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Did the Pro-Choice Movement Save America?

AlterNet speaks with Cristina Page, the author of a controversial new book about the state of sex, morality and abortion rights in America.
 
 
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In her new book, How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics, and the War on Sex (Basic Books), Cristina Page boldly declares that the pro-choice movement is "doing a better job at what the public understands to be the pro-life agenda than the pro-lifers are": that is, not only dramatically reducing the number of abortions in the United States, but also putting forth (and achieving) a truly pro-family, pro-child vision of life in America.

Page, a veteran of the editorial departments of Glamour and Ms. magazines, and the current vice president of the Institute for Reproductive Health Access at NARAL Pro-Choice New York, describes how she had been searching for a pro-life counterpart with whom she could engage in a reasoned, honest search for common ground. She found one: a feminist-identified woman who worked for a Right to Life chapter, and on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 2003, they published a jointly authored op-ed in the New York Times .

"The Right to Agree" laid out a series of shared goals, including pro-family and pro-child policies like affordable child care and support for single mothers, an end to violence and violent language in the abortion debate, and the adoption of legislation mandating that health insurance cover contraceptives. While pro-choicers responded with mild support, pro-lifers were outraged, particularly at the statement of support for broad access to contraception. It was then that Page realized that the anti-contraception pro-lifers were not, as she'd assumed, on the fringe of the movement but rather the ones who set its agenda.

Referring to the book's relatively slim profile (it weighs in at just 236 pages), Page described it as "in many ways a breezy tour through frightening truths," but How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America is tenaciously researched and extensively documented (40 of those pages are endnotes). Digging deep into the evidence, Page unveils the hidden anti-contraception agenda of the pro-life movement and outlines how how close we are to losing not only the constitutional right to abortion provided by Roe but also our rights to safe, accessible contraception.

AlterNet met up with Page at her San Francisco hotel.

Rachel Fudge: You describe your book as an attempt to seek out common ground between the pro-choice and the pro-life movements. What did you find?

Cristina Page: What I tried to do in this book is to say, Let's put on the table that [abortion] is something we don't want to have happen at the frequency that it is, or even at all. Those are the terms with which we'll discuss this. And when that happens, you begin to realize that [the pro-life side] is not interested in that. The greatest irony is that reducing abortion has become problematic for them, and it's because their aim is not pure.

Their aim is not about reducing abortion -- it includes restricting people's access to contraception, it includes transforming our sex lives, it includes transforming our families. That's the goal, and [restricting abortion] is just one vehicle toward that end.

RF: When you talk about the pro-life movement, you're really talking about the leaders of organizations like the American Life League and National Right to Life, who are going further than what many Americans want to see happen. It seems like there's a disjunction between the leadership of the pro-life organizations and the mass of Americans who are deeply ambivalent about abortion -- the ones who in the polls say they think abortion is wrong, but who also say they don't want to lose Roe.

CP: I tried to make a very clear distinction between pro-life Americans -- the [people] who believe that abortion needs to be prevented and [its rate] reduced -- and pro-life organizations, who have political gains outside of this issue. They're very different, in large part because if pro-life Americans actually knew what their handiwork resulted in, they would not be sending donations to these groups. If they knew that the pro-choice movement was doing a better job at what they understand to be pro-life goals than the pro-life movement is, then they would act accordingly.

Recent statistics say that 66 percent of Americans don't want Roe v. Wade overturned, [yet] only 51 percent consider themselves pro-choice. So what we're seeing is an unreported-upon third of the pro-life movement that wants to keep abortion legal but find ways of preventing the need for it, which I think is so important for us to understand at this point.

One thing that I think makes the pro-choice and the pro-life movements very different is that [pro-choicers] believe in science, and we believe in independent self-direction. Pro-lifers believe in a creator, and that everything is predetermined. Those entry points into this issue very much affect the way in which both sides behave. For example, even though we are the designers and creators of all the grassroots tactics -- the marches, the sit-ins, the letter-writing, the ballots and the petitions -- those tools are used much better now by the Christian right than they are by [the left]. When they get marching orders on a daily basis to call their representative, to tell a company that they're boycotting them, to flood radio stations with phone calls, to thank a senator, to stand outside a building with a sign, they do it.

RF: The PR angle seems so important. You see this all over the left, with feminists, pro-choicers, liberals -- all of these movements that have lost not only the language but the fight for the public-image campaigns. For instance, in Bush's State of the Union Address, when he trumpets the declining numbers of abortions, he's not congratulating NARAL and Planned Parenthood, even though that's who deserves the credit. You don't ever hear that publicly.

CP: I'm glad you mentioned that, because I wrote an op-ed last week about [how Bush is] misleading America -- no one published it, by the way. Those figures Bush was using were from 2002. This man has absolutely no right to take credit for what we know to be the work of the Clinton administration and the pro-choice movement's policies. It was a misleading statement.

The fact is, Clinton wasn't strutting around on the dais like the cock of the roost during his administration about what we know were the actual declining numbers because we didn't know [it] at the time -- and we don't know what's going on now. We won't know until after Bush's administration is over.

But I will say this: While the legacy of Clinton remains -- we have more contraceptives available than ever before in history; more people have health-insurance coverage for their contraceptives; emergency contraceptives are more available than ever before, even though people misunderstand what it is and that keeps them from using it -- in that speech Bush was asking the American public to believe that the diametrically opposite policies had led to these declining numbers.

He was saying, "I have taken a course of action that is leading in the exact opposite direction of what we know are proven ways to [reduce the numbers of abortions and teenage pregnancies], and I expect that the same exact results will come from the exact opposite policies."

RF: Mentioning declining abortion rates and abstinence in the same breath was quite clever.

CP: And no one called him on it. I have not read one person in this country calling him on that fact. Now, if it were the NSA or it were about WMDs Whether or not [women] have access to contraception and safe access to services will impact us immediately, far more than an Al Qaida cell in Afghanistan. I don't mean to minimize those issues, but I don't see the media covering it -- with the exception of a handful [of progressive outlets]. I don't see this debate happening among the people the public needs to hear from.

For example, the Vatican is putting out claims that the condom can cause the spread of AIDS. The Vatican is trying to make these religious arguments by [using] science and misinterpreting and misusing scientists' materials. The only one to cover the story was the BBC. They went back to every single scientist that the Vatican used and said, Let's see what you actually did say, and all of them said resoundingly that they believed that condoms are the only method besides not having sex at all that will protect you against HIV/AIDS. The BBC alone did that -- I never saw anyone follow up on it.

RF: One of the most chilling parts of your book is your chapter on the Bush administration's defunding of UNFPA in 2002, describing how a handful of extremists were able to have a dramatic global effect, and the way that they have safe harbor in the Bush administration.

CP: First of all, it's important to note that UNFPA has nothing to do with abortion. They don't provide abortion services; they simply are the largest contraceptive distributor to developing nations. In fact, their work leads to fewer abortions. Contraception may be a hallmark of how we live [in the United States] and how we base our lives, but in developing nations, this is a life-saving technology. If you don't have good obstetric care, and if you get pregnant too early or too late in life, or too quickly after a previous pregnancy, that's life-endangering. When you see in these countries the maternal death rate because there's no access to contraception compared to countries that have widespread access to contraception, you know: You know that [UNFPA and other agencies are] doing God's work by getting these techniques to the people who need them most.

Six people in Front Royal, Va., in a religious office park campus, have led these slanderous campaigns against, and in many ways terrorized, UNFPA workers. [Representatives of PRI went] into Yugoslavia and claimed that [UNFPA is] involved in ethnic cleansing because they're handing out birth-control pills to people who've been raped as an act of war. It's unbelievable to see this, and to see the full-blown nature of vindictiveness and how sinister their goals are. The pro-life movement in the United States is the international pro-life movement.

That's the truth, and it really is leading to the most paradoxical of outcomes: more abortions. More maternal death, more infant death. Pro-lifers [in the United States] need to understand this.

That's really what I hope to do with this book. It may be loud and bombastic, and titled in a way that maybe some pro-life people find offensive, but this is a common-ground book. It's from somebody who has wanted an honest discussion about this for a long time; I'm forcing that discussion to happen.

RF: What kind of response have you gotten from pro-lifers?

CP: When I have heard from reasoned people who disagree about the morality of abortion, what I've heard is that these are facts that they were not aware of but are of deep concern to them, that they are glad to have a debate in a thoughtful way, and that they appreciate what I'm saying. And then they typically go on to tell me all the ways in which I'm wrong: It was wrong for me to get Roseanne Barr to blurb the book, it was wrong for me to claim that we can't legislate good parenting through parental-consent legislation. So they take me to task, but I think the important part is that the conversation has begun, and at the right volume and in the right setting. I'm very encouraged by the pro-life reaction -- when they have heard and understand it, when they've given themselves the chance to not judge this book by its cover and instead judge it by its content. Hopefully that's just a bellwether of things to come.

RF: What might the bright spots be in all of this?

CP: I would love to find a pro-lifer who is reasoned, solution-oriented, who can engage on this in a forum -- I won't even say a debate because maybe what we'll discover is that we have more in common than we once thought -- in crowds of people, in churches, on college campuses. That's what I'm hoping for.

I do think that we need a kind of talking tour that happens in town-hall-like settings in which people are willing to engage in this in a practical way. It's an emotional debate, and I think a lot of people are afraid to enter into it. They're afraid of the acrimony and anger, and, sadly, the few on the fringe have dictated the climate in which this debate can happen, so we've all been subject to it.

RF: You illustrate this in the beginning of your book, when you talk about the New York Times op-ed piece ("The Right to Agree") that you wrote with a feminist-leaning pro-life leader, who was then ostracized by her community.

CP: I have very great affection for her. I think she was very brave to do what she did. It's someone like her who will understand and see this book for what it is. I think she will agree on many points, and I think she will disagree on many points. But I think what her takeaway will be is that this is an extension of our work [together]. I don't mean to overblow what they did, but the reaction that we got from her side was so revolting; this is my impassioned response to them. It's coming to her defense in many ways. To me, she was the mainstream of her movement and she was intimidated into silence. We need to raise the voice of the reasonable, honest, true pro-lifer in this country and not one that speaks in placards behind which there is no proof that what they do has any positive effect. That has to end. For me, to see that hope dashed when she was put in her place and rebuked so clearly was the final straw.

RF: Some have argued that we need a change in the framing and nomenclature of the movement -- that we shouldn't call them pro-life, because they don't deserve that term. Then there are other people saying we need to get rid of the pro-choice/pro-life distinction because we need a middle way of bringing people together.

CP: I use the term "pro-life," and I was prepared for more resistance on the part of my colleagues to that. But the reason I did that was very calculating: Because I had the opportunity here to show what results from their work, I did not want to rename them; I wanted to affiliate them with the awful outcomes that their work leads to.

You know, Love Canal used to sound like a great place to live until we found out what was beneath the surface. We didn't change it to some other name like Poison Lake; it remained Love Canal. We need to do the same with the pro-life movement: We need to not be afraid to call them by what the American public understands them to be, and then really expose what their work leads to. Then I think it won't sound as quaint and touching as it does now. I think people might begin to question whether it's a title that accompanies their value system.

In every speaking engagement I've done on the book, I'd had people come up to me and say, "I'm pro-life and I'm pro-choice." I think that's where we need to be.

Because pro-choicers rely on science, and so much of our language is born out of fact and evidence, we're hampered in some sense. We can't come up with these inaccurate soundbites that are very seductive, like "partial-birth abortion." Doctors would never come up with that term because it's inaccurate. In some ways we're hampered by the truth. It's kind of like we're the nonfiction version, and they're the fiction version -- we're science, and they're science fiction.

In that way we're not equal opponents. We're playing different games. They have the advantage of using whatever is at their disposal, while we walk the straight and narrow line of what's fact and truth. That's hard in the messaging game. We maintain, and they destroy.

As a mother of a 2-year-old, I can tell you it's much harder to keep the place neat and ordered than it is for him to mess it all up. What takes him five minutes takes me 40 minutes to clean up, and that's the difference. We're trying to maintain and pick up the pieces, and they're coming in wreaking havoc.

Furthermore, Planned Parenthood is one of the largest pro-choice organizations in the country, but they're a health care organization. They're delivering services, They have clients; they care for them. They are not just a political arm like Focus on the Family. Focus on the Family doesn't have any services; they don't offer clients anything; they're not delivering any critical care to people. These are equal organizations in wealth. But we have to draw into question the relative wealth of these organizations. Planned Parenthood's operating budget isn't all being expended in messaging campaigns to people, and so the relative wealth of these two movements is critical, too, in framing these debates. I think the public thinks they're matched enemies, but it's a David-and-Goliath scenario when it comes to financing.

RF: A central argument of your book is that the pro-choice movement has to a great degree created the America we live in today.

CP: I want to stress how young this movement is, how young these laws are. I in many ways physically embody what the pro-choice movement is: Not only because I'm exhausted and feel like I'm always on the brink of needing to stay in bed for the day, but because I'm 35, I'm in an equal marriage, I'm college-educated, I bring home half of the income in my family, my husband is expected to be as nurturing to my child as I am, and we plan our family. A woman like me, a woman like you, has never before existed. A man like my husband -- the men who are involved in their families as colleagues -- has never existed before either.

We're only beginning to take stock of what this means for us as a country and who we are. We look around and see how different our lives are from those who lived in the '50s, and people really need to understand that it is in large part due to family planning. The fact is, we cut poverty in half in just 35-40 years. This is because of these shifting trends in which people have access to education; men [as well as women] have more choice in their jobs now because they're no longer the primary and sole contributor to the family; they can leave a bad job, an abusive environment. They can spend more time with their kids, and they are. All this data shows that children are benefiting wildly from this. Those are investments that we can't truly understand the total of.

We need to make having a family easier for people. There are many women who are having abortions simply because they can't afford to have a child. If that's the case, then there are solutions. Maybe it's making child care more affordable and of better quality. Take the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is cherished by the American people. The American public doesn't understand that 90 percent of the opposition to the FMLA was from pro-lifers. The Children's Defense Fund made a list of the worst legislators for children in this country, the people who are making it harder to have a family and to raise a child by stripping Americans of their health-insurance benefits, their unemployment benefits, basically pulling the rug out from under families. A hundred percent of the people who are listed as the worst are pro-life.

[When I was researching this book,] I was happy to make distinctions and say, Well, we do have evidence that there's a wing of the pro-life movement that supports child care. But [what I found is that] there is no wing. And the opposition that we're facing to these issues is from these pro-life groups. An alarming pattern emerges: Not only do they want to take away legal and safe abortion, they want to stop people from having access to contraception. Coupling with that, they want to strip people of opportunities to put their children -- whether they wanted them or not or can afford them or not -- into child care.

Where does this lead? What is the point of this? How can you be against child care if you're against helping people plan their families? If you don't want to help people have limited numbers of children, why are you stripping them of the very things that make that possible? The only conclusion that this path leads to is one: The modern family is deeply offensive to the Christian right. The family structures in which we are living today, in which both parents are equal and they both bring home a living, they get to choose the number of children they have to what they can support and want -- that is offensive to the pro-life establishment. The whole reason why none of their programs are leading to fewer abortions is because that's simply not the point. The point isn't about abortion, it's about the family. It's about what the family looks like, it's about who's in it, who's leading it, who has the power, and who's the spiritual head.

While it sounds like a cliché, it's the truth, and we can't let the fact that it sounds like a cliché cloud the fact that it's the actual truth of what they're up to. If we ignore it because it seems passé, it will be our reality sooner than we think.

Rachel Fudge is the senior editor of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture and a freelance writer.