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From One Night’s Silence, a Larger Debate?

February 14, 2007

Prairie Lights Bookstore, a beloved, iconoclastic, independent bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa, closed its doors early on January 30. They had received letters, e-mails, and phone calls indicating there may be safety issues at an event to promote my book, Abortion Under Attack: Women on the Challenges Facing Choice (Seal Press, Inc. 2006). I learned of the bookstore closing while en route to Iowa City at the end of a four-day book tour. Julie Englander, the host of “Live From Prairie Lights,” the Iowa Public Radio program scheduled to broadcast my event, told me that the owner of Prairie Lights felt “the bookstore was threatened.” He decided the safest approach was to close the bookstore one hour before my event. Englander and I would be allowed in to do the interview, but there would be no audience, no discussion, and no book signing. Once I arrived I learned the radio station had decided they couldn’t do a “Live From Prairie Lights” program without an audience. I couldn’t argue with the logic—and we re-scheduled an interview for a different program the following week—but I was angry. I didn’t want the contents of my book to be censored in this way. I sat in front of the bookstore, breathing in the frigid Iowa City air, and attempted to sort through these events. My anger subsided but I still felt disheartened. To experience this in Iowa City, the home of the University of Iowa, my alma mater, was particularly poignant. It is a sacred place for me—where my feminist sensibilities were first awakened and I became engaged in politics and activism. I considered leaving town—arriving home in time to put my children to bed would be a welcome comfort after the tour—but I decided instead to stick around and see what all the fuss was about. I watched as people showed up to my event only to find a darkened, locked bookstore with a black and white sign that read “Prairie Lights will close at 6 pm tonight.” Then, at around 7, some 15 to 20 protestors coalesced carrying signs and flyers. I didn’t know what to think. Were they supporters? Or people protesting my book? I approached the group with concern, but their signs were not what I expected: “Iowa City Is a Free Speech Zone;” “Say No to Anti-Choice Intimidation.”  These demonstrators were angry that the bookstore had capitulated to anti-choice threats and intimidation, and censored an author in the process. Abortion had become a free speech issue in Iowa City. The Associated Press reported the story, and over the next week it was widely discussed in both print and cyber media. Allegiances formed on both sides. The bookstore, myself, the pro-choice movement, the anti-choice movement, we all became subjects of an all too familiar vitriolic debate. The story grew in the telling. I received an e-mail expressing concern about the “bomb threat,” but, at this point, the nature of the threats were still unclear and nothing so explicit as a bomb threat had been mentioned in the media or anywhere else. The anti-choice activists brought out the usual inflammatory rhetoric of “murder” and comparisons to the Holocaust. Little wonder a thoughtful and careful bookstore proprietor was persuaded to close down an event. Ironically, I put this book together because I wanted to say something new about abortion. I wanted to highlight complexities inherent to the political issue and to the abortion experience itself; to show that the reproductive rights movement is philosophically diverse—made up of individuals with varying convictions about the morality of abortion who still share a single belief that abortion must be safe, legal, and dignified. At times, the larger abortion debate, with its polarized rhetoric and oversimplified political slogans, shuts down the dialogue—in Iowa City last month, it literally shut it down—and precludes the possibility that we, as a movement and as a society, cultivate a deeper, richer conversation on abortion and reproductive rights. I did not get a chance to say any of this on January 30, eight days after the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. But I was invited back to Prairie Lights on March 21. I hope I get to say it then.
Tags: Books