Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 96 (October 1999): 67-70.
Speaking of Abortion: Television and Authority in the Lives of Women. By Andrea L. Press and Elizabeth R. Cole. University of Chicago Press. 223 pp. $25.
Reviewed by Paul F. Swope
It was flattering to be asked to write a book review for First Things. Then I opened the assigned book. Immediately I suspected that this was instead a punishment, a subtle revenge by the editors for something offensive I had said or written in the past.
What other conclusion could be reached when asked to read a book which begins:
Each individual feminist knower is also multiple in a way that mirrors the situation of wo men as a class. It is the thinker whose consciousness is bi fur ca ted, the outsider within, the marginal person now also located at the center, the person, committed to two agendas that are themselves at least partially in conflict (socialist feminist, black feminist, Jewish feminist, woman scientist), who has generated feminist sciences and new knowledges.
Indeed, such an opening stands as a kind of warning to potential readers not to venture further unless im mersed in feminist ideology and subjected to years of higher education at politically correct universities.
The surprising truth, however, is that anyone interested in how modern women view abortion and who perseveres in reading Speaking of Abortion will be richly rewarded. Despite the clear bias of the authors and the difficulty in adjusting to feminist jargon, this book offers substantive insights into the abortion debate in America. In fact, for pro–lifers interested in understanding women of different socioeconomic backgrounds, it should be required reading.
Authors Andrea Press and Elizabeth Cole began with a worthy objective, namely, to speak with a broad spectrum of women on both sides of the abortion issue, in the nonthreatening environment of their own homes, to learn how women react to television depictions of the abortion issue. The authors sought women who were not activists, correctly perceiving that activists are not representative of ordinary women.
They conducted a total of 108 interviews over four years, among thirty–four discussion groups. Each group viewed three television depictions of abortion, from episodes of Cagney and Lacey (1985) and Dallas (1985), and from the TV movie Roe v. Wade (1989). Afterwards, the participants discussed what they saw and felt while the authors took turns asking questions and observing the discussion.
Press and Cole are self–professed pro–choice feminists, who admit that the liberal abortion view has been "dis seminated virtually without challenge" in the mass media. Yet they are postmodern and class–conscious enough to imagine that not all wo men of all socio economic classes see abortion the way activists (mostly educated, upper–middle–class wo men) do. They make an interesting dis tinction among self–identified pro–choice women, between those who are middle class, those who are working class, and those who are working class but identify with middle–class women and values. While the limitations of the methodology could be discussed at length, the responses gathered still offer extremely useful information for anyone trying to persuade women to become pro–life.
The pro–choice working–class wo men who identify with their own class have adopted their pro–choice stand not as a matter of principle but as a strategy for survival. The women interviewed here "did not personally condone abortion; however, they were reluctant to invoke social authority to prohibit it. . . . They feared legal restrictions on abortion not because such laws would in principle abridge fundamental rights of women, but because they were convinced the laws would be prejudicially enforced." The women in this group did not trust the medical, judicial, or political systems.
Nor did they accept television’s portrayal of the working class. Respondents were sharply critical of the "helpless victim" image of the poor women who resort to abortion on the shows they watched. They also rejected the idea that financial hardship justifies abortion and the presumption that working–class women desire membership in the middle class, with abortion a necessary means of advancement.
These are important insights. The pro–choice portrayals of abortion on television have not impressed these wo men, nor have the arguments from first principles of either the pro–life or pro–choice movements. Logic, ab stract principles, legislative and political campaigns, condescending compas sion—these do not resonate. There is instead a fundamental "us against them" dynamic at work here that pro–lifers need to understand. These women are open to seeing abor tion as a tool of manipulation by those in power. After all, the strongest forces in favor of the right to abortion are also the ones this group deeply mistrusts.
To date the pro–life community has not convinced this group that it shares their interests, even though pro–lifers too are "outsiders." The authors found "distrust and even bitterness" towards members of the pro–life movement who promote keeping the baby without fully understanding the pressures on these women and their felt needs. Pro–lifers are seen as one more upper–middle–class group with an agenda to promote.
The other group of working–class pro–choice women, those who identify more with the middle class, are another story entirely. These respondents took pains to distance themselves from the irresponsible members of their own working class, those who are sexually reckless, on drugs, dependent on the welfare system, and so on. The priorities of this "up ward ly mo bile" group center on hard work, re sponsibility, and respectability.
For them, abortion is acceptable in the abstract as a last resort in serious cases. On the other hand, they feel it is too readily available and too frequently abused in today’s society. While they support abortion as a right for someone else, they firmly reject it for themselves or other "responsible" people. This is a completely different mindset from the other group, yet neither group of working–class wo men considers abortion fundamental to its way of life or even its own set of core values.
It is not until we reach the "middle–class pro–choice" category that we find the familiar feminist opinion, which the authors characterize as the belief that
only an individual woman’s feeling—indeed her own anguish—can determine whether abortion would be right or wrong in her case. This is an extremely subjective logic. . . . It argues that the decision in each case must depend on factors that those not directly involved have no means to assess. . . . Since no one can really know what someone else is going through, no one can make a valid abortion decision for another.
Many of these women still maintain that abortion is wrong, and, like the upwardly mobile working–class wo men, they flatly reject abortion for themselves. But they nonetheless defend vehemently the freedom to choose abortion. These women view abortion as something for less fortunate others who need compassion and support, not moral judgment and legislative persecution.
Cole and Press do not take an uncritical view of this "mainstream" position. They even suggest that there is a "fault line in the logic of legitimization underlying the pro–choice movement in the United States," located in the clash between abstract principle and its concrete application. Pro–choice women will say that no one can decide for another about an abortion, yet they categorically reject abortion for themselves and condemn abuses they see in particular decisions to abort. Abortion rights rhetoric proposes a radical libertarianism that the women themselves are not willing to accept.
In summary, none of these pro–choice categories show women at ease with abortion, suggesting that with pro per positioning and careful presentation, the pro–life view might make substantial inroads among them all.
It is interesting to note that the conventional "pro–life vs. pro–choice" labels do not adequately represent any group of women in this study. Across all categories the authors found that "the legality of the procedure was of only secondary concern. . . . Instead, the suitability of particular abortion decisions was primary in their thinking." This suggests that the pro–life cause, by identifying with legislative or political change, is missing the personal side of the issue that women find most compelling, and is thereby losing the potential to influence their views most effectively.
This emphasis on the individual context in which abortion decisions are made has been a key to the pro–abortion strategy all along because pro–choicers realize that, for vulnerable women in our modern culture, anecdote trumps abstraction, and individual differences trump principle. Focusing on real life stories that target the specific circumstances in which women in different socioeconomic categories feel uncomfortable with abortion is a strategy that might significantly advance the pro–life cause. With this in mind, Speaking of Abortion could prove to be a valuable resource to pro–lifers engaged in the battle of persuasion.
Paul F. Swope is Northeast Project Director of the Caring Foundation and President of LifeNet Services, Inc.