[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Dawn Johnsen, Host:
I would eagerly read anything written by Linda Greenhouse or Reva Siegel on the subject of abortion (or just about any topic). This dynamic duo brings to Before Roe v. Wade decades of careful study and scholarship.
Greenhouse is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who set the industry standard for Supreme Court coverage in thirty years with the New York Times (as well as author of Becoming Justice Blackmun, about Roe’s author). Siegel, a Yale Law professor, is a – to my mind, the – leading legal academic writing on abortion, from her 1992 Stanford article, Reasoning from the Body, to recent work including the shift from fetal-protective to woman-protective arguments against legal abortion.
As I sat down to read, my expectations for Before Roe v. Wade were high.
And yet I also knew, after years of my own reading and writing about reproductive rights, I would not be easily surprised or impressed. More generally, abortion is a difficult topic for a successful book: so many potential readers feel they know enough about the topic, that their opinions are sufficiently well informed by both public discourse and personal experiences (estimates are that one in three women will have an abortion). Journalists, academics, and even advocates can experience “abortion fatigue” – not for lack of appreciation of the issue’s importance, but because after so many years of prominence, there seems little new to be said about it. And then there is the widespread discomfort with an issue most would prefer to keep out of view, until they or someone close experiences an unintended pregnancy, or during a wanted pregnancy develops a health complication or discovers a severe fetal anomaly.
I could not put Before Roe v. Wade down. Even for those already steeped in the issue, this book is guaranteed to surprise, impress, and inform. For those with only vague notions of Roe’s origins, it provides an outstanding introduction. For those with no particular interest in abortion, it offers a fascinating study of social movements and legal and political change. I already have given several copies as gifts (anyone looking for a last-minute holiday gift idea?).
This carefully researched and annotated collection of original source material from the years before Roe (the 1960s and early 1970s) devotes equal space to documents supportive of each side. Some were retrieved from easily accessible public spaces, others from digging in library collections, and still others from people’s private files. A few examples:
- Two-page instruction sheet outlining “Rush Procedure for Going to Japan” to obtain an abortion.
- 1971 Handbook on Abortion by Jack and Barbara Wilke, highly influential in making the case against legalization (this 13-page excerpt is the book’s longest).
- Statement by Dr. Jane Hodgson, who was sentenced to prison for performing a 1970 abortion for a woman with German measles.
- 1970 article by Dr. Robert Knapp, found in Justice Blackmun’s files, arguing that to perform an abortion is to commit murder.
- Statement of the Clergy Consultative Service, a group of ministers and rabbis who came together in 1967 to assist more than 100,000 women a year in obtaining abortions.
- A 1970 analysis of the constitutional question published in the New York Times by then-reporter Linda Greenhouse.
- Many documents that chronicle legislative efforts at reform, repeal and counter-repeal (especially New York), as well as pre-Roe litigation efforts (especially Connecticut).
Worthy of special note are many excerpts from statements by a variety of religions. Some concern the Catholic Church’s prominent pre-Roe role. Others remind of the division of religious views. A 1972 statement of my own church, the United Methodist Church, discusses “the tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion,” and concludes “we support removal of abortion from the criminal code.”
The book concludes with excerpts from briefs filed in Roe, as well as the statement read by Justice Blackmun from the bench in announcing the decision.
The format of the book invites readers to draw their own conclusions. One set of questions particularly enriched concerns common critiques of Roe itself. That its focus on abortion as a medical procedure, properly for physicians rather than the government, largely and remarkably leaves out of the picture women and fetuses. Before Roe v. Wade suggests this is not because the Court lacked those perspectives: the Court had before it arguments about women’s equality and autonomy needs, as well as photographs and descriptions of fetuses at various developmental stages.
Or that by seeking to resolve the issue through the courts, Roe provoked a backlash that in the long run may have both undermined the Court’s legitimacy and made access to abortion less secure. The documents, and the authors, suggest an alternative narrative: the backlash began earlier, with Catholic Church-led opposition to pre-Roe legislative reform, and was fueled by Republican Party efforts to shift its position in order to recruit Catholics and others. Readers may be surprised to learn that pre-Roe, Republicans were more supportive than Democrats of reforming or repealing restrictive abortion laws.
A theme not as surprising is the pervasive inequality in the enforcement of abortion bans (which corresponded with wealth and privilege), and resulting, pervasive inequalities in who suffered harm to health and life. For example, “Between 1951 and 1962, over 92 % of women who received hospital abortions in New York City were white, while over three-quarters of those who died from illegal abortions in the city were women of color.”
One document is particularly power in highlighting the disparity: a 1970 pamphlet distributed to Yale students promised the university would find access to safe, legal abortion, despite the state’s criminal ban. It reminded students of their special privilege: “Opportunity to receive an abortion in this country discriminates against the poor, the ignorant, and the disadvantaged. . . . You are privileged in that you have access to information that some would and many have given their lives for . . . .” The pamphlet concluded with the warning, all in caps: “DON’T TAKE A CHANCE WITH AN ILLEGAL ABORTIONIST. IT COULD MEAN YOUR LIFE.”