Many people might see 232 pages written on abortion and think, “No, thanks.”
After all, many already have an opinion — so why devote more time to thinking about an uncomfortable topic?
But that’s exactly what author Katie Watson wants us to do. The Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine professor has clocked years of teaching on bioethics and constitutional law, and she translates this into “Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law and Politics of Ordinary Abortion,” out Feb. 1. The book is a thoughtful and engaging consideration of one of this country’s most controversial words: abortion.
“Americans have different beliefs, and take different actions. I think all of them deserve our respect,” she writes, noting that American women have 2.8 million unintended pregnancies a year, with 42 percent ending in abortion.
Her hope is for more conversation. Written with personal examples that highlight people at the heart of this topic — the abortion provider who has staff members wear T-shirts in hopes a pregnant 10-year-old will feel less scared at a medical facility, the anti-abortion activist wrestling with her own pregnancy — she nudges readers toward the idea that we can disagree while trying to understand others’ reasoning.
“I think we need humility, respect and enthusiastic engagement more in 2018 than we ever have,” she said.
Abortion is rarely discussed, even though 1 in 4 American women have one, says Watson. People might feel comfortable telling a sex story at a dinner party, but that same group is less likely to discuss an unwanted pregnancy or abortion that might have followed.
Watson hopes to change that. The country needs conversation more than ever, she said.
This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: You’re a bioethicist and a lawyer, and you’ve studied the legal and ethical issues surrounding abortion for years. What prompted you to write this book?
A: I thought there was something unreal about the American abortion conversation. It seems like we talk more about the idea of abortion than the experience of abortion, and I think both are relevant in policy and in moral reasoning. When I started to learn about the statistics, I was really struck by the fact that there weren’t more private conversations about abortion in my life.
Q: In the book, you focus on what you call ordinary abortion — the vast majority of women who end pregnancies who say having a baby would dramatically change their life, they can’t afford another child, or they don’t want to be a single parent. But the cases we are more likely to hear about are more extreme — a child who has been raped or a very late-term abortion.
A: The most common reasons women have abortions are factors from their lives — where they are in their education, where they are with work, where they are with other children they’re raising, where they are financially. We don’t talk very openly about that. The cases we talk about the most are the ones that occur the least. As a bioethicist, I’m interested in those cases — they’re important and they’re real — but I’m also interested in the cases that represent the vast majority of Americans’ experience with abortion. And I didn’t think those were being discussed at all, openly or productively, both publicly and privately.
Q: Regardless of where people stand on abortion, the issue often seems so polarized that it prohibits conversation.
A: I think there are people who feel like abortion is absolutely unethical but feel very conflicted about whether it should be legal. And I think there are people who are adamant it must be legal but are very conflicted about whether it is ethical. I’ve had people say that in private conversation to me, but they say it as though it’s a taboo. There’s not that much space for (feeling conflicted about it). And politically it makes people anxious — Are you with us or against us? Some of them pick a camp and then keep their complexities to themselves.
Q: Why was it important for you to include the ethics chapters? You discuss different ways people reason whether, and when, abortion might be ethical or unethical.
A: I wanted for myself to understand some of the major schools of thought, and I wanted to share for readers. A lot of people have a gut reaction or find it hard to articulate their moral reasoning, so I wanted to share frameworks that for some people will help them explain their own conclusions.
Another reason was to help them understand how people in their life might come to a different conclusion. I’d like to restore the dignity of disagreement. When someone comes to a different conclusion than you, you can decide they are stupid, you can decide that they just don’t understand things, you can conclude that they are thoughtless. Or you might conclude that they see things differently than you, but you might respect it.
My impression is that people are not having robust, productive, sincere exchanges about abortion opinion with people of different perspectives. They may not be hearing that reasoning process. So I included the ethics chapters as proxy for some of those conversations, to facilitate the conversation but also to substitute for the conversations if you can’t have them.
Q: You were pregnant while working on this book. How did that experience affect this process for you?
A: It made the topic of the book even more visceral. I think it underscored for me the complexity of this topic and the strong emotions that it inspired. Those emotions on both sides are grounded in such wonderful impulses, of love and protectiveness and passion and family, and those are fantastic human impulses that we want to celebrate and continue. It made me feel more protective of children, and it made me more protective of women who don’t want to be pregnant.