An op-ed in today’s New York Time by Katha Pollitt says what I’ve been struggling to say about the reaction to the attack on women’s reproductive rights launched by means of the undercover videos made by anti-abortion activists.

Defenders of choice are too quick to apologize, too quick to retreat to a narrow line of defense.

Abortion is legal. Medical research involving use of fetal remains is legal, even vital to research. The debate on funding Planned Parenthood is not about abortion funding, but about medical services. The record shows that loss of accustomed providers of cancer screenings, disease testing and family planning has not been readily filled by other providers where states like Texas have crippled Planned Parenthood’s service to women. Don’t believe Sen. Tom Cotton’s incessant claims to the contrary.

But finally the issue is about women’s control of their medical destiny and their ability to make decisions for themselves.

Yes, the videos “cleverly evoke visceral feelings of disgust,” Pollitt notes. (Imagine how people would feel if shown the ways in which medical students sometimes handle the cadavers on which they learn their profession?)

Abortion rights supports have been boxed into the anti-choice side’s messaging. 

Abortion opponents say women seek abortions in haste and confusion. Pro-choicers reply: Abortion is the most difficult, agonizing decision a woman ever makes. Opponents say: Women have abortions because they have irresponsible sex. We say: rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormalities, life-risking pregnancies.

These responses aren’t false exactly. Some women are genuinely ambivalent; some pregnancies are particularly dangerous. But they leave out a large majority of women seeking abortions, who had sex willingly, made a decision to end the pregnancy and faced no special threatening medical conditions.

We need to say that women have sex, have abortions, are at peace with the decision and move on with their lives. We need to say that is their right, and, moreover, it’s good for everyone that they have this right: The whole society benefits when motherhood is voluntary. When we gloss over these truths we unintentionally promote the very stigma we’re trying to combat. What, you didn’t agonize? You forgot your pill? You just didn’t want to have a baby now? You should be ashamed of yourself.

One in three women has had at least one abortion. Many, if not most, have had help from others — men women and families and doctors. Their voices need to be heard. Also those of doctors who see members of Congress interfering with the practice of medicine. The demonizing of medical research has far-reaching public health consequences. Is the attack on Planned Parenthood meant to lead to a ban on such research?  Will scientists allow this roadblock to the search for treatment of …. sick babies?

 A recent study published in the journal Psychological Medicine finds that more than 95 percent of women felt the abortion was the right decision, both immediately after the procedure and three years later. They’ve been shamed into silence by stigma. Abortion opponents are delighted to fill that silence with testimony from their own ranks: the tiny minority of women who say they’re plagued by regret, rape victims glad they chose to continue their pregnancies, women who rejected their doctor’s advice to end a pregnancy and — look at these adorable baby pictures! — everything turned out fine.


It is understandable that women who have ended pregnancies just wanted to move on. Why should they define themselves publicly by one private decision, perhaps made long ago? I’ll tell you why: because the pro-choice movement cannot flourish if the mass of women it serves — that one in three — look on as if the struggle has nothing to do with them. Without the voices and support of millions of ordinary women behind them, providers and advocates can be too easily dismissed as ideologues out of touch with the American people.

Planned Parenthood is big. It estimates that one in five women have visited its clinics for health care. But the implications of the video sting, and the congressional scrutiny Planned Parenthood now faces, are even bigger. They’re about whether Americans will let anti-abortion extremists control the discourse and dictate the agenda around reproductive rights, medicine and scientific research. Silence, fear, shame, stigma. That’s what they’re counting on. Will enough of us come forward to win back the ground we’ve been losing?

Don’t be fooled.

UPDATE: On this same topic, Sen. Elizabeth Warren shamed any U.S. senators with a sense of shame with her floor speech against stripping women’s health care funding from Planned Parenthood.

“I come to the Senate floor today to ask my Republican colleagues a question,” she began. “Do you have any idea what year it is? Did you fall down, hit your head, and think you woke up in the 1950s? Or the 1890s? Should we call for a doctor?”

“Because I simply cannot believe that in the year 2015, the United States Senate would be spending its time trying to defund women’s healthcare centers. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. The Republicans have had a plan for years to strip away women’s rights to make choices over our own bodies.”

Warren explained that in 2013, the GOP threatened to shut down the government if they couldn’t change the Affordable Care Act in a way that would allow employers to deny access to birth control. In March 2015, they stopped a bill that would’ve curtailed human trafficking because it could have allowed for the private funding of abortions. In June, Republicans passed a budget that eliminated Title X.

Moreover, she said, “over the past few years, Republicans have voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act more than 50 times, including the portions that require insurers to cover contraception.”

“Just to be clear,” Warren continued, “even though the abortions performed at Planned Parenthood are safe and legal, the federal government is not paying for any of them. Not — one — dime.”

Warren noted that it’s not just the House and Senate that are involved in this effort, but state legislatures too. “This year alone,” she said, “Republican state legislators have passed more than 50 new restrictions on women’s access to legal healthcare.”