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4 Books to Help You Understand the History of ‘Roe v. Wade’

Esther Gim

These titles will deepen your historical knowledge of reproductive rights and freedom—and the relentless attacks against them—in the United States.

Abortions have always occurred—pregnant people were getting them before the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion a constitutional right, Roe v. Wade, and they’ll continue even if those rights are taken away in the upcoming June Medical Services v. Russo. And though abortion remains legal today, our bodies continue to be policed through legislation and policies that attempt to strip away our bodily autonomy.

To prepare as the Supreme Court considers upending abortion rights law, Rewire.News offers four books to help you expand your understanding of reproductive rights in our country. There is endless literature to be read on the topic, but these books can serve as a crash course on the current state of abortion in the United States.

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Vintage Books)

In this 1997 book, Dorothy Roberts, a scholar of race, gender, and the law, exposes the attacks on Black women’s reproductive rights from slavery to modern-day—a necessary starting point for learning about abortion in the United States. Roberts writes that the idea for the book was born of reading articles about Black women being prosecuted for using drugs while pregnant in the late 1980s.

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“I was sure of three things about the prosecutions: they targeted Black women, they punished these women for having babies, and they were a form of both race and gender oppression,” Roberts writes in a preface to the book’s 2017 reissue. “The legacy of punishing Black motherhood was vital to the very meaning of reproductive freedom.”

The book confronts our horrific past, in which Black women’s bodies were controlled and abused in various ways—reproduction in bondage, forced sterilization, racist policies—and also tackles the exclusion of Black women in mainstream reproductive rights organizations and feminist and civil rights agendas. Roberts helped flip the script in the broader discourse of reproductive rights; no one’s education in reproductive justice and freedom is complete without this book.

The End of Roe v. Wade: Inside the Right’s Plan to Destroy Legal Abortion (Ig Publishing)

The End of Roe v. Wade begins on June 27, 2018. It’s the day U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he would be retiring, “and just like that, the pendulum on abortion rights had swung back sharply in the anti-abortion movement’s favor.”

Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire.News’ vice president of law and the courts, teamed up with journalist Robin Marty, who has written on abortion access for Rewire.News and many other outlets, to bring this comprehensive look at the dismantling of legal abortion at the state and federal levels. (It’s an updated edition of their 2013 book Crow After Roe.)

The chapters are broken down by state, tracking the anti-choice legislation that has changed the landscape of abortion rights: ending medication abortion in Wisconsin, undermining the doctor-patient relationship in Arizona, criminalizing pregnancies in Indiana, defunding Planned Parenthood in Texas. The authors also detail the attacks from the federal level, with Trump’s judicial appointments and the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy—and the book then comes full circle, imagining what a post-Roe America could look like.

Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle to Get an Abortion in America (University of California Press)

For something that’s legal in the United States—an abortion—difficult-to-navigate systems have created insurmountable barriers for people to obtain one.

In this 2020 book, sociologist Carole Joffe and constitutional law professor David S. Cohen, both of whom have contributed to Rewire.News, weave together real-life stories and interviews with abortion providers and allies across the country to illustrate the painstaking obstacles that people seeking an abortion must navigate.

Even the road to making the decision is met with barriers, deception, and straight-up lies. Remote clinics have made traveling to get an abortion extremely challenging, and paying for one can be out of reach. Protesters outside clinics have made it difficult to enter safely. There’s government-mandated counseling which is often inaccurate; waiting periods can lead to long delays and other logistical hurdles; and the procedure itself has become political, overriding medical expertise.

At the crux of all of this is what the authors describe as abortion exceptionalism: “the idea that abortion is treated uniquely compared to other medical procedures that are comparable to abortion in complexity and safety.”

If only there was a better way. That would require treating abortion like any other form of health care, the authors argue. The stories are maddening, inspiring, and heartbreaking at all once, making it clear that no matter the law, people will have abortions.

Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights (Roaring Brook Press)

Journalist Karen Blumenthal’s latest book is targeted to teenagers but illuminating for people of all ages. The book can serve as an ideal starting point to a conversation about abortion for parents, teachers, family members, and others who have teenagers in their lives.

The narrative format makes the book read like a novel, with “characters” who are real people: like Jeanne Galatzer-Levy and Martha Scott, two women who provided abortions when abortion was illegal. “They were just women who thought other women should have control over whether and when they had a child,” Blumenthal writes. “That was a revolutionary idea.”

After joining other like-minded women in Chicago, Galatzer-Levy and Scott called themselves the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, otherwise known as “Jane.” The book goes on to detail the dangerous landscape of abortion in the United States before Roe v. Wade—for both the person seeking the abortion and the providers.

Illustrations, photos, and the “Pregnant Pause”—extra tidbits within the book that offer deeper context, like “Where do babies come from?” and “A short history of birth control”—offer supplementary opportunities to learn more.

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