The Magazine

Planned Un-Parenthood

Roe v. Wade at thirty.

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By DAVID TELL
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Behind Every Choice Is a Story
by Gloria Feldt
University of North Texas Press, 272 pp., $19.95

The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger
The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928
edited by Esther Katz, et al.
University of Illinois Press, 512 pp., $65

Roe v. Wade
The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History
by N.E.H. Hull and Peter Charles Hoffer
University Press of Kansas, 315 pp., $35

Back to the Drawing Board
The Future of the Pro-Life Movement
edited by Teresa R. Wagner
St. Augustine's, 328 pp., $20

IN THE PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL for "Behind Every Choice Is a Story"--Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt's contribution to the flurry of books marking the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade--the publishers include a brief marketing advisory for booksellers and reviewers. Which is the customary thing to do, only theirs isn't the customary way to do it. "Although the primary audience for this book is women who support reproductive freedom," the press release reads, "a wide audience including men and teens" will also find it "compelling."

What seems peculiar here, both as an advertising technique and a matter of elementary arithmetic, is that rather downbeat "although" construction, implying as it does that Feldt's natural constituency, "women who support reproductive freedom," may not be all that "wide" a presence across the land. The public-opinion research appears to say otherwise, after all: Year after year, a formidable majority of the nation's adult female population consistently affirms its conviction that there are some cases, at least, in which a mother's desire to terminate her pregnancy should confront no serious legal obstacle. Are the surveys wrong? What might Gloria Feldt's publicists have figured out that everyone else has missed?

Perhaps it's just that they've read her book and have been brought up short by the fingernails-on-blackboard dogmatism of her approach to abortion's ethical complexities. Come to think of it, there are no such complexities in "Behind Every Choice Is a Story"; its author is not exactly the shades-of-gray type. During the three decades since Roe was decided, American women have made more than forty million constitutionally protected "childbearing decisions" of the Planned Parenthood variety, many of them with Planned Parenthood's direct surgical assistance, and still that organization's CEO has yet to see a single abortion whose rationale or methodology merits the slightest expression of moral unease. She rates a "perfect ten" on the digestive-system scale of reproductive freedom, Feldt boasts: She can stomach them all. And you need to stomach them all, because--and Feldt writes as if anyone capable of reading her book will consider this a given--"the hot-button abortion issue isn't about abortion, really." It's about the "nature and purpose of human sexuality" and suchlike cosmic stuff. Abortion, mutatis mutandis, is essential to life itself, a comprehensive "worldview" all its own.

It could be her publicists are right not to expect too much business. No doubt, in the postmodern nowadays, there's a like-minded "primary audience" for almost anything, even for Gloria Feldt. The New York Times editorial page is proof of that. No doubt, too, certain people who stand aloof from Feldt's sandwich-board "worldview" will nevertheless find it weirdly "compelling," as intense enthusiasms often are. Still, rich as we might be in so many other wondrous respects, America's strategic reserves of partisanship and irony can hardly be sufficient to secure bestseller status for a book that locates the very Meaning of Existence in unregulated access to outpatient suction and curettage procedures. Surely this isn't what your average suburban soccer mom has in mind when the Gallup man asks for her take on Roe and she offers up the phrase "pro-choice."

But then, your average suburban soccer mom is basically an idiot anyhow, isn't she? She's probably never even learned what an orgasm is. "Few of us grow up knowing that sexuality is a healthy, normal part of human life that greatly enriches our lives," Feldt notes. "I weep for the millions of adults for whom, as a result, sex becomes identified with shame, guilt, and embarrassment."

LEST YOU THINK she's exaggerating here, please be aware that she has made a systematic study of the matter--collecting, for the pages of "Behind Every Choice Is a Story," autobiographical reflections on "personal reproductive lifecycle issues" from countless ordinary American women. Take, for instance, this moving testimony by Kathleen Turner, a working mother in New York City: "Judging from the brouhaha occasioned by my twenty seconds of nudity on the Broadway stage in 'The Graduate,'" Turner reports, "this country has an anguished relationship with its sexuality. . . . Just talking about sexual fulfillment is an act of bravery."