Abortion common ground:
Simplistic answers won’t resolve complex issues

Some years ago (sufficiently long ago that we could not find an on-line link), Katha Pollitt wrote a brilliant piece about the “Fixers,” men who arrogantly assumed that they could step in and quickly and neatly “solve” the abortion conflict—if only the squabbling women on each side of the abortion divide would listen to them. The latest such “fixer” on the scene is William Saletan of Slate magazine. After attending a conference at Princeton which attempted dialogue between prochoicers and prolifers, Saletan, putting himself above the fray, has issued two communiqués, instructing each side on “what (they) can learn” from the conference. We are moved to write this response because we find his approach to the complexity of the abortion debate in the United States to be both appalling and insulting.

We begin by reminding Saletan that the debate over abortion in this country is not the result of poor individual decision-making on the part of women. From his perspective, the abortion wars would go away if women would just use contraception more effectively, feel bad about their behavior, and suck it up and have a baby if they discovered they are pregnant after the 12th week. Such an approach is not helpful to women, fails to move us any closer to common ground, and continues to vilify the prochoice movement as a monolithic entity without compassion. It also ignores the evidence we have about abortion. We address each of his points as a way to move the conversation away from his polarizing approach to a more nuanced understanding of very complex issues.

  1. First, Saletan admonishes prochoicers to “admit the value of the fetus.” It is obvious that Saletan has never been inside an abortion clinic. Women seeking abortions have always valued their fetuses. Women aren’t having abortions because they don’t know their pregnancies could culminate in the birth of a baby or because they find their pregnancy irrelevant. Women have abortions because of the material conditions of their lives. Most women speak to clinic staff about the complexity of the decision, and their dreams and aspirations for the children they have and/or will have. Moreover, many abortion providers, taking their cues from the women they serve, stand ready to honor the fetus in various ways, including rituals drawn from various religious traditions. The Wichita clinic of the late Dr. George Tiller was particularly noteworthy for the efforts made to help women and their partners mourn and say goodbye in a dignified manner to their fetuses, including having a chaplain on staff who would perform funeral ceremonies. (See Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us.)
  2. We respectfully urge that Saletan close his mouth and open his ears to women having abortions, and investigate what actually occurs in abortion-providing facilities, rather than constructing a caricature of a prochoice movement that seeks to obliterate any recognition of fetal value. The argument is a straw man and he should stop using it.

  3. Secondly, Saletan urges the prochoice movement to “embrace abortion reduction.” Here he needs a history lesson. Advocates for abortion rights have long pushed policies including maternity leave, subsidized child care, the expansion of educational opportunities for pregnant teens, and quality prenatal care. And support for free, accessible contraception has ALWAYS been part of the agenda. Every year, prochoice policy advocates and service providers demand expansion of the federal family planning program, which unfortunately is usually denied. What Saletan seems to want is for abortion rights advocates to claim that the reason they want all these things is to help reduce the number of abortions. Support for family planning services and healthy pregnancies are valuable in and of themselves. These services don’t need to be linked to reductions in abortion in order to be desirable. Reductions in abortion that result from reduced access to services or increased stigmatization of abortion are not results to be de facto embraced. Rather, reductions in the number of abortions are good when women are successfully achieving the families they desire. (See: “Wanting Abortion to be More Accessible Rather than More Rare or Less Needed,” Women’s Health Activist Newsletter, Sept/Oct 2010.)
  4. Next, the prochoice movement is told, in what can only be heard in scolding tones, to “treat contraception as a moral practice.” Does Saletan not get it that heterosexual women spend almost 30 years of their life trying to avoid unintended pregnancies? The fact that only 1/3 of them will have an abortion speaks to the enormous success of women’s contraceptive use. As a society, we don’t judge diabetics who sometimes miss medications, or vehicle owners who sometimes run late and get the occasional parking ticket. It is unrealistic and unfair to demand that women do something right every day of their life for 30 years. Until Saletan is free of mistakes, his demand should only be received with a deep sigh on the part of women working on a daily basis to control their fertility.
  5. Moreover, Saletan urges the prochoice movement to “reclaim stigma.” Perhaps Saletan should just call for the return of the Scarlet Letter or maybe a public tar and feather campaign. We know from years of research that stigma doesn’t work to change behavior and can be enormously harmful to people’s health. Women presenting in abortion clinics are beating themselves up enough for having “messed up” or “been careless.” Further humiliating these women will not help end the abortion wars. The near-40 years of stigma surrounding abortion since Roe hasn’t reduced the need for abortion—it has only made it harder for women to seek and obtain the support they need to live the lives they wish for. Women facing unwanted pregnancies need more empathy, not more judgment.
  6. Next, Saletan urges prochoicers to “target repeaters.” So now, according to this logic, the abortion conflict is the result of women who use it too often. Who are these women he so callously labels as repeat offenders? First, they are women who are more fertile. In the days before contraception, some women had 13 children and others had three. There is a biological component to this story that Saletan completely ignores. Second, they are the women who have less control over the sexual decisions in their lives. (There has been growing attention among researchers and advocates to the issue of sexual violence and sexual coercion, issues to which Saletan appears oblivious.) Third, and perhaps this is the part that makes Saletan the most upset—they are the women that have more sex. Each episode of sexual activity increases one’s risk of pregnancy even when contraception is used.
  7. Saletan is also dangerously close to recommending mandatory contraception. Contraceptive coercion is damaging to women and their basic freedoms, and it likewise has a negative effect on the long-term acceptability of contraception. Rather than targeting individual women, Saletan may want to raise the visibility of the prochoice movement’s request that contraception be a covered service in the course of abortion care, which is prohibited in most states. Women who are paying out of pocket for abortion (between $400-$1200) don’t have the funds to shell out an additional $750 to get an IUD at the time of the abortion. Perhaps Saletan would like to write a check to support such services.

  8. Finally, Saletan proposes a tradeoff—prochoicers should “reconsider the legality of second-trimester abortion,” and prolifers in turn would give up their opposition to contraception. This is perhaps the most absurd of Saletan’s suggestions. Although the Catholic hierarchy and various Religious Right groups oppose contraception (and the former, by Saletan’s own admission, are hardly about to make such a deal), contraception is supported by an overwhelming majority of the American people, even by a majority of those who oppose abortion. So why should the prochoice movement make such a foolish bargain?
  9. But the real objection to this misguided suggestion is that anyone who cares about the real life circumstances of women on the ground, and the enormous difficulties many of them face when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, would see this proposal for the cruelty and callousness it contains. Only 10% of abortions occur after 12 weeks (and only 1% after 20 weeks). However, who makes up that 10% is not irrelevant. Younger women, poorer women, women of color, and women who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to need abortions in the second trimester. The current situation governing abortion in the country, emphatically reaffirmed during the health care debate—that public funds should not be used for abortion—results in many more later abortions, as these most vulnerable of women have to scramble for some time to raise the funds for an abortion. (Parental notification and consent requirements also often lead to delays for minors seeking abortions.) Saletan’s absolute ignorance of the effect that limiting second-trimester abortion would have on the real lives of women is appalling. (See “What do we know about women who get later abortions?” ANSIRH Issue Brief #3, August 2010.

We are glad that Saletan thinks he could tolerate his proposal. It will never affect him. Use of abortion is not simply a philosophical or political issue. It is a question about whether real women, with real lives, will have children they cannot care for or do not want. We all long for an end to the fight over abortion. There is a lot we can do in our culture to tone down the rhetoric and find civil ways to communicate across differences. We can learn to respect each other’s core values, to listen to each other’s opinions. Common ground, however, doesn’t mean shaming and judging women, denying care to the most vulnerable, and completely ignoring the challenge in spacing and timing our families. If we are to reach common ground, what we sacrifice must come from our own lives, not someone else’s.


Tracy A. Weitz, PhD, MPA, Associate Professor and Director ANSIRH Program, University of California San Francisco

Carole Joffe, PhD, Professor Emeritus, University of California Davis and Research Faculty, ANSIRH Program

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  • Amy:

    Tracy – I always learn new things from you. I had never thought of #3 as you write here …
    “heterosexual women spend almost 30 years of their life trying to avoid unintended pregnancies … The fact that only 1/3 of them will have an abortion speaks to the enormous success of women’s contraceptive use.”

    It reminds me of one of the first a-ha moments you gave me which is that rare is impossible – That even in the most perfect of circumstances (sex only when married, 100% use of birth control), abortion cannot be eliminated. Not only that, it can’t even be rare. Birth control is fallible. And that is in the most perfect, unrealistic circumstances. I found this shocking.

    Thanks for writing – keep it up!

  • Elizabeth Creely:

    I am truly speechless at Saletan’s suggestion that “repeat offenders” be targeted. Um, that would be me. Wow. I am speechless.

  • Parker Dockray:

    Thank you for the always brilliant analysis, and for saying what I would like to say to him in much more articulate and socially acceptable language. I am particularly sick of people who criticize and suggest “solutions” for second trimester abortion without once acknowledging the fact that the US does not offer any of the things that make abortions later in pregnancy less necessary – including universal health care, free or low cost early abortions as well as contraception, a living wage and job opportunities, affordable child care, etc etc etc. Our relatively high rate of second trimester abortion is a symptom of the poverty, racism and other inequities that we allow to flourish, and to discuss it without putting in this context is absurd.

  • Angel:

    Hi Tracy,
    Your idea that the woman must be central in the debate about reproductive choice resonated with me. It also seems to parallel a nursing theory that I just came across about decision-making, the theory of emancipated decision-making in women’s healthcare.
    The theory, and your blog post, remind me that there are implicit and explicit social factors that contribute to the oppression of women. As we can’t address all of these factors today, or even recognize all of them, it seems so important to me that healthcare attempts to create an environment that honors every woman’s individual choice regarding her reproduction.
    Thanks for posting this blog!

  • Jo Ann Madigan:

    Tracy,

    Than you for you always brilliant analysis. Iam grateful for you insights as well as your anger. Mostly I’m livid about Saletan and that we are still fighting the same battles over and over again.

  • Thanks for this piece. I’ve written my own soon-to-be published response at AbortionGang. But for those of you who want more evidence that Saletan doesn’t understand the definition of “male privilege’ here’s this little nugget he wrote in 2006. http://www.slate.com/id/2137775/

    “I’m not a woman, obviously, so I hesitate to say this—but is it really true, as some folks at this meeting argued, that abortion is fundamental to how today’s women construct their lives? I understand the point, made by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that this generation of women has grown up with the implicit assumption that they can get an abortion legally if they need one. But I find it hard to believe that many women would call this part of how they construct their lives. You construct your life around things you expect, plan, or hope for. You might construct your life around your menstrual cycle or your boyfriend’s maintenance of the condom supply. But abortion? Isn’t that the thing you don’t construct your life around, because you don’t want to think about it? And shouldn’t a movement that aims to reflect the way women construct their lives deal with it in that context, as a fallback?”

  • Here’s my response to Saletan. Essentially I don’t understand how he misunderstands who are the people who represent organized opposition to legal abortion. http://bit.ly/hDhUFT

  • Rose Dean:

    You are on point Tracy – “Further humiliating these women will not help end the abortion wars. ” Your retort didn’t miss much but it did miss something. It is important in the “battle of words” in addition as you wrote “Women presenting in abortion clinics are beating themselves up enough for having “messed up” or “been careless.” You also need to add…”and doing everything right”..using contraception methods, planning with your partner etc but the method just failed. As a health educator at a women’s center I hear more women beating themselves up because they were DOING EVERYTHING RIGHT but their contraception failed them. The number of women who were caught by surprise that the IUD , Implanon, OC, Depo, Condom, rhythm and yes even a vasectomies and tubal ligations failed to prevent a pregnancy. We, who may indeed understand the heart of a women better than Saletan, cannot miss ANY opportunity to correct the mis-representations of those “seeking common ground” by sharing real experiences and facts.

  • Tracy Weitz:

    Rose,
    You make a wonderful correction to our piece. Even when women are “doing everything right,” things go wrong. What we had hoped to convey is that women are often beating themselves up when they enter an abortion clinic, no matter what led to them being there. Women are all too aware of how Saletan’s distaste for them is shared by many in society. Women in their circumstances need our empathy not our judgment. Thanks for your comments.

  • Stephanie M:

    Thank you for this post. When I read Saletan’s suggestions for common ground I was really confused about what pro-choice movement he was talking about, because the non-crazy-judgmental suggestions he had are all things that all my pro-choice friends and I already advocate for. It frustrated me that he missed so much of the point, both in what he said (about second-trimester abortions and “repeat offenders”) and what he didn’t say (that the pro-life side is fighting as much/more about restricting sexual behaviors than abortion). I’m really glad I stumbled onto this blog! Thanks for your great work.

  • John:

    the very first point is in hypocritical in its assertion that Saletan is exaggerating and caricaturizing abortion clinics. so too is the author of this blog, just in a good light.

    to speak as if all abortion clinics are places where fetuses are honored, respected and dignified is a gross misrepresentation. two members of my family work alongside an abortion clinic and have weekly stories of atrocious counsel given to the women by those workers at the two abortion clinics in our city.

    would it be an overdrawn conclusion to say they are all like that? perhaps. but having this first hand evidence to bear witness to the situation certainly means this article’s glamorizing and sugar coating is far from the truth, not least of all the absolute nature in which it is framed.

    • Tracy Weitz:

      John,
      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate the criticism and for bringing an important point to light. Like all of health care, abortion clinics range in their quality and patient-centeredness: some are good, some are bad. We all need to be careful about taking a single experience and generalizing it to larger whole, especially for political purposes. I believe we need a place in our national debate where bad clinics can be held accountable for bad care, whether that it medical or emotional care, and good clinics can be rewarded for their work. Perhaps we can work together to help women know the difference so they can make informed choices about where they obtain their abortions.

      • Indira Rock:

        I appreciate your diplomacy in responding to John’s comment.

        Now I want to be less than diplomatic: John, you say relatives of yours “work alongside” abortion clinics (that’s a bit vague) — could you expand on “atrocious counsel”? Without any examples, I’m tempted to think your relatives who work alongside said clinic spend their days protesting its existence, and that the atrocious counsel given is simply the staff’s acknowledgement that, yes, they can in fact perform abortions.

        (I may be getting you wrong, but without more direct language, you completely whitewash your point and it sounds all the more ignorant.)

        Ignoring that distortion of your sources, I have to say that Tracy in no way glamorized abortion clinics. She was merely speaking up for the population they serve — a far more agonized and diverse population than Saletan was willing to acknowledge.

  • Nigel:

    Tracy,

    You’re not disagreeing with Saletan on points 1. and 2. You are in fact vehemently agreeing with him. Your final point about 2. is a good one, as we should embrace the abortions that are prevented by good decision-making and contraceptive availability, not those that are denied. But Saletan was saying the same thing! He quotes Sara Brown: “I would prefer that we have fewer, not by making it illegal or inaccessible or shameful, but by reducing the incidence of the unplanned, distressing, stressful pregnancies that are behind the vast majority of abortions.” Also he quotes Dawn Johnsen: “reduce abortion through means that help women and their families avoid unintended pregnancy and choose healthy childbearing.”

    On point 3. you acknowledge that women make mistakes. Saletan is just stressing that it be regarded as a moral mistake like say a “cheating on a spouse” mistake rather than an “oops I forgot” mistake.

    I agree with you on point 4. Stigmatizing women doesn’t really help anyone’s situation. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that doesn’t at least think a non-rape abortion isn’t irresponsible. As to the degree of irresponsibility? More than forgetting to pick your child up from school, but less than forgetting your infant in a parked car during a heat wave.

    I don’t see your point in 5. If half of abortions are for women who’ve already had one, why shouldn’t we target them for subsidized IUD’s, contraception, and family planning? You say as much yourself. Fertility is no excuse.

    And of course I agree with you on 6. I am pro-choice. And this kind of concession is nearly unacceptable. Nearly. But that’s kind of Saletan’s point, isn’t it? Advocating contraception is nearly unacceptable for pro-lifers.

    Finally, I wanted to ask you, do you ever read any of Saletan’s other articles? Phrases in your article like “Saletan needs to be reminded that,” “it is obvious that Saletan has never been in an abortion clinic,” “Saletan needs a history lesson,” “perhaps this is the part that makes Saletan the most upset—they are the women that have more sex” are completely ridiculous. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he puts out there, but phrases like this show complete ignorance of the person whose arguments you’re attacking.

  • Katie:

    Thank you for this brilliant post. I had the worst taste in my mouth after reading Saletan’s “course of action” for the pro-choice community.
    I’ve never seen women up in arms over men’s health decisions – penis pumps, viagra, vasectomies. In fact, I’ve rarely seen women truly have an opinion other than that men should do what is best for them.
    Maybe they could take a cue from us and stop thinking they know what decisions are best for women.

  • Indira Rock:

    I said it on Slate, and I’ll say it again — this article is brilliant.

    What first struck me about Saletan’s column(s) is that he assumes both parties at the table — pro-choice and “pro-life” — are on equal footing and come from equally logical points of view. This is intellectually dishonest.

    After you expanded on every argument I had on a gut level, I now realize that had Saletan done his homework, he wouldn’t have been able to follow through on the pretense that BOTH sides can learn from each other. There would have been no valuable takeaways for the pro-choice side.

    Thank you again.

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