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Katie Watson Commentary




Katie Watson Speaks at AAUW Forum

Last summer when the Valparaiso AAUW book group chose the book Scarlet A -The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion as their June selection, they had no idea just how timely it would be.  As the political campaigns get under way and states pass laws limiting or supporting legal abortion, polarizing rhetoric on both sides of the issue has led to strong emotion, misinformation, and political posturing.  As a result, Valparaiso AAUW sponsored a forum featuring the book’s author Katie Watson and moderated by Valparaiso University law professor emeritus Susan Stuart on June 10 at Ivy Tech Community College in Valparaiso.

Prof. Watson is a lawyer and bioethicist who serves as Associate Professor of social science and obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.  She began by noting that the majority of Americans, even those in favor of abortion’s legality, have deeply ambivalent feelings about abortion itself.  “We should be able to acknowledge the complexity of private decision making,” she noted, “without threatening the right of private decision making.”  She also stressed that her purpose is not to change anyone’s mind but to open up meaningful, respectful dialogue and accurate understanding.

Prof. Watson went on to note that “ordinary abortion” (apart from attention-grabbing cases such as a pregnant ten-year-old or a dying mother) is more prevalent than most people realize, with statistics showing that one in four woman have the procedure.  She challenged the participants to be clear on their own feelings, but to go further:  “Why do you think that?”  She stressed that participants in dialogue need to be clear on which conversation they are having, the legality of abortion or the ethics of abortion, citing the example of a judge who might have ethical objections to the constitutionality of abortion, but still must uphold the law.  It is possible, she maintained, to be both pro-choice and anti-abortion.  The former is a legal position, recognizing the lack of consensus on exactly when personhood occurs:  At conception?  At a certain stage of development?  At viability, when the fetus can exist independently of the womb?  The latter is an ethical conviction, based on moral values and principles.  Neither, she explained, is scientifically provable.  Science can offer evidence, but it cannot confirm any one position.

The discussion included a focus on economic justice, noting that 74% of women who have had an abortion list “can’t afford a child” as a reason for seeking the procedure.  The dialogue must also include pro-child social policies, access to affordable pre- and post-natal care, child care, and so on.  The prevalence of ordinary abortion, according to Prof. Watson, is not affected by legality.  The same number of abortions occurred before abortion became legal forty-six years ago when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, as after.  Statistically, the effect of restrictions have simply meant abortions are performed later in pregnancy, and with higher maternal mortality. 

Finally, Prof. Watson stressed the need for ongoing dialogue, starting with ending “social silencing” in which the stigma of abortion makes people reluctant to speak of their own experience, their ambivalence, and their questions regarding a complicated social issue.  Open dialogue and availability of accurate information equip people to formulate their own moral decisions and political positions while recognizing that others may reach different conclusions.

AAUW, the American Association of University Women has as its mission promotion of equity for women and girls through education, advocacy and philanthropy.  More information is available on the national, state, and local websites (,, and