We are delighted to introduce Professor Carol Sanger and the participants in our online symposium on About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First-Century America (Harvard University Press 2017).
Professor Sanger, in her inimitable style, updates us on the state of the abortion debate in the age of Trump. She explains how the experiences of women who have abortions have disappeared into the shadows while those who would outlaw it control the public discourse. She explores the explosion of hostile legislation in state legislatures, as the new laws “treat abortion not as an acceptable medical decision—let alone a right—but as something disreputable, immoral, and chosen by mistake.” Sanger’s book captures the reasons why the discourse has changed, and how abortion, which has always been a contentious issue, drives its emotional force from its connection to underlying debates about sex, religion, gender, politics, and identity. She nonetheless seeks to reclaim women’s perspectives on the practice of abortion. She argues that as women become more willing to talk about their experiences, “women’s decisions about whether or not to become mothers will be treated more like those of other adults making significant personal choices.” In short, she seeks to normalize the topic of abortion.
The book covers original material that Sanger has assembled documenting the legal infrastructure for abortion decision-making. She presents the experiences of vulnerable teens, forced to appear before hostile judges in an effort to secure permission to proceed without parental consent. Courts deem many of the teens too immature to make such decisions on their own, but not apparently too immature to become mothers against their will. She also describes the women required to undergo involuntary ultrasounds, the debate about whether the women are allowed to look away, and the insidiousness of this alleged effort to “help” women make the abortion decision.
Throughout, Sanger connects these practices to law, medicine, the organization of intimate relationships, the shape of a woman’s life, and national identity. She takes pains to present the objections to abortion accurately even as she also counters the depiction of decisions to end pregnancies as “selfish” or casual decisions to put women’s interests ahead of their children. She distinguishes between abortion privacy, a form of nondisclosure based on a woman’s desire to control personal information, and abortion secrecy, a woman’s defense against the many harms of disclosure. She captures women’s varied views, whether they treat abortion as unthinkable or as a measure necessary to allow them to become “good” mothers in circumstances of their choosing.
Indeed, Sanger’s original treatment of abortion includes a chapter on the views of men. She asks not what decisions men would make about abortion; instead, she explores how they in fact decide whether to become fathers when they are faced with the choice of what to do with their frozen embryos. The men in such circumstances express concern over the potential child’s future welfare, distress over an ongoing relationship with the other parent, an unwillingness to consider adoption as an acceptable alternative; in short, they express the same concerns that women do about whether to proceed with a pregnancy. Yet, the right to life forces, while they often champion the rights of frozen embryos, do not subject the men’s decisions to the same intrusion and vilification they reserve for women. Sanger speculates that if the same law that governs decisions about frozen embryos applied to women’s reproductive decisions, it “would not look quite the same as it does now, with assumptions of incompetence, layers of second-guessing, and invasive counseling.”
About Abortion adds to our understanding of the abortion debate. It confronts the dishonesty and distortions that characterizes much of the public debate. It acknowledges the way the issue is deeply intertwined with fundamental questions about the organization of society. It advocates bringing the experiences of those who have chosen abortion out the shadows, and it succeeds in providing a richer foundation for public consideration of the issue.
About Abortion is an important book that has already received wide attention, including a New Yorker review that coincides with our consideration of it here. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/why-its-become-so-hard-to-get-an-abortion.
For this Concurring Opinions book symposium, we have invited an all-star cast of thinkers who have a variety of different perspectives on abortion: Helen Alvare, Caitlin Borgmann, Khiara Bridges, David Cohen, Leslie Griffin, Linda McClain, David Pozen, Lisa Pruitt, and Rachel Rebouche.