As a guide to the various ways of thinking about abortion, “Scarlet A” is readable and respectful — and therefore, in its own quiet way, revolutionary. Katha Pollitt’s excellent “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights” (2014) was also addressed to those Americans in the “muddled middle” of the debate, though Pollitt explicitly set out to persuade them that abortion, by allowing women a measure of control over childbearing and therefore their lives, was an unequivocal moral good. Watson’s goal with “Scarlet A” — to get Americans to just start talking with one another — is less polemical but no less difficult, at least in this distrustful day and age.
To that end, she begins with a personal anecdote, recounting a trip to Rome when she came across a “foundling wheel” at a hospital. Installed around the year 1200 at the behest of Pope Innocent III, the rotating compartment allowed parents to place their baby in the care of strangers, at a time when unwanted children were commonly drowned in the Tiber River. “Spinning that 800-year-old wheel reminded me what an old question Roe v. Wade revolved around: ‘I’m pregnant, but I don’t want to have a baby. What can I do?’”
“Scarlet A” is an unusual hybrid of a book: part memoir, part legal exegesis, part philosophical tract, part conversational guide. Watson delves into the underlying assumptions behind different positions, taking seriously arguments other than her own. She addresses the ethics of abortion — something those who support access to abortion are often loath to do, because of what she calls the “Russian Doll problem”: “the anti-woman, anti-sex, political pot-stirring motivations” that often come hidden in the guise of morality.
About an issue so fraught, she knows she can take very little for granted. She acknowledges the trouble with vocabulary and terms (“pro-choice” and “pro-life” are the least of them) that come with arguments baked in. She explains how Supreme Court decisions helped create certain “masterplots” that circumscribe our cultural assumptions. She breaks down the various secular approaches to abortion ethics — whether they treat the issue as a matter of biology, autonomy or public health. She explores the connection between the decline in clinic blockades and the rise in restrictive abortion laws.
As comfortable as Watson is when navigating around treacherous shoals, readers seeking the bland flag of neutrality should look elsewhere. “I don’t claim neutrality,” she writes, “I claim plurality.” The same warning goes for those who insist that the claims of embryos and fetuses necessarily trump those of women. If anything, Watson argues, the “never-ending” abortion debate confirms “that the moral status of embryos and fetuses cannot be proven to the degree necessary” to justify government intervention on their behalf. We can talk about embryos and fetuses to no end, circling one another’s uncertainty, but that still “fails to address the moral status of women, about which we are certain: 100 percent people.”
Her commitment to the variety of experience means that she’s more interested in empathy than condemnation. When she brings up Scott DesJarlais — the Republican congressman who declared himself “a consistent supporter of pro-life values” even though he and his wife terminated two pregnancies while they were dating — it’s not to cut him down for brazen hypocrisy; it’s to present him as an example of someone who wanted to end a pregnancy for ordinary reasons, including relationship troubles and fear of fetal disability.
Watson notes that such discrepancies between public moralizing and private decision making are common. Abortion providers report that a number of patients and their partners feel justified in terminating their own pregnancies even as they denounce others who do the same.
“It takes a generous spirit to imagine sympathetic circumstances motivating other people’s behavior, especially when what they’re doing upsets me,” Watson writes. Silence doesn’t help matters; it allows our most suspicious and least generous selves to thrive. But Watson knows that conversation will not make everyone see things the way she does. Her hope is more modest than that: “Sometimes we talk simply to become known to each other, to confirm we live in the same moral universe, though we may never agree.”