Book Club: Pro – Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Pro PollittPro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt, prize-winning author, poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation, is a book for people who are in the “muddled middle” of the abortion debate. YOU are a member of this group — more than half of Americans — if you do not want to ban abortion, exactly, but don’t want it to be widely available, either.

Pollitt argues that “muddlers” are clinging to an illogical and ultimately untenable position and need to sit down and examine their reasoning carefully. She does so in a witty, engaging manner, taking us through 218 pages in the following six chapters:

RECLAIMING ABORTION. Pollitt states her case:

“Abortion. We need to talk about it. I know, sometimes it seems as if we talk of little else, so perhaps I should say we need to talk about it differently. Not as something we all agree is a bad thing about which we shake our heads sadly and then debate its precise degree of badness, preening ourselves on our judiciousness and moral seriousness as we argue about this or that restriction on this or that kind of woman. We need to talk about ending a pregnancy as a common, even normal, event in the reproductive lives of women … We need to see abortion as an urgent practical decision that is just as moral as the decision to have a child — indeed, sometimes more moral.”

WHAT DO AMERICANS THINK ABOUT ABORTION? Polls are one thing; voting, another. Voters in even the most conservative states reject extreme abortion restrictions, despite polls predicting passage. Continue reading

Book Club: Generation Roe

Generation RoeLike 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: 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

Pro-Choice Book Club: Histories of Oral Contraceptives

Hormonal birth control has an incredible history that stretches back almost a century, when Margaret Sanger wrote of her dream of a “magic pill” in 1912. In the ensuing decades, scientists were busy piecing together the complex system of the body’s “chemical messengers,” hormones, and when they learned how to synthesize them in the ’40s, Sanger’s dream was but a few steps away from being fulfilled. Three engaging accounts of the Pill’s development — The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World by Bernard Asbell (1995), America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May (2010), and Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill by Gabriela Soto Laveaga (2009) — contain some overlap, while offering different perspectives.

Each author tells the inspiring story of Russell Marker, the chemist who first finagled progesterone from a wild-growing Mexican yam. Despite a near lack of support from pharmaceutical companies and the scientific community, he traveled to rural Mexico on a hunch — and ended up co-founding a laboratory that became the world’s top hormone supplier for the next few decades. Before Marker formulated a way to synthesize hormones in abundance, they were derived from slaughterhouse byproducts and were prohibitively expensive. Marker’s experiments enabled further medical research in hormones, and progesterone was soon used not only in oral contraceptives, but as a precursor for other medications such as cortisone.

While Carl Djerassi is often credited as the “father of the Pill,” both Asbell and May tip their hats to Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, the Pill’s “mothers.” These two women also have fascinating biographies. As a nurse in the early twentieth century, Sanger was acquainted with the horrors that arose when women did not have control over their fertility. Many of her patients became infected or even died as the result of illegal or self-induced abortions, which motivated Sanger to become an activist for contraception’s legalization — an avocation that saw her illegally smuggling diaphragms into the country and serving time in jail after opening a family-planning clinic in Brooklyn. Continue reading