A Q&A with Michelle Oberman
What happens when abortion is a crime? Legal scholar Michelle Oberman set out to find the answer in her journeys through distinct legal climates to understand precisely why and how the war over abortion is being fought. Her research took her to El Salvador, where abortion is banned without exception, to pro-life state Oklahoma. The stories are collected in her book Her Body, Our Laws: On the Front Lines of the Abortion War, from El Salvador to Oklahoma. We caught up with Oberman to ask her about the inspiration for the book, the importance of telling the stories of women ensnared in the dragnet of the abortion war, and what she hopes readers learn from her book.
Christian Coleman: What was the inspiration behind writing this book?
Michelle Oberman: Americans have spent the past forty-five years fighting over whether abortion should be legal. I spent the past ten years trying to figure out how it matters. I had a couple of reasons for wanting to know why. First, because I’m a law professor and I study women’s health issues, the abortion war has been raging throughout my career. We fight over abortion’s legality like it matters, with both sides investing millions of dollars in lawyers and lawsuits every year. Many Americans now cast votes to elect our public officials based on their abortion stance. But what difference would it make if abortion was illegal? I wanted to know what was really at stake.
The second reason for writing this book is more personal: I am pro-choice but I teach at a Catholic school, Santa Clara University School of Law. I know and admire people who oppose legalized abortion. Still, when abortion comes up, we find it almost impossible to talk. It tears us apart. I wanted to know whether we might find common ground, in spite of our differing positions on legalized abortion.
CC: Tell us about your background and your interest in writing about the legal and ethical issues surrounding adolescence, pregnancy, and motherhood.
MO: I guess we’ve all got scars from adolescence. Mine aren’t particularly deep or unique—honestly, they’re pretty uninteresting—but they are just deep enough to make me aware of how much support and luck I’ve had in my life. For those without those benefits and breaks, when things go wrong, it can be a holy mess. The law often gets entangled, and often makes matters worse. Because it could have been me, it feels like it’s on me to do what I can to untangle the mess.
CC: In the introduction, you write that you are “a collector of stories about women’s dark secrets.” Why is collecting stories involving abortion laws so important?
MO: Stories about abortion teach us a lot about how it is to be female at any given place in time. In the case of unplanned pregnancy, for example, abortion stories show us much about how we have sex, often without contraception, even when we’re not intending to have babies. What does sex look like, what gets in the way of using contraception, what are the consequences? Abortion stories also show us a lot about society’s attitude toward motherhood and toward children. By noticing the things that lead someone who is pregnant to consider abortion, we suddenly can see the high costs of motherhood, both literally and figuratively.
CC: You visited El Salvador nine times from 2010 to 2016 to research the country’s battle over abortion law. Did you come across any information or findings in your research that took you by surprise?
MO: I was shocked to learn that banning abortion doesn’t make it go away. Even though abortion is completely illegal in El Salvador—banned even if a mother’s life is at stake—it is commonplace. By the government’s own account, there are tens of thousands of abortions every year. In fact, the abortion rate there is higher than it is here, where abortion is legal.
I was also really surprised to learn that the law is seldom enforced. There are no more than ten prosecutions a year. It’s very difficult to enforce abortion laws, whether against doctors or against women.
CC: What are some of the similarities/comparisons you found between El Salvador’s abortions laws and those of pro-life state Oklahoma?
MO: Actually, what was similar wasn’t the law, but the way supporters think of the law. For people who are pro-life, banning abortion is important because it’s a way of sending a message that abortion is morally wrong. Even if banning abortion doesn’t make it go away, (and indeed, bans seem to have little impact on abortion rates), pro-life advocates want the law to reflect their position that abortion is killing.
CC: In your New York Times op-ed, you wrote “The rhetoric of ‘choice’ and ‘life’ encourages us to see a pregnant woman as if she’s balancing a scale, with abortion on one side and motherhood on the other. Which will she choose? Tilt her one way and she might get to finish high school or college, gaining time to plan for the child she wants. Tipped another way, she might become a mother or allow a childless couple to adopt.” What are we missing when we talk about “choice”?
MO: For too long, we’ve ignored the reality that many women have abortions not because it’s a “choice,” but instead because they feel they have no other choice. Our social policies—the lack of paid maternity leave, flexible work schedules, affordable housing, quality day care and more—make motherhood very expensive. When asked why they’re having abortions, seventy-three percent of women say they can’t afford to have a child now. If we’re serious about giving women choices, pro-choice people need to be as troubled by the idea of a woman having an abortion because she has no other choice as they are by a woman being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
CC: What would you like readers to take away from the book?
MO: I’m ready for a new conversation about abortion. Our fight over abortion’s legality has left us locked in debate over the question of whether abortion should be legal. My journey through the abortion war has convinced me that that question is not serving us well. It’s distracting us from the better question of how we think things will change, if abortion is illegal.
About Michelle Oberman
Michelle Oberman is the Katharine and George Alexander Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law and an internationally recognized scholar on the legal and ethical issues surrounding adolescence, pregnancy, and motherhood. She works at the intersection of public health and criminal law, focusing on domestic and international issues affecting women’s reproductive health. Her book When Mothers Kill (2008) won the Outstanding Book Award from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. She is also the author of Her Body, Our Laws: On the Front Lines of the Abortion War, from El Salvador to Oklahoma.