there were a few good reviews, in bits and pieces of places. But Ms. gave it a terrible review.

What did they say about it?

Ms. said I should come out of my ivory tower where I was clearly hiding and get down on the ground and get involved with abortion politics which of course, you know, is one of those very frustrating comments because first of all, given that you've read the book you would know it's based on what women had to say, and also I've been quite involved in abortion politics since I was about 14. I do know what the politics are, and I was trying very hard to respond to the politics as I saw them changing. And I still believe that the politics are moving in that direction, that viability is going to increasingly be an issue for us.

We have just had an outbreak of action in this country about abortion because there's a documentary that's going to be screening here called My Fetus, which is a documentary that caused a scuffle in the UK. Long story short of it is that this pro-choice woman who grew up in the arms of the pro-choice movement because she is the daughter of the person who owns Marie Stopes International, which is the organization that pretty much does all of the abortions in the UK and many of them here. But she had a second pregnancy after terminating her first when she was very young. She kind of uses this film to explore her feelings about it, and comes to a lot of the same… I have a lot of problems with the film, but one of the things she's definitely going at is this idea of viability and that essentially we're not… I disagree with her, I think we can defend it, but it has to be in a particular way… but her argument is that we're not going to be able to defend post-viable termination, that all the new technology that allows us to see fetuses will make that impossible in the future. The issue is alive, what viability is going to do in terms of women's freedom to choose so I kind of remain convinced that nobody's going to have to make my way of approaching that issue, but it's going to have to be addressed. I don't think the current way we address abortion rights is going to stand up to that.

With the Ms. review, do you think that was a feminist knee-jerk reaction, or do you think they misinterpreted the book?

It's so hard, you would know better than anyone, it just depends on the person who reviews it. It's an individual person who happens to grab up the book. There's an element there -- I try not to spend too much time on it -- but there's a new feminist/old feminist thing in there, and I think I've definitely run across that defensiveness of older women feeling that instead of being grateful for all that they have done to ensure that we have the freedoms that they never did, and I am in fact extremely grateful about that, there is the sense that I'm being critical and I'm saying, "Well, look, we can't do this this way anymore, it's outdated, we need to change." That element was always in there, but I don't know if that was what was motivating this particular attack. To me, it's clear, as clear as it is to you, where I stand, that my desires and intentions to protect women's freedoms are good. I'm just trying to suggest that how we're doing it at the moment is going to keep working. People are entitled to disagree, aren't they?

What is the reproductive health care system like in Australia? In the book, you said that two-thirds of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned, compared to one-half in America and the UK. Is it more difficult to get birth control in Australia?

It's really quite difficult to know. All of those sort of statistics, they're passed around as truth, but when you go all the way back to where the stuff comes from, you realize it's a good deal of conjecture. We don't even have good statistics of how many abortions are taking place a year. Things are improving, but again, that is being politicized because there was a concern that those people who want to do the head counts aren't interested in ensuring women's freedoms are protected. They're actually trying to curtail them, and they're trying to use these figures to say, "Look, things are going terribly wrong; this many babies are being murdered." We don't even have good stats, so my feeling is that that stat is probably true, and I guess you could argue that it's related to not very good education about contraception, and we import many of the arguments and debates about whether or not young people should be given contraception, does it encourage sex or does it just in fact prevent unplanned pregnancy.

In the introduction to the book, you quoted Eileen Fairweather, "It is possible for people to support a woman's right to choose whether they believe abortion is killing or not." It's kind of a radical statement for, say, the feminist movement that tries really hard to make people believe abortion is not killing. How have your views on whether abortion is killing or not changed throughout your involvement in the pro-choice movement?

I think I'm like most people -- and this is really just an opinion of mine, it's not based on any research -- my views of being involved in abortion politics for so many years and in two different countries is that often the people who are the most involved tend to be people who have had to come to their view of pro-choice via a journey. It hasn't been completely obvious to them that abortion is the right thing to do. They had to really think about it, work out the issues, and actually weigh up the arguments. That was definitely my experience because I came from a family where it was accepted unquestionably, that this was something that needed to be available. I don't question, I think it should be available, and I think every woman deserves the freedom to choose. But I suppose I just didn't feel that was all there was to say about it. That was what led me on that journey, because I think in my heart I felt like this was a significant event, so I would have been young around the time where things were still being said in the vein of "It's like going to the dentist and having a tooth removed." "It's like having a haircut." We don't say that stuff anymore, but it was being said. I think my reaction was to that, because I've always felt… I came very early to the view that it absolutely had to happen, as I tried to imagine myself pregnant, and I tried to imagine someone trying to tell me whether I was going to have a baby or not, the feeling I had was just so profound that that was wrong, that that had to be wrong and could never be allowed. At the same time, I knew that having a termination was not the same as having a tooth removed. That was the start of my journey.

I did, in fact, find a few books that kind of tried to address that a little bit, the Linda Franke book, and a book by Kathleen O'Donnell. Both of them were trying from a feminist perspective to look at some of the ambiguities of pro-choice politics and ethics. Both of them had a hard time. Linda Franke was used by the anti-choice movement, and in some ways that really explains why the views of the pro-choice movement become so hardened. Anytime we try to open things up and allow some ambiguity, the anti-choice movement jumps all over it and tries to use it for their aims, which is to prohibit women choosing abortion at any time, all together, ever. Understandably, people become worried about making their concerns that may run against the ideology public.

Do you feel like the feminist movement either in America or in Australia is moving in the direction of making abortion a moral issue?

It's funny, I think there are always two conversations taking place about abortion. One is the conversation amongst people who need to have abortions or know people who have had abortions, which is pretty much everybody, and that's a conversation in which the person's life or the couple's life or the life of the people they know, whether it be a sister or a friend, it's very clear in that person's mind, and that's the flip of what happens when you talk about abortion in the media, where the fetus becomes the larger-than-life issue, and everybody gets a good sense of the contours of the fetus and what it means, but the woman's life is left out, because women don't like to stand up and tell their stories so we can see their face and hear how they made their decision. I think in the real world, where people make termination decisions, there has always been an acknowledgement that abortion is a moral issue. I remember speaking to a pro-choice activist in the UK many years ago, and she said, "Look, back then, the political priority was fighting to stop us dying and losing our fertility, but had we been able to take the deep breath that you guys have taken, we would have known and we would have said that it's a moral issue, too. The first political priority was making it safe and legal." And of course we can understand that. But I think it's always been a moral issue for many people. Not for everyone. But it's bigger than having a tooth pulled, which is not a moral issue.

I think in the political arena, it remains unclear to me whether this idea will be embraced. My argument is that we really don't have a choice. The anti-choice movement has won the battle of public perception. Whether abortion is a moral issue or not, they've made it a moral issue. I think us denying it just makes us look the way they want us to look, that we're amoral. Or immoral. And that we're indifferent to the fate of our fetuses, and I think that runs against most women when they're choosing terminations, which is that their fetus matters to them very much. The decision was a very serious one, and they made it in a very serious and deliberate way. I think there's a sense amongst women that they would like to have that recognized. I think they feel insulted by the anti-choice rhetoric which depicts them at the crudest end as murderers, and it's hard to be more amoral than that.

The New York Times had a column recently that quoted the statistic that more women have had abortions than believe that abortions should be available on demand...

I saw the Barbara Ehrenreich…

Yeah, that's the one.

She's fantastic, isn't she?

That was a great column. But it created at least online, because at the same time, Planned Parenthood released these t-shirts that say "I had an abortion." And it's exploding the pro-choice movement into whether we should keep it quiet or whether we should talk about the abortions they've had.

Are they selling these t-shirts?

Yeah, they're online now.

How's it going?

I am not sure, because they're brand new. [The t-shirts have since sold out due to such a high demand.]

Fascinating. I think that whole thing of people standing up and saying they've had a termination, just from working in the politics, which I've been very involved in here in Australia, that's been a huge problem particularly in recent years in the anti-choice movement, and this is something that's not in my book because I've been looking into it since then, the anti-choice movement is never standing still. They're an incredibly sophisticated organization. The move now is for them to argue that abortion is morally wrong not because it hurts fetuses, but because it hurts women. I think that's an argument we'll see more and more of. It's very politically effective. To counter that, in Australia for instance, and I suspect you see something similar although not in the newspapers in the States, are testimonials from women talking about how they were hurt by abortions. They went, they tried to have a termination, nobody told them, nobody let them know, they weren't informed, afterwards it was terribly traumatic and awful, and now they realize that it would have been better if someone had forbade them from having an abortion. They never draw that conclusion, but that's the implication. For women's own good, they really need to be stopped from doing this.

I think the only counter to that -- and interestingly, in Australia someone finally did stand up and published a piece in the newspaper that said, "Okay, I've had enough. I've had a termination, and I don't regret it. It was very, very important to me and I really resent that the only space in public debate for women in the abortion debate are repentant ones." Only the woman who's hurt by abortion can find a public voice. This piece had a huge impact because this woman signed her name, and this is a woman who is well known here because she was sacked from a magazine because she put a size 14 or 16 model on the front. She was already a woman people knew. It was an incredibly well written article. We need those women to stand up. We need it from the point of view that women's stories, which are such a critical part of understanding how it is women make termination decisions and what makes them right are absent from public debate. We see so much of the fetus, so much discussion of the moral issues that the anti-abortion movement claims surround the fetus, but without women speaking, we can't reframe the fetus in the way that I'm talking about. I reframe the fetus by listening to the way women talk about it. And I was able to say we can say it's important, but not because it's The Fetus with a right to life, but because it's Our Fetus, it's a being that will become a child will we let it to continue.

That's something that women think very important, so important that sometimes they feel they need to end the life of the fetus, to stop that from happening and all of the consequent responsibilities. Those are very sophisticated arguments there, and they need to be fleshed out by listening to women talk. I think it is very important, and I think it is worrying that women, as Barbara Ehrenreich said, aren't willing to stand up and defend their right to choose, but I understand why it's happening. A lot of the reason it happens is because of this gap between how women are depicted in anti-choice rhetoric as careless, as irresponsible, women who terminations because they want to go on skiing holidays, women who have terminations because, as one person put it in Parliament, they want to look good in bikinis, heartless, feminist, careerist women who terminations. And then oopsie, Mary Lou gets pregnant and she thinks, well, I need to have a termination, but I'm not one of them. I was quite happy to judge them and quite happy to judge women who have abortions, but I'm not one of those kinds of women. I'm a good woman. I've just made a mistake here, and I need to have a termination. As you would know, some of those women who are so against other women having terminations will come into a clinic, have an abortion, and be out on the picket line the next day. There's a huge split women can make in their minds that comes from buying into that story about who aborting women are. The only way we can counter that story is by having women come forward, and also, I think, arguing that women are moral agents, they're creatures who are the same as men and have a highly developed sense of morality around this issue. They can act as moral agents when they make these decisions. I think that's the only way we're going to be able to get women to identify themselves as an aborting woman. A good woman, but nonetheless a woman who chooses to have an abortion.

The fact that this book was published on a university press, did that hinder the marketing of the book, because people were worried it would be too academic?

I really don't know. I didn't have a choice. It was published as a general audience book here, so I had expected I would find a publisher in the States that would do similarly, but nobody was interested in it. I didn't have an agent, and it probably would have helped if I had as a first time author, but I couldn't find anyone who wanted to publish it. At the few bigger publishers I tried, they were all very enthusiastic about what it said and how it was written, but just the word "abortion" they just hated the word, nobody's going to read it, nobody's going to buy it. I mean, think about the last time a book about abortion has come out. They're always published by these tiny, tiny presses. People like to talk about it, but there's an assumption that what people like to talk about they want to buy a book about. This is not necessarily the case. Now whether or not it's true that if someone big had brought it out it wouldn't have sold, I don't know. But that's certainly publisher's wisdom about books about abortion, that no one wants to buy them.

I had a similar experience with the person who didn't want to be seen reading it on the train. I read it on the Chicago El and found that no matter what the person's particular politics, they assumed the book took the opposite view. So I got dirty looks and snide comments from pro-choice and anti-choice. The issue is just so touchy. It was a very interesting social experiment, carrying your book around on the train.

It's been a real lesson for me. Perhaps I should have named it something different. But on the other hand, I suppose, I'm over it now. In retrospect, I'm glad I named it just what I did, I'm glad that the front cover… typically books about abortion, I think this might have been the first one, they usually have very abstract covers on them. Normally they don't know what to depict, and I very much wanted this image of this woman with her back turned because I think that should be the image of abortion instead of when it comes on in the news flash, you see the image of the fetus curled up. I think the image should be of a woman with her back turned in that pensive way, because that is what it is about, as far as I'm concerned. It's about that woman and how she makes her decision. Her decision making process, her journey, her story. I was trying to suggest an alternative image of what could accompany our discussions of the issue. But yes, I think you've graphically demonstrated what some of the sales problems were.

My favorite line in your book is the, "One of the most popular and dangerous myths perpetuated in the 20th century is that women's fertility is entirely controllable using modern methods. Ha." The "ha" spoke so deeply to me and every woman who has trouble with the Pill, and yet this is a subject that women don't talk about. Speaking with these women, was it difficult to get these women to open up about birth control and abortion, or were they just glad someone asked?

They were extremely open, but every time you do research of this sort, it has to be with self-elected samples. That's of course been a criticism of some of the things I've found. Unfortunately, I'm a researcher so I know the limits of samples where women put their selves forward, because it'll be a different sort of woman than the data you would have been able to collect had you been more coercive. You simply can't, for ethical reasons, demand that someone come off the street and talk to you about their abortions. Women who came to this research were particularly interested in the angle that had to do with ectogenesis, the gestation outside the womb. But they were quite open to talk about abortion. Initially, the research was not supposed to be about abortion per se, it was meant to be about women's reactions to this particular sort of intervention, and I was really trying to prove my once supervisor and now colleague wrong (Peter Singer) that this would provide a happy ever after ending to all of the problems we've had about abortion. Of course once we start talking about it, it immediately becomes clear that many women have had abortions and that the thinking they have about abortion is very much influencing the moral frame they have about ectogenesis.

Women feel that contraception, they take on a whole lot of stuff with contraception, and as feminists we have tried to challenge but just haven't been successful and perhaps never will be. Which is, for instance, that contraception is entirely a woman's responsibility, and therefore when it fails, totally her fault. The reality is it takes two people to make a pregnancy. The reality is also that countless research projects will tell you that women take responsibility for absolutely everything reproductive. Abortions, it's their fault. Unwanted pregnancy, it's their fault. Miscarriage, it's their fault. Everything, it's their fault. We are in a mirror opposite to men who often have trouble taking responsibility and often like to place blame on others for things that go wrong. We are just the opposite. And, again, there is a positive and a negative. We don't have trouble taking responsibility for our behavior, but we take too much. We don't allow when there are others and social forces that shape the range of options we might have had and how free we were to choose amongst them. That's a real downside in this debate about contraception. I did get the sense that women feel like if they got pregnant and it was not wanted, they are somehow at fault. They may, if you do the research, feel less so if it was a condom breakage rather than a missed pill. But nonetheless, I'm the sort of person who can't take the Pill. I get sick, I get migraines, I just can't take it. And that's one of the most reliable forms of contraception. If you can remember to take it everyday, and who knows if I would have been able to. But that always put me in touch with the limits of what's left. They're not really good options. They're not good options because they ruin the sexual experience, or they're not good options because… The people here when they give me the diaphragm, they're just constantly trying to talk me into taking the Pill. They're like, "Do you really not want to get pregnant?" "No, I really don't want to get pregnant." "Then I really wouldn't recommend you having this diaphragm." There I am, chuffing out of the office with my diaphragm, because there's no alternative for me. But I'm aware that every month I'm taking slightly more risk than I would like to.