Naomi Wolf is a leading feminist and the best-selling author of number of books, including The Beauty Myth and Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. Wolf told Al Jazeera English her views on abortion changed when she became pregnant years ago. She considers herself “pro-choice, but with many caveats”.
Zeina Awad spoke to the author in New York, while filming “The Abortion War,” next week’s Fault Lines episode.
Naomi Wolf - When abortions [were] illegal, a lot of women’s fiction from the 1940s and 1950’s had scenes of the horrible back alley abortion, the botched abortion; It was a very terrible thing in women’s lives.
In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was protected in a landmark case, Roe v. Wade. Since then, there’s been a relentless effort by the pro-life lobby to fight that decision. There are a lot of states now in the United States, where abortions are legal on paper, but it’s really hard to get one because you have to travel for hours and hours. And if you’re young and poor, that’s especially difficult. There are some states in which there are so few abortion providers, because they have been systematically harassed, sometimes targeted violently, and I’m sorry to say killed in this country for providing abortions.
Zeina Awad: Are you surprised at the length that it’s gone?
It’s not surprising because so many people feel passionately and there’s a reasonably new pro-life feminine analysis which I think is quite persuasive, even though I don’t agree with their policy prescriptions. They argue that a high rate of abortion in the West is a sign of the devaluation of women, and that if women in their sexuality and their capacity as mothers were really valued, there wouldn’t be decision-making failures, consciousness failures.
Also since the Bush administration there’s been a systematic assault on autonomy and freedom. The state has gotten into the business of controlling citizens, and the ultimate frontier is the control of the female body and the control of men through their most intimate choices. For instance, there was legislation introduced that would mandate a trans-vaginal probe that has no medical value [and would mean] putting an object in a woman’s vagina – if she wants to have an abortion.
ZA: Is what we are seeing only about the sociology of America or is it also tied to a far-right fundamentalist movement that doesn’t leave much room for negotiation?
NW: Well certainly part of the crackdown has to do with the extremism of Christian fundamentalism in this country. They are on a rampage and they are heavily funded. I see religious fundamentalists as very similar, they all want to control the sexual choices and the intimate decisions women make about their lives and their families.
But I also want to problematise this a bit: Christian fundamentalists do see Western liberation and the sexual revolution as out of control, so it’s not just a bunch of crazy people. It’s some crazy people in a leadership position, and some frightened, worried, more mainstream people who have been seduced by the crazy, fanatical leadership into thinking this will solve the problem of chaotic social change.
ZA: Why is abortion still an issue in the US, when in most other western countries it is seen mostly as a medical procedure?
NW: I think it’s partly because of the nature of our abortion laws, which are not well thought through. In England, and I believe in France and all over northern Europe, you can quite easily get an abortion through your first trimester.
And since most of these countries have government-funded healthcare, you don’t even have to scramble to pay for it. The difficulty is that, because of the way Roe is worded, you could actually have an abortion in America through the second trimester. So you’re aborting fetuses that are six or seven months along. And anyone who has been pregnant knows that it’s a baby.
ZA: But you have a movement in this country that effectively wants to circumvent a woman’s access to contraception. Their position is that the state shouldn’t be subsidising contraceptives. So, is it really about Roe versus Wade, or is it about a fundamentalist streak in America that’s gaining more power?
NW: I can’t deny that there is that, yes, there is a fundamentalist streak in America, it is a Puritanical streak. There’s always been a problem in America about pleasure. Americans are weird about sex.
ZA: How have you seen anti-abortion movement evolve over the last few decades?
NW: They’re more sophisticated and they’re using a language that’s more feminist. They’ve reached out to activists around the world that are fighting forced abortion, like the Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, who was supported by right-wing pro-lifers in Congress because of his activism. They hype up the emotional trauma of the process. At the same time though, the pro-choice movement does not talk about personal responsibility.
We don’t acknowledge that some women may feel a loss for the rest of their lives. We make no space for it. It’s just choice, choice, choice. It’s very legalistic and that doesn’t resonate with most women’s experiences.
You can catch our Fault Lines episode "Abortion War” on Al Jazeera English at the following times (all GMT) : Tuesday, August 28: 22:30, Wednesday, August 29: 09:30; Thursday, August 30: 03:30; Friday, August 31: 16:30; Saturday, September 1: 22:30; Sunday, September 2: 0930; Monday, September 3: 03:30; Tuesday, September 4: 16:30.