As it lay on my coffee table waiting to be read, the title of Jennifer Baumgardner's latest book seemed at first to say nothing much. Abortion & Life -- it was reassuringly basic, suggesting it would be a discussion of how abortion isn’t estranged from the rest of a person’s existence. Not much of a news flash for its likely audience of people along the liberal-radical spectrum, or even most folks not cheering on the Republican National Convention.
Baumgardner has the good fortune to publish just as Sarah Palin is rearing her bouffant-ed head and using the idea of “choice” to describe the pregnancies of herself and her 17-year-old daughter (and this is surely one of the few books in print to describe the dubious group of which Palin is a member, Feminists for Life). At a second glance, its seemingly straightforward title becomes more provocative. It’s so easy to forget that “life” has become a loaded word.
In part, Baumgardner (creator of those controversial “I had an abortion” t-shirts) is illustrating the reality of abortion by way of the trusty old “putting a face on an issue” routine. “Because a story is not a debate, it doesn’t have sides,” she writes eloquently. “Unlike an argument or a slogan, a story can be as complex as a woman’s life. Listening to women’s abortion stories today serves a dual purpose: It reflects the urgency of abortion rights and, if we are listening and if we are creative, it indicates places where the movement needs to go.”
This book is not your average rallying cry to traditional pro-choice activism. Premised on the assumption that the availability of legal abortion has transformed our society to the point that it’s “disingenuous to speculate that women would ‘go back’ if Roe were overturned,” Baumgardner advocates “talking honestly” about abortion. She insists that doing so is not a sign or wavering or weakness, but actually proof of feminism’s strength and confidence.
She has specific ideas about what this kind of honesty looks like. Among other things, it means admitting that some women have mixed feelings after their abortions. It means recognizing that even though abortion may be the best choice in a particular instance, it still may not be an easy or happy one. It involves acknowledging that not every woman’s abortion leaves her feeling elated (even as some do). It means realizing that “pro-life feminists” may not be a myth (while “working to take a choice away from other women can never be construed as feminist, pro-woman, or even pro-life… those who are actively finding ways to create options for women who don’t want to have abortions… can honorably use the term”). These uncomfortable facts are not hypocrisy, she says. They’re proof of why abortion must not be restricted.
Baumgardner is describing the evolution of many people I know, as we get further from the theoretical feminism of our women’s studies classes and try to translate those values for trickier climates, and make them our own. Though this doesn’t mean disavowing or contradicting those early beliefs, it may mean rethinking how we talk about and practice them. This has been Baumgardner’s approach to most of the subjects she’s tackled so far (bisexuality, activism, the sprawling beast that is third wave feminism), and though these efforts have sometimes been frustrating, she’s dependably attentive to the gray areas around divisive issues. It’s particularly effective in this most recent book. If anything, the frustrating thing about the highly readable, highly relevant Abortion & Life is its brevity. Baumgardner’s ideas are sharp and novel, and would have more weight if the book itself did, too.
At the center of it are stories and studio portraits (by Tara Todras-Whitehill) of fifteen women clad in “I had an abortion” t-shirts, culled from the 2005 documentary Baumgardner made with the filmmaker Gillian Aldrich. Overall, there’s diversity in these fifteen faces and their stories, but the number of feminist superstars -- Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ani Difranco, and Baumgardner’s frequent collaborator Amy Richards -- seems a little gratuitous. Though their experiences are compelling, the fact that these women have had abortions and are willing to talk about them is fairly predictable; it makes the section less resonant than it might otherwise be.
Even as Baumgarder allows her evolving understanding of reproductive rights to complicate her ideas, she’s uncompromising in her conclusions -- namely, that supporting abortion rights without restrictions is “the most ethical position one can take.” As she describes her own experiences with creating the t-shirts, the documentary, and working with various abortion access organizations, she reflects on what it was like when she found out, in the middle of it all, that she was unexpectedly pregnant.
Baumgardner didn’t have an abortion, and her pregnancy “actually increased” her interest in the issue. These few lines are perhaps the most revealing of the book, and come with the most ammunition. As the film and the t-shirts got more attention, she found that “my swelling belly felt like a buffer between me and the crazed hate mail I was receiving.” The image of a visibly pregnant woman (in this case, one who’s never had an abortion herself) giving lectures and fundraising for reproductive freedom is only hard to process if you believe these issues are black and white. Otherwise, she’s an embodiment of what choice really means. And probably not someone you want to argue with.