Carol Sanger Replies to Lisa Pruitt: Urban Omissions

Lisa Pruitt’s generous critique of About Abortion has many phrases that warmed the heart of the book’s author.  She praises the book as “seamlessly cross-disciplinary,” noting that Girls and the Getaway: Cars, Culture and the Predicament of Gendered Space is one of her favorite law review pieces. (Mine too and it hardly gets read!)  Pruitt accurately pinpoints my “over-arching point regarding women’s agency and competency,” and praises the “clever parallels” drawn between bypass hearings and fault-based divorce proceedings, and between mandatory ultrasound statutes and third party tort liability for maternal injury upon witnessing the death of one’s child.  She endorses About Abortion’s “very powerful critique” of judicial bypass hearings, where the author “puts herself in the shoes” of the teenage petitioners, which I hope means that readers themselves feel the sting of humiliation visited upon petitioning minors.

Pruitt’s analysis was especially heartening because the examples she selected for discussion included the very passages that I had spent much time developing as I believed I was onto something.  And too, Pruitt’s own turn of phrase is just what one longs for in reading legal writing; “law’s often arbitrary silos” as a description of the unnecessary insularity of one area of law from another is what one might expect from the academy’s expert on the distinctive place of law in the lives of our country’s rural citizens.

So far so good.  But then Pruitt takes aim and finds in an otherwise a “wide-ranging, provocative, thoughtful and beautifully written monograph,” that something important is missing and lamentably for the lost opportunity, that About Abortion could have been better.  The blind spot she identifies is the omission of “spatiality, geography, [and] rurality” as factors necessary for a more complete and productive understanding of abortion as a cultural and legal practice throughout the United States, and not just in the crowded parts. At this point in Pruitt’s critique, the author’s once warm blood began to run very cold indeed.

It would be easy to respond (in snarky Sorry, Not Sorry tone) something like well, you can’t cover everything. Look at all the connections I did make.  I mentioned distances in Texas, didn’t I?  And so on.  But in fact, Lisa Pruitt drew my attention to what is a blind spot and one that had been brought to my attention several years ago while I was teaching Family Law at Columbia.  During a class on custody, I stood by as the class went to town on a father who let his son have a shot gun, to which the mother objected.  A young man came up after class and said he was from somewhere that was not New York but a place where people guns in their homes and rifles in the cab of the family pick-up as a matter of course.  (I taught in just such a place for two years before law school a scant ten miles outside of Ann Arbor.) This student had grown up with guns and didn’t think it a proper factor in making a custody determination.  I took the point at the time, but I let it slip out of sight, as regionalism does all the time in Family Law, and likely elsewhere.

But Pruitt draws our attention to something more specific than mere regionalism.  Her focus is on rural regions, those places we smarty-pantses (or what Pruitt identified as “coastal elites”) fly over with a kind of oblivion, even when it comes to the application of legal doctrine.  Pruitt observes that this is true even for the Supreme Court, who, when applying the substantial burden test in Casey to waiting periods in relation to where women lived, found them to be “‘troubling in some respects’ but insufficiently burdensome to invalidate the law.” Indeed, she points out that my own discussion of distances in Whole Women’s Health crunched into a problem of time, rather than a problem of location and the more comprehensive set of problems that rurality presents to women with unwanted pregnancies outside cities and suburbs.

We should also keep in mind that some women are assigned into rurality.  I have in mind women serving in the armed forces not uncommonly in remote bases in various states.  An amici brief, filed in Whole Woman’s Health on behalf of the Service Service Women’s Action Network And Retired Or Former Military Officers, explained that “the entire western half of the [Texas], covering over 130,000 square miles—in which five large military bases are located—would lack any abortion care providers at all.” If HB2 had remained in effect, the brief noted that service women at Goodfellow Air Force Base would have a three hour drive to San Antonio, 199 miles away, and this is without the added difficulties of obtaining a pass, arranging a timely appointment, and finding the funds.

Many of us do not attend to the urban/rural distinction as a filter that could be imposed on legal analyses in criminal law, tort law, child welfare law, family law, immigration, and certainly with regard to the laws and regulations concerned with reproductive services.  There are those in addition to Pruitt, who I have in mind, the brief submitted in Whole Women’s Health by The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and Madeline Gomez’s article More Than Mileage: The Preconditions of Travel and the Real Burdens of H.B. 2.

Pruitt is careful not to recite the mantra familiar to anyone who has sat through more than two faculty workshops: why didn’t you write the book I would have written?  She is not asking for her passion to be all of ours. But she makes the case that location, location, location is not just a suburban realtor’s phrase. It is a concept—a fact—that is crucial to understanding how lives are lived and political preferences formed according to where one lives. As Wendell Berry has recently written,  “[s]ince the 2016 election, urban liberals and Democrats have newly discovered “rural America,” which is to say our country itself beyond the cities and the suburbs and a few scenic vacation spots… [But] as apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back.”   Pruitt knows that each of problems implicates law, and her call is for the rest of us to pay attention.

As for About Abortion, Pruitt writes: “I can’t help grieve the lack of attention to rural Americans—especially low-income ones—whose lived realities are so little understood by, by those who shape litigation with respect to rights whose exercise implicates the traversal of distance (including voting!), those who may take public transportation for granted, those who do not subsist on poverty level wages.”  I think she should have the last word on this important point.

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