Friday, February 03, 2006

The Pollitt-Saletan Exchange

Will Saletan and Katha Pollitt are having a very interesting exchange over at Slate concerning how the pro-choice movement needs to win over the middle. Saletan wrote this op-ed at the NYT on Roe's anniversary. Pollitt wrote this response to Saletan over at the Nation.

Now you can follow their discussion here and here. What should come as no surprise to my readers is that I think Katha is absolutely right to go after Saletan's "pro-choice puritanism." What is even more astute in her rebuttal is the use of images to illustrate the differences between their message about abortion and avoiding unintended pregnancies.

Pollitt writes:

"And then would come the ad campaign. Mine would have pictures of cheerful girls and women: "At my local Saletan clinic, the doctors are great and birth control is free! They really took time with me and answered all my questions. Best of all, I can call anytime and talk to a nurse in total privacy. Thanks to Saletan, I'll have a baby when I'm ready—but not till then." Yours would show a spiky-haired, pierced, and tattooed girl looking sullen and miserable: "I stayed out all night and forgot to take my Pill. Now I'm having an abortion and it's totally my fault. Go on, hate me, I deserve it! If only I'd listened to the doctors at Saletan." Or maybe you could have a picture of a stern-looking nun standing in front of an abortion clinic: "Birth Control: Because Purgatory's better than Hell."

Pollitt is really onto something when she imagines the different ad campaigns that follow from Saletan's message. When I discuss abortion in my WS courses, the first thing I do is ask my students to describe the image they have in their head of a typical woman who is seeking an abortion. Guess who they imagine? Most often an irresponsible version of themselves.

I find this thought experiment useful for getting at why so many people take a judgemental, harsh, and moralistic stance towards women who seek abortions. They are imagining themselves in their worst moments and, therefore, punishing themselves for being irresponsible by loudly denouncing the actions of any woman who would get an abortion because of a contraception failure.

My first move is to try and give them a fuller and more accurate picture of the variety of women who actually seek abortions, and remind them that some of those women are their mothers, who might be avoiding serious health risks.

My second move is to ask them how comfortable they have felt about their sexuality, talking about sex, seeking information, support, and advice about healthy sexual relationships. Not surprisingly, many of them are utterly uncomfortable and ashamed about these kinds of conversations.

I tend to think that their shame about sex conversations has a lot to do with contraception failures. Don't you?