Around the corner from her home on the Upper West Side, Katha Pollitt is ensconced in a booth at one of those no-frills diners that have mostly been squeezed out of Manhattan by fast food restaurants and upscale coffee dispensaries. Wearing basic New Yorker black enlivened by a cheerful scarf, she digs into two poached eggs, bemoaning the sabotage of her diet by a recent trip to Spain and Turkey. Pollitt in person is as down-to-earth and witty as she is in her “Subject to Debate” column in the Nation, collected over the past two decades in several bracing volumes from Random House, and in the more personal essays found in Learning to Drive: And Other Life Lessons (Random House, 2007).
Even when she’s discussing the very serious topic of her forthcoming book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, which Picador will publish in October, her sense of humor doesn’t abandon her. Asked why she chose to write her first single-subject book about abortion, she replies, “Open the newspaper! Every day you read about another clinic closing, another stupid regulation. Pretty soon it will be: ‘And you can’t drive on the highway to get to the abortion clinic, because that is the government paying for your abortion!’ ”
Pro paints a bleak picture of the anti-abortion movement’s largely successful campaign to restrict access to this legal medical procedure, to the point where it’s basically unavailable in many parts of the country. “There are real geographic differences,” Pollitt notes. “Most abortion law is statewide, so it’s still possible for people who live in abortion-friendly, women’s-rights-friendly blue states like New York to say, ‘Oh, well, North Dakota’—where there’s one clinic and the laws get progressively more and more restrictive—‘that’s so far away.’ But ultimately we are one country, and things come back to bite you.”
Pollitt says, “If there’s one thing I want people to take from my book, it’s that abortion is a fact of life.” Her mother had an abortion when Pollitt was 10; her great-grandmother died from an abortion “back in the old country” a century ago. Citing a 1960 article from the American Journal of Public Health, which estimated that in the 1950s—before the sexual revolution, at a time when most women married very young—nearly a million illegal abortions were performed each year, she notes, “We just have to accept that having children is too important a part of life to be left to compulsion or random chance. The sheer fact is that every birth control method has a failure rate.”
It doesn’t help that “the same people who want to make abortion a crime want to restrict birth control,” Pollitt says. Her sardonic wit reemerges as she examines Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the recent Supreme Court decision that (among other things) exempts closely held corporations from an Affordable Care Act mandate requiring companies to provide insurance coverage for certain forms of contraception. “Look at the methods Hobby Lobby wishes to pay for. It’s nice they would pay for any of them, I suppose, but the ones they won’t pay for include the most effective methods, the IUD and emergency contraception.”
The company claims these methods prevent the implantation of fertilized eggs and are therefore tantamount to abortion. “Anti-abortion activists have their own science,” Pollitt remarks wearily. “When study after study comes out saying that the Pill does not prevent implantation, they don’t say, ‘Hey, that’s great! Thank you science; now we can all take the Pill!’ They say, ‘You’re just wrong. Jesus told me.’ Why aren’t they happy that there’s effective birth control? It comes down to controlling women. I know it’s a total ’70s cliché to say that, but it’s true. It’s the only way you can really understand what’s going on.”
Yes, Pollitt is an unreconstructed 1970s-style progressive—hardly surprising for a member of a firmly left-wing family who attended college in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But her career as a political journalist was not a foregone conclusion: she didn’t arrive at the Nation until 1982, when she was hired as literary editor. That was also the year Knopf published Antarctic Traveller, Pollitt’s first collection of poems, and she had been supporting herself while writing poetry with the usual patchwork of freelance gigs. “Do you know what one of my first jobs right out of college was?” she asks. “Writing PW reviews! I was a freelance writer and a proofreader/copy editor at various places until I was almost 30.”
Pollitt says, “I wrote a lot of book reviews in the ’70s, and I discovered that what interested me was the subject of a book. Whether the book itself was good or bad became less important to me; what I really liked were the issues and arguments and information in it. So I gradually moved over from book reviewing to writing articles and journalism and opinion pieces.” Antarctic Traveller won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry in 1983, but Pollitt waited 26 years to publish a follow-up collection—The Mind-Body Problem: And Other Poems. “Poetry comes and goes,” she says. “I think it would be more there if I focused on it more, and I’d like to now. I hope the muse will forgive me for my long sojourn in the land of nonfiction.”
She’d also like to write more personal essays, undaunted by the mixed reactions to “Learning to Drive” and “Webstalker” when they appeared in the New Yorker. Some readers felt Pollitt’s feminist credentials were compromised by her frank discussion of the split with a longtime partner who turned out to be a serial cheater. “Those were some of the easiest and most pleasurable pieces of writing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I was astonished that people were disappointed in me or shocked. I followed my ex-boyfriend on the Internet after we broke up, and this is supposed to be shameful? I never thought of myself as a feminist icon; when people said that, I used to say, ‘Oh great: come over and clean my house!’ I don’t like the whole icon idea; I think it just reduces people—flattens them. It’s like, if you’re a feminist, you’re supposed to be some perfect embodiment of someone else’s idea of what feminism is. Telling your truth: that’s feminism.”
Pollitt regretfully sees this same allergy to hard truth in the pro-choice movement, which she believes too often allows anti-abortion activists to frame the terms of the debate. “Some of the ways that they talk about abortion reproduce the stigma, even as they’re trying to get away from it,” she says. “The women who speak up often have had abortions for ‘acceptable’ reasons: ‘I was raped’; ‘It was a wanted pregnancy that was incompatible with life’; ‘I was very sick.’ What you don’t hear so often is: ‘I had all the children I wanted,’ or, ‘I wasn’t ready to start a family yet.’ Most women who have abortions are either mothers already or will go on to be mothers. The woman who has an abortion and the woman who has children are the same woman at different points in her life, and this is so important. I want to provoke a discussion that’s complicated and open, and I think the time is right for people to think about these issues in a way that is a little more human.”
Wendy Smith is a longtime contributor to Publishers Weekly and the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, recently reissued by Vintage.
Correction: This article previously contained a misquote from Katha Pollitt regarding the Hobby Lobby issue.