Politics: Pro-choice or no choice

Cristina Page, How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex (Basic Books, 2006)

At first glance, Cristina Page’s How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America seems to belong in the fantasy aisle. Between the war in Iraq, Samuel Alito, global warming, and federal funding of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers substituting school-based sex education, America seems far from salvation.

Page knows this. On the other hand, she also knows that contraception and abortion have been a boon to public health and have given both individuals and families access to opportunities and choices unimaginable 40 years ago. Indeed, access to fertility control has made it easier for women to work outside the home and be full participants in their communities.

In fact, since the early 1970s, women have been able to be sexually active without fear of becoming or having to remain pregnant, and few feminist gains would have been possible without reproductive control.. Women now more often marry for love rather than because they are “in trouble.” With less pressure to rush to the altar, they’ve been able to pursue higher education for intellectual reasons rather than an MRS degree, and have had the freedom to enter the workplace, rather than the kitchen, after college.

A full 65 percent of us, according to a July 2005 Gallup poll, celebrate these changes. Why then, are abortion and contraception still controversial issues? Why do some people still bristle at the idea of comprehensive sex ed? Doesn’t everyone want to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies?

When Page began her research, she was convinced that common ground between anti- and pro-choice forces was possible. Years later, she knows that it’s not. Pro-lifers have galvanized their forces by portraying pro-choice people as over-the-top sex radicals whose libertine impulses run counter to decency. What’s more, Page documents a frightening pattern. No longer content to focus on the alleged horrors of abortion, pro-life conservatives have widened their repertoire to rail against birth control, and have basically abandoned women once they’ve given birth. “Concurrently,” she writes, “they assert that child care is bad, an assumption that carries with it the implication that women who rely on childcare are bad. These accusations come with no accompanying solution—except that women should stay at home, caring for their young.”

Forget, for now, the blatant class bias that assumes this to be viable. Instead, look at the data. Page meticulously chronicles study after study, all affirming that most working mothers are not only happier than their stay-at-home counterparts, but are also ably juggling childcare, hearth and workplace. In addition, while men are rarely equal participants on the home front, increasing numbers are cooking, diapering, and cleaning. Yes, thousands of men are spending more time with their kids than their dads spent with them. To most minds, this is an important move in the right direction.

Page believes that the lion’s share of Americans expect to control their fertility and think of contraception and abortion as their birthright. Like most progressives, she sees the Right’s “moral values” as smokescreens for religious fundamentalism, having more to do with reinstituting ossified gender roles than with supporting families. Years of scrutinizing anti-choice groups have led Page to another realization: Not one pro-life group supports contraception. To reduce the number of abortions, why not support family planning both domestically and internationally? Why don’t pro-life groups work to get contraceptives into the hands and bodies of those clamoring for them, especially in places where abortion is illegal? And why not empower young people with knowledge of how the human body works so they can make safer decisions and avoid STDs, pregnancy and feelings of inadequacy?

While Page’s assessment of the misogyny underlying anti-choice activism is not new—actually, there is little in the book that will shock those who have followed reproductive rights battles—she has synthesized a ton of material and has written cogently, forcefully and clearly. Accessible and straightforward, the book proves that even if the pro-choice movement has yet to save America, losing reproductive rights imperils us all.

Contributor

Eleanor J. Bader