A Person’s a Person — Unless She Has a Uterus?

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A Person’s a Person — Unless She Has a Uterus?

Sarah Seltzer

Can we stop the anti-abortion movement from co-opting the words of beloved children’s author Doctor Seuss?

As soon as the teaser posters for the animated film adaptation of Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who!" began showing up in the New York City subway system, I was miserable with anticipation. Not because I dislike Dr. Seuss — like many American kids, I was raised on his whimsical but profound picture books — but because the anti-abortion fringe has picked up on this book as a rallying cry, particularly its refrain, "a person's a person, no matter how small."

"Horton Hears a Who!" is the tale of the eponymous elephant, one of Seuss' most gentle and heroic characters. He encounters the Whos of Whoville, a group of people living in a miniature world on a speck of dust. Horton must defend their existence to a group of dismissive jungle-dwellers. In the end, all the Whos join their voices together and shout, and the animals finally hear them, believe in them, and agree not to harm their infinitesimal home.

Horton Hears a Who

The book was written in 1954, long before Roe v. Wade and the modern framework of the abortion debate. If Seuss' simple rhymes do contain social commentary, they appear to be a condemnation of Cold War era paranoia. But context doesn't matter to the anti-choice crowd — in fact a quick internet search reveals that there are many out there who believe that God spoke through the decidedly liberal Seuss' pen, willing him to write this line that can now be used to justify a movement he didn't support. They are undeterred by Seuss' widow's support for Planned Parenthood and an interview with Seuss Scholar Philip Nel, who said that the author threatened lawsuits against anti-choice groups: "It's one of the ways in which Seuss has been misappropriated. He would not agree with that." Death of the author, indeed.

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This past Saturday a group of anti-abortion protestors filtered in to the Hollywood premiere of the "Horton" film, voiced by Jim Carrey, Steve Carrell and Carol Burnettt, and others. They interrupted the screening with a coordinated protest, shouting during the film and then walking around with tape over their mouths. It was a bizarre stunt, onsidering the fact that most of the audience was made up of children who doubtless missed their political message, and Hollywood journalists who made fun of them.

But these kinds of shenanigans, while frustrating, weren't exactly shocking. Despite lawsuits and voiced disapproval from Dr. Seuss and his widow, the "a person's a person no matter how small" line has snowballed and is now a de facto motto for the anti-abortion movement. Just google the line: some pro-life sites show up above Dr. Seuss.

Is there anything lovers of reproductive justice (not to mention classic children's literature) can do to reclaim Dr. Seuss' inspirational story, or should we content ourselves with reading more obviously lefty Seuss fare like the Lorax and the Butter Battle Book?

We definitely shouldn't abandon poor Horton, even if we feel stymied by his persistent misuse. Let's start with a little basic literary analysis. The Whos are not groups of cells, after all: they are sentient, independent people with their own society, even a mayor. Their small size is a metaphor, you see (trust the anti-abortion crowd to take a parable literally). Seuss is making a point about people who are different, and the ignorance that keeps others from metaphorically not seeing or hearing them. My guess is the kids in the audience absorbed the actual symbolism onscreen, the whole bit about accepting each other, more than the zealots with red tape over their mouths ever will.

The anti-choice protesters, incidentally, were happy to ruin the afternoon of hundreds of those kids, too busy advocating on behalf of blastocysts to pay attention to real people — real "small people," in fact. This kind of behavior sums up the hypocrisy of a movement that would give personhood to a fertilized egg while denying health care to children and physical autonomy to women.

The problem is that those who are particularly proud of saying "a person's a person" don't care about actual persons. Unfortunately, that means any attempt at reasoned discourse about Horton's message will likely fall flat.

But there's plenty of inspiration that pro-choice women can get from the book on our own terms. "Horton's" climactic moment is when all the Whos, even Jojo the youngest and smallest, join their voices together. At that moment, the Whos cease to be inaudible. While the book is a critique of prejudice and misunderstanding, it's also about the importance of collective action, the power of a group to make itself heard and understood.

So we can take away our own message and speak up as one for the rights women deserve. And to paraphrase another Dr. Seuss book, let's tell the anti-abortion movement, which is so fond of simplistic slogans, that we don't like their hypocrisy. We do not like it in a house. We do not like it with a mouse. We do not like it here or there. We do not like it anywhere.