May 2013

Kati Nolfi


Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement by Sarah Erdreich

Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement is a compassionate and nuanced history of abortion and an analysis of the current state of abortion rights. Some may say that the matter of legal abortion was settled in 1973, but as I write, North Dakota state legislators have passed two bills that could effectively make abortion illegal in the state. In 2011 there were ninety-two state provisions that restricted access to abortion, a record number. We have just emerged from a year of politicians being obtuse about contraception, abortion, and rape. Some attribute the liberal victories of 2012 to this obtuseness. Not only are there mandatory waiting periods and parental consent laws and the Hyde Amendment to deal with, but also attempted defunding of Planned Parenthood, so-called personhood of the fetus vying with the very real personhood of a woman, the DC Medicaid abortion ban, and the infamous transvaginal ultrasound.

Sarah Erdreich, a long-time writer and advocate for reproductive justice, interviews activists and providers. She clearly admires them and they speak passionately about the right to choose. Erdreich cautions against romanticizing providers. It amazes me, however, that anyone becomes one. Not only is there stigma and the threat of violence, but there is little abortion training in medical school and few clinics at which to do one's training. Students can be dissuaded from going into abortion care because providing abortions will be all they do in their careers, though the group Medical Students for Choice is a strong advocate for abortion education and care. Erdreich and people she interviews argue for abortion to be normalized and provided at clinics and doctor's offices everywhere.

Hillary Clinton said in 2005, "Abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." Often, pro-choice people talk like this. They are defensive, letting the Christian right define the debate. Three in ten women will have an abortion before the age of forty-five. Instead of making abortion "rare" as Presidents Clinton and Obama have called for, Erdreich wants to make it ordinary. Wishing for it to be rare doesn't make it so. And when we hope for it to be rare, we are betraying our pro-choice ideals. Something must be wrong with it. Abortion is so rarely portrayed on TV and in movies. It's become a joke that the televised unplanned pregnancy ends in miscarriage or a change in heart.

The pro-choice movement is in a bind. It must fight against the narrative dominated by the right, yet it often alienates women with its lack of space for ambivalence. Poor women should have more choices and resources to have wanted babies. The pro-choice movement is in danger of being seen as na´ve white atheist elitists who are pro-abortion, not pro-choice. The anti-abortion side has successful messaging, with manipulative terms like pro-life, partial-birth abortion, and post-abortion syndrome. Before reading this book, I didn't even know that partial-birth abortion stands in for the medical term "intact dilation and extraction," or IDX. Women typically have second- and third-term abortions not because of laziness or selfishness but often because of the difficulty in obtaining abortion and health problems for the fetus or pregnant woman. Even nominally pro-choice people apply a litmus test to women seeking an abortion, as if there are circumstances in which abortion is more or less appropriate.

Erdreich calmly addresses a topic that inspires furor on both sides, especially among the Internet commentariat. Her book is well researched, and though it is not exhaustive, she covers a lot of history. She organizes her book around dates and statistics, which can be slow going for some readers. She carves out a space between the anti-abortion side and some of the failings of the pro-choice movement. The anti-abortion movement romanticizes fetal potential and pro-choicers are sometimes so militant about choice that they ignore both the difficulty of making the choice and the reasons for wanting to have a baby. I have heard many young women talk about babies as if they're de facto life ruiners. We have to trust women to make choices about their bodies and fertility. I am against forced childbirth (which is what anti-abortion really means) but I'm also against the dismissive attitude toward pregnancy and child-rearing that some people in the pro-choice community take.

The distance of history seems to give people a casual attitude. Smallpox, polio, child labor, and illegal abortion are not in the memory of young people. Perhaps that is why some people are indifferent to or against vaccines, unions, and the fight for reproductive justice. We feel safe where we stand. It's wrong, though, to say that today's young women are not fighting. There seems to be fear among second-wave feminists that young people don't care about women's rights. In the recent PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America, the cofounder of Ms. magazine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, said, "I don't see that urge toward activism, the passion. And that's what makes me fear that they'll have to lose almost everything before they realize they have to fight back." Erdreich argues that Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the National Abortion Fund have not changed with the times. They are worried about upsetting their donors, are too hierarchical, and are not meeting young women where they are. Sites such as Every Saturday Morning, The Abortioneers, and Feministe call for abortion on demand, celebrating the choice without apologies or questions. They are by and for young women, unlike the stodgy and entrenched organizations. According to Erdreich, blogs and social networking are today's version of 1970s consciousness-raising groups.

Like a lot of the right, "the anti-choice movement has less trouble than the pro-choice movement in getting its message across because nuance is not something that exists in the anti-choice universe. Embryos and fetuses are unborn children. Women are mothers. And abortion is the murder of a child." To many of us who are pro-choice, anti-abortion sentiment seems to punish women and sanctify the state of pregnancy. Bonding with a fetus is not natural for everyone. But having a baby and rearing a child is hard work and should only be done with love and support.

Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement by Sarah Erdreich
Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 978-1609804589
272 pages