Creating a Culture of Reproductive Justice

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By Jean Peterman

PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights
By Katha Pollitt
Picador, paper, 288 pp., 2015

Grandma, a film by Paul Weitz, starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Cox, Marcia Gay Harding, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Pena, Sam Elliott, 2015

Katha Pollitt’s compelling and necessary book PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, is now out in paperback. This is good news in a very bleak season for reproductive justice. Pollitt, who writes frequently in the Nation about these issues, makes a clear case that the right to abortion is an economic issue as well as a moral one. Reproductive control “didn’t just make it possible for women to commit to education and work and free them from shotgun marriages and too many kids. It changed how women saw themselves: as mothers by choice.”

Studies show that access to contraception and abortion have contributed to the increase in the numbers of women in college and in the professions and the number of women who are economically independent. Pollitt contrasts the hypocrisy of our cultural veneration of mothers with the economic realities of their lives. Most of the consequences of being a parent fall on the mother. In two-income heterosexual families, often the woman’s income can kick the family into a higher tax bracket while barely or not even covering the cost of child care.

Because the United States does not have paid parental leave, the woman’s staying at home may make economic sense at the time, but means that when she re-enters the workforce she usually does so at a lower wage and a lesser job. The situation of single mothers is bleak indeed. Not only are they demonized, but there are very few social services and income supports to help them raise healthy children.

As an activist since the mid-seventies and later, a researcher, I have heard abortion stories from many women. For each woman, the abortion decision was embedded in her own life and was not an abstract moral issue. Their abortion allowed them to accept a scholarship to graduate school, leave a bad relationship, care for children they already had, and basically get their lives back. Several revealed that they had never told anyone about their abortion. Of the 35 women I interviewed for research projects, about half were practicing Catholics. Their religion was important to them, yet they did not agree with everything their church teaches. Said one, “My abortion is between me and God.”

One of Pollitt’s biggest contributions to the reproductive justice/anti-justice debate is to clarify that it is not a battle between religious people and non-believers. Most mainline Protestant denominations and Reform and Conservative Judaism support reproductive justice.

Catholic women get abortions in the same proportion as their numbers in the general population. George Tiller, the doctor who performed late-term abortions in Wichita, Kansas, was murdered by an anti-abortionist in the narthex of his Lutheran church. This controversy is between fundamentalists and the rest of us. Supporters of abortion should stop being so apologetic, says Pollitt, and claim reproductive justice as crucial to women’s empowerment at every level.

Director-writer Paul Weitz’s latest film does just that. Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin, is an “odd couple” saga of a lesbian grandmother helping her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) get the money for an abortion. Both funny and very moving, it serves as a perfect example of what Pollitt writes about. Contemporary feminism and generational divides are very much a part of this story. Grandma Elle is a 70ish lesbian feminist. Her daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), is a high-powered lawyer. Granddaughter Sage, unsure about her future, does not want to drift into motherhood. One of Elle’s plans is to sell her first edition copies of The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique to her local feminist bookstore but she is offered much less than she expected for them. Sage asks if the Feminine Mystique is an X-Men character.

Read PRO. Invite your friends to see Grandma. Then organize.

Jean Peterman is a member of the National Organization for Women and a former board member of the Chicago Abortion Fund. She is retired from the faculty of Chicago State University.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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