7 Novels About Abortion and the Fight for Reproductive Justice
Historical and contemporary fiction that illuminates the long struggle for bodily autonomy
Since Roe v Wade was repealed in the summer of 2022, those of us who believe in bodily autonomy have been reeling from the cascade of increasingly bad news about reproductive justice in America, as the rights of people who bear children are picked off state by state.
We are fighting—and we need help, not just from lawmakers but from history and literature and art. We need community. I find solidarity in, and draw inspiration from, the stories of fighters who have gone before me and those who are in the thick of the fight today. This is one of the reasons I wrote my own historical novel All You Have To Do Is Call. In researching the women of the Jane Collective who offered safe, but illegal abortions in Chicago in the years before Roe, I felt both electrified and comforted by the heroism of women who took matters into their own hands. Though I started writing long before Dobbs, their story felt relevant and important, and I hope others will feel moved by their activism as well as their profound belief in the strength of people to endure.
Here is a collection of 7 novels about abortion and reproductive justice:
The Cider House Rules by John Irving
Irving’s 1985 novel, banned in many states, is probably the most famous depiction of abortion in American literature. He tackles abortion from many angles, with Dr. Wilbur Larch performing abortions and his protégé Homer Wells initially refusing to follow in his footsteps, though the novel itself—and its author—are staunchly pro-choice. Irving won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation, which became a movie starring Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire in 1999. Chillingly, he wrote in a must-read 2019 Op-Ed in The New York Times that “If you think Roe v. Wade is safe, you’re one of the reasons it isn’t.”
A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult
Picoult is a modern master of deftly handled issue novels that are increasingly banned instead of widely required like they should be. She sets this 2018 heart-pounder in Mississippi’s last standing abortion clinic, where a shooter has taken everyone hostage. This novel probes uncomfortably into our conversations about abortion, racial disparities in maternal health and infant mortality, and gun violence—all while making us care deeply about the diverse cast of characters, one of whom is a pregnant teenager inside the clinic with her police officer father acting as hostage negotiator outside.
Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Inspired by the true story of the Relf sisters, Valdez tells the story of two young Black women in the rural outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama, who are given unnecessary birth control shots with hidden side effects in 1973. Civil Townsend is a nurse assigned to give the shots but she knows something isn’t right. Because Civil herself had an abortion in her youth, she feels compelled to help; her compassion and inner conviction leads her to the horrible truth of the white-run healthcare clinic. This moving novel explores a troubling historical moment in the fight for reproductive justice through the lens of civil rights.
Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh
Outside the Boston abortion clinic of Mercy Street, tensions are running high between the pro-life protestors and the staff and their clients in this most Catholic of American cities. Haigh takes an unflinching look at the social, emotional, and economic costs of all aspects of reproductive justice, from the often heartbreaking counseling that goes on in the clinic to the vagaries of the foster care system. Haigh’s wide lens takes in so much of the nuance of women’s health, motherhood, and “unwanted” children’s lives that it’s impossible to come away unchanged.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
This literary tour-de-force follows five women in an America where The Personhood Amendment grants rights to every embryo at the cost of women losing all rights to their own bodies. The novel was extraordinarily prescient when it was published in 2018 and now post-Dobbs, Zumas’s searing work of fiction feels more contemporary than dystopian.
The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson
Johnson’s riveting novel, a Reese Witherspoon pick, is about the dire consequences of unwanted pregnancy for young Black women in the 1950s. It alternates between the perspectives of college-educated Eleanor, who desperately wants a baby with her doctor husband in Washington D.C. but cannot carry one to term, and Ruby, who is determined to get a college education and escape her humble beginnings but risks losing it all when she becomes pregnant. Ruby’s aunt tries to procure an abortion for her niece, but the provider has come under scrutiny and fears arrest so refuses the service—which lands Ruby in a horror house for unwed mothers run by iron-handed white nuns. The House of Eve looks into the ways lives can be derailed by the punitive mistreatment of disenfranchised women, and the ways in which many of us blindly support those systems.
Looking for Jane by Heather Marshall
This ambitious debut novel braids together three storylines set in 2017, 1971, and 1980 Toronto that provides a broad view of the costs to women, children, and entire families when women don’t have full control of their own bodies. Marshall delves into the so-called “homes” where unmarried pregnant women were forced to give up their children.
In 1971, Dr. Evelyn Taylor is an abortion provider for an organization called Jane (based on the real-life Jane Collective of 1970s Chicago). Through fictionalizing and reimagining the organization, Marshall makes an essential contribution to the Jane lore, which in many ways is like the cycle of Arthurian legends chronicling the Knights of the Roundtable; their story has been and will be told and retold, as the moment the first Jane took up a curette has mythical power on par with Arthur pulling the sword from the stone.