Friday, December 26, 2014

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Katha Pollitt's new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, is a thorough, no-holds-barred takedown of the hypocrisy of the anti-abortion-rights movement - not only in the most obvious sense that people who claim to be "pro-life" also (usually) support war and the death penalty, oppose gun control, and encourage lethal terrorism against abortion providers and clinic staff, and of people who claim to care about women and children, but oppose all social supports that might improve the lives of actual living children. Pro also exposes the perhaps less obvious hypocrisy of how the anti-abortion movement has created conditions that result in more unwanted pregnancies, more abortion, more later abortions, and less safe abortions. Using unassailable logic and facts, Pollitt exposes what the real agenda of the anti-abortion movement is and has always been: punishing women for trying to live modern, emancipated lives.

Pollitt exposes, too, the contradictions in how the current abortion debate is framed, and how the majority of people - not the vehemently pro-choice or the vehemently anti-abortion, but the "muddled middle," as Pollitt calls it - thinks about abortion. The vast majority of North Americans, it appears, believes abortion should be safe and legal, but also regard the procedure with distaste, discomfort, and shame. Pollitt makes it sparklingly clear why "legal, but..." doesn't work, why it can't work, and why we shouldn't want it.

This book is about something many people might find a strange contradiction: reclaiming abortion as a social good.
First, the concept of personhood, as applied to the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and at least until late in pregnancy, fetus, makes no sense: It's an incoherent, covertly religious idea that falls apart if you look at it closely. Few people actually believe it, as is shown by the exceptions they are willing to make.

Second, the absolutist argument that abortion is murder is a mask by which people opposed to the sexual revolution and women's advancement obscure their real motives and agenda: turning back the clock to an idealized, oversimplified past when sex was confined within marriage, men were the breadwinners and heads of families, Christianity was America's not-quite-official religion, and society was firmly ordered.

Third, since critiquing what came before does not necessarily help us move forward, I want to help reframe the way we think about abortion. There are definitely short-term advantages to stressing the anguish some women feel when facing the need to end a pregnancy, but in the long run presenting that as a general truth will hurt the pro-choice cause: It comes close to demanding that women accept grief, shame, and stigma as the price of ending a pregnancy. I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud. The anti-abortion movement has been far too successful at painting abortion as bad for women. I want to argue, to the contrary, that it is an essential option for women - not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul destroying situations, but all women - and thus benefits society as a whole.
For anyone deeply involved in the pro-choice movement, as I have been, Pollitt breaks no new ground. You'll be familiar with all the ideas, trends, and arguments. But to read them all gathered together, laid out logically, backed by impeccable research, and pronounced without apology in Pollitt's lively, witty style, is thrilling.

For people who think of themselves as "pro-choice but" - the muddled middle, the majority, who say abortion should be legal and permissible in certain circumstances - this book is for you. Pollitt argues in the clearest, most convincing manner: none of your restrictions make sense. All of them must go. If that seems extreme, read this book with an open mind, then see how you feel.

Pro is written in an American context, and it's important for everyone in the United States to read it, especially moderate liberals who adopt the "safe, legal, and rare" position.

But this is an important book for Canadians to read, too. Without directly referencing the history of abortion rights in Canada, Pollitt shows us why Dr. Henry Morgentaler and the movement that grew around his work were correct to insist on no abortion law, and why Canada's courts were correct to realize that was necessary. The arguments in Pro explain why the pro-choice movement in Canada kicks up such a loud and sustained noise every time proposed legislation threatens to restrict abortion rights. (The Harper government has tested the waters many times under the guise of private members' bills. Rights don't protect themselves.)

Pollitt argues for abortion as a basic human right: necessary to women's full participation in society, necessary for her survival and her safety, not just in extreme circumstances, but in all circumstances. She excoriates the hypocrisy of a society that worships motherhood as an abstract concept, but in reality, so belittles and minimizes the experience of parenthood as to imagine that a woman can simply have a baby and raise a child any time she becomes pregnant, no matter her current life circumstances - then dismisses the notion that she must do otherwise as abortions "for convenience".

Pollitt also widens the lens to include all aspects of reproductive justice, including access to affordable and reliable birth control, free and affordable childcare, paid parental leave, and working hours designed for working parents. She places abortion in an historical context - it has always existed, in all societies and in all eras - and reminds us what happens to women who live in Ecuador, Ireland, most of the US, and other countries where women's access to this basic, necessary health care has been denied.

After teasing out the many sacrifices, the pain, the accommodation, the compromises, that women routinely make in order to bear children, Pollitt writes:
To force girls and women to undergo all this against their will is to annihilate their humanity.
And that is the bottom line. (A version of this review was originally published on wmtc.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Use and Abuse of Literature

“No one who is not deeply corrupted will think of making learning a form of commerce for his own enrichment.” (37).

Marjorie Garber, in her book The Use and Abuse of Literature, examines all of the ways the written word has been promoted, performed, presented, plagiarized, and consumed by the public. It is a wide ranging work. A big swath of what we might call the literary universe is discussed in non-academic terms. The guiding question that fuels all the explorations is definitional: what is literature?  Garber keeps both edges of her chosen title close together. Literature of every kind has by turns been used in a myriad of ways and abused in just as many. The work doesn’t just examine the highbrow stuff. The philistine stuff gets plenty of room to disco. The literary world, Garber argues, is constantly evolving. Literature is a living breathing thing and we will continue to talk and absorb literature in all its different guises. For example, Shakespeare will always remain new because every generation has to absorb him, comment on him, praise or complain about him. The same goes for comics.

The Use and Abuse of Literature reads like a cultural history of literature, the ways that people and society have responded to literature and how it has shaped us over the centuries. Literary studies—from the exercises of the great critic-connoisseurs to the essay writings of high school kids—is a process. It is an ongoing discussion with the works of the past reinterpreted and digested in new ways with each successive generation. There is no ultimate, true once and for all time, reading of any literary work (prose, poetry or otherwise).

This is a fine study but I have one criticism. The narrative is choppy. So much that orbits the literary sun is given space to move between the covers of this book, the views of Samuel Johnson, poetic artifices, the idea of an English major, deconstruction and the culture wars to mention just a few, and at times I felt the celestial satellites were unconnected, or rather I would have benefited from a clearer indication of the mysterious force holding the whole thing together. As a final comment, I would say you have to be in a particular mood to read this book. It is intellectual history, a socio-cultural look at the written word and fortunately the book never descends into overly erudite exploration. The opening quote captures the style well. It is like conversing with an articulate and knowledgeable literary culture critic. Each chapter opens a new perspective on some aspect of literature and this particular book’s merit rests in its abundance of little insights any one of which might lead a reader to take up once again a familiar title with a changed perspective or to give some hitherto unexplored type of presentation, say memoir, a chance to work its magic.