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Real life can't accommodate slogans

For three years in the 1990s, I worked for a reproductive rights advocacy group in Atlanta. At the Legislature, we argued about sex education. We argued about fetal viability. We argued about requiring waiting periods for abortions. I trudged around after one male legislator who carried a pink plastic uterus in a box. Every chance he got, he propped the plastic uterus up against his own stomach and popped open the front to reveal a perfect plastic baby curled inside (imagine the instructions: "hold uterus at stomach level, door facing out").

I sat in committee meetings next to people who thought I was a murderer. I held the elevator doors for them. They held the elevator doors for me.

This is abortion politics, and it doesn't bear much resemblance to what really goes on in abortion clinics. One-third of American women have an abortion at some point in their lives, which seems like a remarkable figure until you put it in the context of all the time women spend dealing with contraceptives and sexuality and fertility and menstruation — not just for 30 or 40 years as adults, but for several crucial years before that as adolescents.

Until the Viagra question came along, there wasn't anything in men's lives to even begin to compare with the levels of management and care women have to exercise over their bodies. Of course, Viagra is by no means the male equivalent of birth control. Birth control is work, not fun, and nobody's paying Elizabeth Dole to talk about her orgasms in television commercials. But the mere existence of a male potency pill you must go to a doctor to obtain may actually give men a tiny wedge of insight into the busy management side of women's reproductive lives.

It may sound cold to talk about abortion as a part of managing reproduction, but that's actually what it is, whether or not you also think of it as a sin. Statistically, the countries that manage reproduction openly and strategically have much lower abortion rates than countries that simply wallow in denial. That's why all those phlegmatic, feminist, agnostic northern and western European countries have the lowest abortion rates in the world, while the Catholic, traditional, male-dominated countries like Mexico and Brazil have the highest. It isn't legality or illegality, or relative safety, or danger that determines these abortion rates. It's denial and need.

Here in the United States, denial plays an even larger part in the ways that women get pregnant and the ways they end their pregnancies. When I was a safety escort at abortion clinics, I couldn't even count the times that somebody waiting for a client would tell me that he (it was usually a "he") didn't actually support legal abortion for others because other people abuse the right, but that his case was special and especially necessary. Every clinic worker knows the minister's wife, the pro-life politician's daughter, even the pro-life activist herself, who needed (and confidentially received) one of these "exceptional" abortions. With one in three women getting abortions, this should surprise nobody. Abortion is ubiquitous. It's part of women's lives — even for pro-life women.

This commonness is one of the things that actually makes it difficult for the pro-choice movement to craft a political message. How do you advocate for something that you're simultaneously trying to prevent? How do you encompass all the contradictions of abortion — a private failure and a public right, intimate and alienating — so that it fits on a button? How do you talk about these things when virtually nobody will admit that they've had firsthand experience with abortion? Yet the guy sitting next to you in the committee meeting is there with his uterus in a box, waiting to speak?

What the pro-choice movement does is what every other political movement does. They test-market political messages. They stick people in a room, try out different slogans on them and pick the ones that work best. It's an inadequate process with inadequate results. But it is not, as one writer argued in this space recently, a conspiracy by white middle-class women to kill off the children of the poor. Slogans are just politics. And politics actually have nothing to do with what really occurs in abortion clinics.

Tina Trent was director of Georgians for Choice 1996-1999.??

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