The Long Legacy of Abortion in America

A literary guide to reproductive rights: where we've been, where we are, and where we are likely headed

Protect Roe protest sign
Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unplash

It’s difficult to process the recent news of a leaked draft decision from SCOTUS; what’s even more difficult is that the draft decision, should it become a ruling, will overturn Roe v. Wade, rolling back decades of work fought on behalf of human rights. I say human rights, as opposed to women’s rights, because abortion is, first and foremost, a human right. 

An argument can be made that overturning Roe v. Wade would represent the single greatest political victory of the American far right movement. Abortion has long been their rallying cry, but it’s important to remember that the scope of this decision would reach far beyond a person’s right to choose—simply because there will always be a subset of women (and powerful men) who have access to abortion, whether or not it’s legal. This distinction is crucial: if the very people who claim to want to end abortion will maintain private access to it, then why should it be criminalized in the first place? If safe and legal abortion is taken away, the consequences will reverberate throughout American society. Low-income families and women of color will be disproportionately affected, and cycles of poverty will continue for generations. What this really comes down to is power—who has it, who doesn’t, and the far right’s effort to maintain the socio-economic status quo. 

At Electric Literature, we believe that storytelling has the power to shape public consciousness. It breaks down barriers, offering a forum for deep and sustained critical analysis. To that end, we have assembled a list of books we hope readers will explore. They cover a vast, and still evolving story: the history of illegal abortions in America, the impact of reproductive rights and bodily autonomy on Black women, and the right wing assault on abortion in the years since Roe v. Wade was first passed. Collectively, they tell America’s abortion story—where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are likely headed.

Yours,

Denne Michele Norris
Editor-in-Chief

Editor’s note: The literary guide below was researched by Lauren Hutton and Alexandria Juarez and written collaboratively by Lauren Hutton, Alexandria Juarez, Jo Lou, and Katie Robinson.

Pre-Roe v. Wade (1973)

When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine and Law in the United States by Leslie J. Reagan

Leslie J. Reagan’s account of pre-Roe America was the first-ever study on the history of illegal abortion in the United States. By thoughtfully and unflinchingly detailing the experiences of those who sought and provided illegal abortions up until the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Reagan proves that criminalizing abortions has never stopped them from occurring—instead, it only causes significant risk to both patients who seek help and the doctors who provide it. An unsettling illumination of what happens when abortion rights are nonexistent, this book is a reflection on where we came from, a warning of what might lie ahead, and a chilling reminder that history repeats itself.

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler

Fessler turns back the clock to what was once a heartbreaking reality for single, pregnant women before Roe. From 1945-1973, over 1,500,000 newborns were placed for adoption, often due to extreme familial and social pressure. Young women were pulled from school, sent to maternity homes with judgmental and cruel medical staff and clergy, and required to give their newborn babies away. Sharing first-hand accounts from these birth mothers, the long-term trauma of this severance is uncovered.

Under Roe v. Wade

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts

Professor Dorothy Roberts’s meticulously researched book is about the reproductive rights and bodily autonomy of Black women and the violence, trauma, and shame that they have endured throughout centuries in America. Starting from the beginning of slavery to 1997, Roberts takes readers on a journey to examine the systematic oppression and commodification of the Black female body. The book delves into the racist history of birth control advocacy and the ways it intertwined with the 20th century eugenics movement, how Reagan’s War on Poverty impacted Black single mothers, the anti-Black reproductive policies rooted in Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Bill—which was enacted in response to the welfare queen stereotype, and how anti-abortion laws disproportionately affect Black women. Killing the Black Body is as necessary today as when it was written 25 years ago.

Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict by Irene Vilar

An unflinching memoir about a woman’s abusive marriage and the fifteen abortions she would have in seventeen years. Vilar paints the full portrait of her life: her mother’s suicide, her brothers’ addictions, her infamous grandmother Lolita Lebrón, and her affair with her former professor. Vilar’s prose is heartbreaking, as she tries to answer why fifteen abortions, acutely aware of how she is perceived and hated. “By the time I lay in an abortion clinic waiting for the procedure to begin, I would feel nothing but disgust and shame… I always said to myself, ‘This has to end.’”

This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor by Susan Wicklund

Susan Wicklund details her own experience of having an abortion as a young woman in rural, working class Wisconsin, and how it led her to become an abortion health care provider in the Midwest. As much as this is her own story, one that sees her wearing a bulletproof vest to work, it is also a nuanced and intimate account of her patients and the difficulties they endure. While this memoir tackles the harassment healthcare providers and people seeking abortions face, it also spotlights Wicklund’s love for her profession and the crucial role women’s clinics play in providing reproductive care.

Reproductive Justice: The Politics of Health Care for Native American Women by Barbara Gurr

Because the Hyde Amendment prevents federal dollars from funding abortions, the Indian Health Service—a federal program—cannot provide abortion care to the Native populations it serves. Sociologist Barbara Gurr looks into how South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation navigates abortion and contraception access as well as pre-natal and post sexual assault care. A particularly apt portrayal of the lived consequences of far-reaching government policy, this book highlights the stories Native Nations are telling about their own bodies, communities, and fights for reproductive justice. 

The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—or Being Denied—an Abortion by Diana Greene Foster

Over the course of five years, Diana Greene Foster, PhD and her team of psychologists, epidemiologists, demographers, nursing scholars, and public health researchers, followed 1,000 women from over twenty states. These women either had abortions, or wished to and lacked resources or were denied. Throughout the years, the research team studied the economic, professional, romantic, familial and other impacts the women faced depending on their various decisions. Statistical evidence proves that in almost all cases, the women who were granted abortions fared better over the years, and 95% did not regret their decision. Some of the data can be found, for free, here.

Post-Roe v. Wade

The War on Choice: The Right-Wing Attack on Women’s Rights and How to Fight Back by Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, chronicles the history of anti-choice assault on reproductive rights, sex education, and family planning and how religious dogma has seeped into public health policies and slowly eroded the right to a safe abortion. Intertwined with personal stories of women impacted by anti-abortion rulings, the book also details the concrete steps that ordinary citizens can take to enact change.

Handbook for a Post-Roe America by Robin Marty

Robin Marty’s guide to fighting back and planning ahead in a post-Roe America is no longer about preparing for the worst—it’s now a crucial guide for our current moment. With practical advice from where to seek funding or get involved on a state-by-state level to tips for safe, self-managed abortion care, this is essential reading for anyone who might find themselves in need of an abortion and allies and accomplices alike. Marty rightly saw what was coming and sought to prepare us for it, and while we wish it hadn’t come to this, we’re lucky to have such a detailed resource already available.  

Bodies on the Line by Lauren Rankin

At the front lines of ensuring abortion access are the escorts who guide patients safely to the clinic, away from screaming protestors who are often belligerent and occasionally violent. In Bodies on the Line,  Lauren Rankin delves into the fraught public space that surrounds the American abortion clinic and the “pro-life” disruptors who occupy that small stretch with signs and megaphones in order to manipulate, coerce, and shame women from even entering the clinic: “Their goal? To make it as difficult and traumatic as possible to access an abortion.” Rankin weaves personal testimonies from patients and volunteers with historical research, from the 1970s to the present day, about abortion providers and the violent, deadly attacks on these institutes. A must-read to understand the physical and emotional labor that comes with the fight to ensure that abortion is both accessible and a human right.

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