Interview with Author Michelle Oberman: Abortion Law and the Cost of Motherhood

her body our laws abortion book by michelle oberman

Pro-choice author and law professor Michelle Oberman’s newest book Her Body, Our Laws: On the Front Lines of the Abortion War, from El Salvador to Oklahoma looks at many sides of the fight over abortion rights. Catch her speaking at Women and Children First on Thursday, March 8 at 7:30 p.m.

In “Her Body, Our Laws,” Michelle travels to Chile and El Salvador, two countries where abortion is completely banned. She then travels to Oklahoma, an extreme pro-life state. She ends with a well-researched take on what would really happen if we were to overturn Roe v. Wade.  

I spoke to Michelle about her book.

The first half of the book focuses on the state of abortion in El Salvador. Why do you think it was so important to give a U.S. audience so much detail about another country?

El Salvador is the only country in the world that both bans abortion and endeavors to bring the full forces of the state into the enforcement of its laws, and I wanted to see how it works in 2018. So much of our set-point for thinking about illegal abortion comes from 1973, and the world has changed in really important ways. Abortion technology is completely different. Women are completely different: We have money. Travel is completely different. How we think about marital sex is different. So much has shifted since ‘73 that it felt really important to get a sense of what it looks like now, when abortion is illegal.

I went to El Salvador nine times, and it was only in maybe the last couple of years where I realized it was actually the same abortion war that we’re fighting here. The way in which the two sides line up and the way we use the law to fight over abortion, rather than contending with what makes a woman consider abortion—it felt completely familiar. Abortion doesn’t go away when it’s illegal. For the most part, women have abortions when they feel they don’t have any other choice. Once I started to stitch that together, I realized I actually needed to tell the story of what’s happening there because the same thing would happen here if abortion were made illegal.

It seems like so much of the fighting boils down to who people have compassion toward. The different sides choose specific women that they’ve deemed worthy of compassion. Or when — at what point in the pregnancy — do you have compassion for the fetus?

It feels a little like the Compassion Olympics, right? Our discourse really lends itself to that. So we talk about the rape victim or the college student who wants to wear a bikini. The word selfish appears a lot in our discourse around women seeking to terminate pregnancies; we pass judgment on what we think justifies a decision to have an abortion. When you actually talk to women about why they have abortions, you realize really quickly how misguided it is to judge women. Most women have abortions when they feel like they have no other choice. A woman’s abortion story illuminates all of the constraints in her life: money, job, housing, relationship, education. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, I’m casually doing this.’ It’s: ‘Here are the economic constraints that make motherhood too expensive for me right now.’

The word selfish appears a lot in our discourse … we pass judgment on what we think justifies a decision to have an abortion.

You speak about how tackling the cost of parenthood is the most obvious change that would reduce abortions, as well as improve the well-being of children and mothers in general. Why do you believe that so few politicians and advocacy organizations against abortion are concentrating on that?

My sense is that in this country that we actually have some ambivalence about children, about whether we want children and in particular about which women we want to be having them. Watch how other countries around the world—the ones that want children—set policies around motherhood. In western Europe for example, where people are having on average fewer than two children, governments have set up a variety of incentives to encourage women to have kids.

In Israel, they really want kids. They’ve got child allowances that are not insignificant. There’s a guaranteed paid maternity leave, subsidized neighborhood daycare, and in every neighborhood there’s free and excellent public education. There are tax deductions for every child you have. Every possible metric that they can use to incentivize childbearing, they use. And women on average have between three and four children. Their abortion rates are among the lowest in the world.   

You quoted Samara Azam-Yu, the executive director of Access Women’s Health Justice in Oakland, who said, “No one who’s at all savvy will say they don’t want poor women to have children, because that sounds eugenic … but they will say, ‘There’s no money in the budget for that.’”

We’ve privatized motherhood. We view motherhood as a private choice and view children, on some level, as a private responsibility. Look at the fight over children’s health insurance or the funding of public schools. It’s scandalous how we view investment in children as something that parents should do, but the state should not.

Our team allegiances on abortion get in the way of recognizing what I believe is our mutual responsibility to children. I think that there are both pro-choice and pro-life people who share my sense of outrage at the idea of a woman feeling compelled to have an abortion because she is too poor.

That said, I’m not naive. I believe that there are people both on the pro-life side and on the pro-choice side who think that women should stop being “irresponsible” — as if unplanned pregnancy was a moral failing. There are “pro-choice” people who support welfare caps, or who oppose mandatory paid maternity leave. For too long, poor women’s “choices” have been constrained by forces outside of their making.

It’s scandalous how we view investment in children as something that parents should do, but the state should not.  

You wrote about a particular pro-life politician that you were “troubled by his moral vision and, even more, by his willingness to use his office to impose it on others.” Most of the policies that we care about, we do so for moral reasons on one side or the other. I don’t think you’re arguing to separate morality from law, right?

I think what troubled me was his sense of having Truth with a capital T. I think the difference between democracy and theocracy is that democracy admits lots of different faith traditions, having overlapping moral agendas. We might invoke God in a democracy, but our divergent constituencies means that we have, at best, an agnostic approach to what God would want of us. Democracy really needs to have an openness or a willingness to hear other people’s perceptions of the purpose and meaning of life. The goal he had of placing in office as many people of his particular tradition as possible struck me a posing a real threat to the democratic tradition.

Your book really drives the point home that overturning Roe v. Wade wouldn’t actually eradicate abortion. So why are anti-abortion activists so focused on the law?

I think part of it is we’ve let the lawyers run the show. Within a few years of Roe v. Wade, we began fighting about abortion almost exclusively by fighting over the law. We kind of turned our backs on the socio-economic realities that gave us Roe v. Wade in the first place.

So I think we’ve been letting the movement reduce this to a legal debate. But I don’t want to be heard saying that the law doesn’t matter. It matters a lot. If you make abortion illegal, there is no doubt in my mind that women will die. And that, in particular, girls will die. What you see in El Salvador is a stunning rate of suicide by pregnant teenagers who just don’t feel they have any other options. Three out of eight maternal deaths in El Salvador, three out of eight mothers who die while pregnant, are teenagers who die from suicide — there are hundreds of deaths a year. So the law matters. It’s just that it doesn’t matter in the way we think it matters given the terms of our debate.

I think we’re intellectually lazy, as well. It’s not simply that we turned it over to the lawyers. It’s just that all either side wants from us is that we sign up for their team. ‘Yeah, I think it should be legal.’ ‘Yeah, I think it should be illegal.’ That’s it. You don’t have to do any more than that. Maybe donate dollars, go to a parade or a march. It’s really messy to talk about how to ensure poor mothers have meaningful choices when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. It’s expensive and hard to fix and intellectually complicated.

The skill set that you’ll need to fix this is wide-ranging, but it begins with a moral conviction that all pregnant people deserve more choices. It will take the country’s spiritual leaders, who have accepted the terms of our broken abortion discourse for too long, to make this pivot. Once they do, I believe we will see that there is room for common ground. Then we’ll see the politicians being brought to the table to support poor, pregnant women, because it’s the moral thing to do.

(Author photo by Keith Sutter)

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Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on their blog scarletchurch.com. Their sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, is hosted by Rebellious Magazine. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @thejerabrown.