Book Club: Generation Roe

Like many in her generation, Sarah Erdreich thought the freedoms that Roe v. Wade guaranteed were secure. A child of the post-Roe era, she learned that the landmark decision had legalized abortion, striking down many of the state and federal restrictions that had previously forced countless women to risk their lives and health in the hands of underground abortion providers — providers whose work was not accountable to any professional medical standards.

What Erdreich learned was true, but it wasn’t the entire truth. Legalizing abortion was one thing. Guaranteeing access to it was another. After college, graduate school, and a series of abandoned career starts, Erdreich ended up in Washington, D.C., working for the hotline for the National Abortion Federation. Her job changed her perspective, opening her eyes to the extent that restrictions and barriers still diverted many people from the legal procedure of abortion. It was that experience that inspired her to write Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement (Seven Stories Press, 2013).


Generation Roe is worthwhile reading for those who want to build on the legacy of Roe v. Wade.


Generation Roe assesses where we are today, 40 years after Roe, with a sobering look at the continuing threats to reproductive freedom. In the decade that Roe was decided, 77 percent of all U.S. counties lacked an abortion provider. Today, that figure has jumped to 87 percent, while the number of women of childbearing age in those counties has increased from 27 to 35 percent. That’s one of many indicators Erdreich uses to capture the contradictions of the post-Roe era. Those like her who grew up after 1973 have never known what it’s like to live without the availability of legal abortion. But that availability has been curtailed by everything short of overturning Roe, from legal means, such as statutes mandating medically inaccurate pre-abortion counseling — plus waiting periods of 24 hours or more — to illegal means, such as threatening abortion providers and their patients.

Unfortunately, while so much significance can be pegged on Roe v. Wade, and while those few syllables can serve as a sort of shorthand for reproductive freedom, there isn’t a counterpart that succinctly captures its myriad curtailments. As a result, many of those curtailments are left out of the conversation. It takes a news hound to follow what’s happening in the 50 states on the abortion front and to have a thorough sense of where that leaves people who seek abortion services. “I absolutely think most people are not aware of what the realities are in terms of barriers to access,” says law student Kyle Marie Stock, one of the many people Erdreich interviewed for her book. Continue reading

Book Club: Crow After Roe

Crow After RoeA new book by Robin Marty and Jessica Mason Pieklo takes readers on a tour of a disaster. It was a catastrophe that swept through much of the Midwest but also shook states like Arizona, Idaho, and Mississippi. Its widespread effects raised numerous health concerns as it made its way through much of the country, and its repercussions are still felt today. Undoing the damage could take years.

The disaster was not natural, but political. The 2010 midterm elections saw a wave of Republican victories, giving state legislatures a new makeup and a new agenda. Reacting to a recently elected Democratic president who had called himself “a consistent and strong supporter of reproductive justice,” conservative lawmakers introduced one bill after another to limit access to reproductive health care — especially, but not exclusively, abortion.


The defeat of Arizona’s 20-week abortion ban is a timely reminder of what activists can accomplish.


In Crow After Roe: How “Separate but Equal” Has Become the New Standard in Women’s Health and How We Can Change That (Ig Publishing, 2013), Marty and Pieklo, both reporters for the reproductive health and justice news site RH Reality Check, take a state-by-state look at the many bills that were introduced in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections. Those bills made the next year, 2011, a record year for state-level legislation to restrict abortion. States passed more anti-abortion laws in 2011 than in any year in the last three decades. What was quickly dubbed the War on Women continued into 2012. That year saw the second highest number of new state-level abortion restrictions. This year is shaping up to be much like the prior two, with new restrictions introduced in more than a dozen states, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Marty and Pieklo argue that this onslaught of bad legislation has put women — especially poor, minority, and rural women — in a separate and secondary class of health care consumers who have little choice or control over their reproductive health. The authors posit that the goal of the many restrictions is to render abortion “legal in name only” — still legal, but largely unavailable. Continue reading

Book Club: Outlaw Marriages

Sally Ride, the famous astronaut who passed away in July from pancreatic cancer, left an unexpected gift to America’s youth. In her obituary, it was revealed that Ride, the first American woman to travel into outer space, had been in a committed, same-sex relationship for 27 years with her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy. Having quietly come out, she now serves as an important, high-profile role model for LGBTQ youth.

Although it became public knowledge too recently to be included, Ride’s story mirrors those found in a recently published collective biography by Rodger StreitmatterOutlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples (Beacon Press, 2012) visits the topic of same-sex marriage in the United States, covering 140 years of history in 15 marriages, from 1865 to 2005.


Marriage practices have taken many forms across time and across cultures.


Streitmatter, a professor of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., profiles the marriages of luminaries ranging from poet Walt Whitman to screen star Greta Garbo, bringing his subjects to life in stories that can be fascinating, poignant, and even humorous. The 15 marriages he chronicles were “outlaw marriages,” because “each pair of men and each pair of women defied the social order by creating sub-rosa same-sex marriages long before such relationships were legally sanctioned.” Continue reading

Book Club: Flagrant Conduct

Although books have shaped much of my political thinking, until recently I never did much reading about LGBTQ equality. My own reasoning made me an ally, so I wasn’t as well versed as I could have been. That’s why I never knew the full importance and the unlikely history of the 2003 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas — the landmark case that put sodomy laws on trial — until I picked up Dale Carpenter’s recently published history of the case, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas (W. W. Norton, 2012).


Sodomy laws gave police leverage to harass members of the LGBTQ community.


Flagrant Conduct tells the story of two men who were arrested for what they didn’t even know was a crime. They could have paid fines to put the incident behind them quietly, but activists and legal counsel convinced them to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court. Although they were strangers to activism, the two men agreed to use their case to defeat an unfair law. Five years later, the two men and their attorneys won a high-stakes victory in a conservative Supreme Court.

The arrest of John Lawrence and Tyron Garner in Houston on September 17, 1998 — 14 years ago today — was the event that led to Lawrence v. Texas. That night, deputies responded to a 911 call reporting that a man was “going crazy with a gun” in Lawrence’s apartment. The deputies who arrived never encountered a man with a gun, but they arrested Lawrence and Garner for engaging in, as the offense report put it, “deviate sexual intercourse[,] namely anal sex.” The two men were charged with violating the state’s “Homosexual Conduct” law, Section 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code. The law, which criminalized same-sex sexual intimacy, was put in place when Texas revised its sex laws in 1973, giving more sexual freedoms to heterosexuals but fewer to gays and lesbians. Continue reading

Movie Night: A Private Matter

Twenty years ago, TV viewers were subjected to what the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) called a “high-profile, long-ranging and costly” anti-choice media campaign. At an estimated final cost of $100 million, the conservative Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation launched a series of television ads from 1992 to 1998 bearing the message, “Life. What a Beautiful Choice.” Featuring images ranging from idyllic family scenes to in-utero fetuses, the ads ran on national networks and local stations alike.


A Private Matter dramatizes a story that changed minds about abortions as it captured headlines.


On the media front, the DeMoss Foundation ads presented a formidable challenge to the pro-choice majority, but more came out of 1992 than these glossed-over vignettes about difficult reproductive choices. That same year, HBO premiered its movie A Private Matter, a dramatization of the true story of Sherri Finkbine, a Phoenix-area woman and local TV celebrity who was known as Miss Sherri on the children’s program Romper Room. Finkbine made national headlines in 1962, when she and her doctor decided she should have an abortion. Finkbine had already given birth to four healthy children, but during her fifth pregnancy she learned that the sleeping pills she had been taking contained thalidomide, a drug that had recently been banned after being linked to severe fetal deformities.

Sherri Finkbine is played by Sissy Spacek, who puts on a convincing and absorbing performance. Spacek is cheerful and charismatic at first, a natural fit for the star of a children’s show, but apprehension takes over one morning when she glances at the front page of the local paper. “U.S. Bans Crippler Drug” is the first headline she sees. At work later, Sherri phones her physician, still sounding hopeful that she didn’t take the pills long enough for its side effects to have done any harm. When her physician, Dr. Werner, calls Sherri and her husband into his office later, she learns otherwise. Dr. Werner shows them photos of the effects of thalidomide and advises them to terminate Sherri’s pregnancy. Trying to ease Sherri’s shock, Dr. Werner assures her that she hasn’t done anything wrong, that it was the drug that made terminating her pregnancy so imperative. Dr. Werner promises to arrange an abortion, even as Sherri is still indecisive. Continue reading

Book Club: A Queer History of the United States

Beacon Press, the nonprofit publishing company of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has a long history of publishing books that have informed and inspired civil rights and social justice movements, from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son to Tucson author Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land. In that tradition, Beacon has launched a new book series called ReVisioning American History. The first in that series is Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, which was released in hardcover in May 2011 and will be released in trade paperback on May 15, 2012.


Bronski frames LGBTQ history as one that is woven into the fabric of U.S. history — not separate from or additional to it.


Bronski explains in the introduction to his book that he is interested in providing something more than a history of “who might have been ‘gay’ in the past or had sexual relations with their own sex.” In fact, his mention of individuals is often pared down to the sheerest character sketches and profiles. Far from a collective biography of LGBTQ Americans, Bronski’s interest in individuals is often limited to a person’s role as agents in a process of evolving gender expectations, agents who sometimes shape those expectations and other times act independently of them. He explains that he doesn’t want to reduce history to “names, dates, political actions, political ideas, laws passed and repealed.” Instead, borrowing the words of Shulamith Firestone, he wants to present history “as process, a natural flux of action and reaction.” Continue reading

Book Club: The Origins of AIDS

The Origins of AIDS
By Jacques Pepin

Cambridge University Press, 2011

Most sexually transmitted diesases go back thousands of years. Gonorrhea, for example, was first described by a Greek physician in A.D. 150, and pubic lice have been evolving right along with us since before we became Homo sapiens. This might have been one reason why it was such a shock when a strange new virus came to our attention in the early 1980s. We soon discovered that it was transmitted sexually and through infected blood, but where did it come from?


We have intriguing evidence that HIV as we know it has been in existence since at least the 1930s.


HIV has been around since before the 1980s, though it remained unnoticed and unidentified by medical science. The earliest confirmed case of HIV was in 1959, the proof found in a sample of blood from the Belgian Congo, saved in a freezer for decades and later analyzed for the virus. Other early cases of HIV infection that have retrospectively been confirmed include that of a Norwegian sailor, who must have been infected while visiting African ports in the early 1960s. He, his wife, and his child (who was apparently congenitally infected) all died in 1976, and their tissues were tested 12 years later and found positive for HIV.

Jacques Pepin — a professor and microbiologist, not to be confused with the chef of the same name — does some serious detective work to find the most plausible explanation for HIV’s origins. While he doesn’t skimp on the science, the story of AIDS’ origins can’t be told without getting into the history of Europe’s colonization of Africa in the 20th century. This period, followed by the era of post-colonization, found many societies in upheaval. Urbanization, unemployment, and migration facilitated the spread of HIV in Africa during much of the 1900s, and once it left the continent it was able to hitch a ride from host to host, traveling the world. Continue reading