A History of Reproductive Rights, Told For Teenagers
The author Karen Blumenthal argues that Roe v. Wade is a subject lots of people think they understand — but they don’t.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the right to have an abortion in the U.S. has been under attack for decades. Even as a pandemic worsens in the U.S., states including Ohio, Texas, and Mississippi have attempted to temporarily ban surgical abortion as “non-essential.” These latest bans have drawn criticism from doctors and galvanized providers to file lawsuits, after the year 2019 saw state legislatures pass a wave of anti-abortion laws.
Politics and religion aside, women have been receiving and giving abortions for centuries, whether or not it was safe or legal — from 19th-century birth control businesses in New York to the Chicago group “Jane,” which was nearly shut down in the early 1970s.
The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade has been widely regarded as the historical turning point for women’s right to terminate a pregnancy — a decision that author Karen Blumenthal says was actually not feminist. “It wasn't a decision that said, ‘it's a woman's right,’” she told NowThis. “It was a decision that said, ‘it's a woman and her doctor’s right,’ which is different.”
Blumenthal, also a journalist, is the author of “Jane Against the World: Roe V. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights,” a book designed and packaged for teenagers. The book’s deeply researched history of reproductive rights is laid out in narrative, character-driven terms, and adults could also learn a lot from reading it. Blumenthal told NowThis that she wrote the book for young adults because they will quickly become voters and are learning to form political opinions of their own.
While some Americans might point to recent appointments of conservative justices including Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch as the nail-in-the-coffin for the constitutional right to abortion, anti-abortion advocates have been ramping up their offensive — stacking the courts, door-knocking, focusing on down-ballot candidates and state legislation — since the early ‘90s, during the Reagan administration. While researching the book, Blumenthal also learned that “you cannot separate birth control from abortion” and covered both extensively.
Blumenthal lives in Texas and is a former editor at The Wall Street Journal, award-winning children’s non-fiction writer, and has written books about Title IX, Hillary Clinton, and Prohibition. She spoke with NowThis about how the law works differently for different people, the medical establishment, and how abortion became one of the most politicized issues in an America steeped in culture wars. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
The role of storytelling and its potential to persuade opinion and drive activism was really apparent to me in this book, from the lower courts to the Supreme Court. You spent some time talking about male judges’ interactions with women in their lives, who they’d ask for opinions, often about abortion. While the women in powerful men’s lives should not be the only reason they make certain decisions — why did you feel like those details or private moments were important to include?
For most of history, these decisions had been made by men — when there were decisions made. Really up until the 1800s, women took care of women's issues; men were not that directly involved with their health care, childbirth, or contraception. In the 1800s, men really started getting involved in medicine, taking over women's health care. Laws [went] on the books that now define what's okay and what's not okay. And it became really male-dominated until really fairly recently. So I thought it was important, to acknowledge that some of these men came from their own perspectives, and some also talked to the women in their lives. People are influenced by the experiences around them. That's a lot of what we see in the abortion debate, too, is people tend to come at it based on their own, very personal response, as opposed to a community response.
Why did you feel like this was an important time to write this deeply researched, narrative nonfiction book about the history of reproductive rights specifically for teens over 14?
I think that [Roe v. Wade is] a really important subject that a lot of people think they know about — and don’t. And so that was part of the inspiration and the reasons to do it. I'm also from Dallas, which is where the case began, and there's very little about the history here. Many people don't even know that's where the case started. So I thought that telling the story would help give young people and even older people some context for understanding this enormously divisive debate.
A lot of the information in the book — from the medical explanations to the background on key people in this fight and the descriptions of the body and sexual health — really don't appear in many primary school history classes. So why did you want to illuminate this history?
Pregnancy is a teen issue, right? Teens get pregnant. Teens have sex. We can't pretend like that doesn't happen. And so they need access to good, thorough, well-researched information about that. But they also need access to facts and to stories. A lot of teens are very interested in this subject anyway — they're interested in what's happening in the world and politics — and so they want to know more. I find that especially young people, they hear about a lot of things. They're told one thing from their parents, but they want to learn on their own. They want to know what they really think and not what their parents think.
You focused a lot on the intersection of economics and abortion access — how money could affect who could get an abortion, and even who could survive childbirth, which has often been more of a risk than having an abortion over the last several decades. Do you think the financial aspect of reproductive rights gets enough attention?
What I found...is that race and class sort of defines everything. The experiences are different depending on what race you are and what class you get to inhabit. For wealthier women, even in the 1800s, there was more access to contraception or to safer childbirth than there was women who didn't have as much. It just repeats over and over again.
Margaret Sanger, who gets sort of a bad rap on the internet, was really very, very influential in helping women get contraception, [she] was very concerned about that. She felt like wealthy women had access to private doctors and to information that poor women didn't have. And she really committed her focus to trying to make sure that poor women had access to birth control and to some chance to decide whether or not they had to be moms. She actually was opposed to abortion. She just supported birth control.
And speaking of Sanger, a lot of the people in this book with their varying relationships to reproductive rights, were not perfect heroes. We know that Sanger had a connection to eugenics, and the women behind “Roe and Doe” later became like pro-life and very religious. Not to say that that necessarily makes them anti-heroes, but they changed over time.
People are messy. In real life, we're all kind of messy. Those two women [Roe and Doe] were in terrible circumstances at the time that they tried to get an abortion. Jane Roe, who we know of as Norma McCorvey, was pregnant for the third time. She was drinking, she was doing drugs, she was pretty wild by her own description. She had a history of not telling the truth and making up stories and trying to appeal to people by saying what she thought they wanted to hear. And that was true for all of her life. She's a very, very complicated person in that way. Her relationships were all kind of fraught, even her long-term ones. And the other woman was pregnant for the third or fourth time with a man who was a convicted child molester.
I really believe in...being honest and not sugar coating things. Many of the doctors who did perform abortions when abortion was illegal found that that was a very lucrative business. And so some people, they were just being greedy — they were just doing something they could charge a lot of money for. But for a good number of them, they also believed it was something they should be doing, even if it also made them pretty well off. It’s just all complicated.
We often don't get the complicated stories, especially when we talk about Roe v. Wade. Only recently did I even learn about Nora McCorvey, because of all of the restrictive abortion laws that were introduced in the legislature last year, and of course with Kavanaugh being on the Court. But what do you think some of the biggest misconceptions are today about Roe v. Wade and its potential to protect abortion access?
One is that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will go away. It won't, it won't at all. There's been abortion since the beginning of recorded history. It's never gonna go away. It will be illegal in some states, and it will be legal in other states. And that's a [similar] situation [that] the country was in during the early 1970s when [abortion] became legal in New York, and more or less legal in California and in Washington, but it was illegal in many other states. People took trips; there were actually, like, traveling agencies to set up a whole package deal. You paid one flat rate for the airplane, the hotel, the procedure. That was for those people who had money. For people who didn't have money, there were people who offered back alley abortions; people tried themselves [to abort]. And today, in those states, there will be the internet; people will try to get medication for abortions over the internet; they will try to get out of the state. They will do something, because women need that kind of health care — they need those kinds of choices.
People [also] think that if it's a religious issue, it's because the religious people think it's wrong, and nonreligious people think it's right. That's not true. There are still many religions [that support access to abortion]. I ended up actually, on the advice of a rabbi, doing [a] chart about different religions’ approach[es] to abortion and contraception.
And in the midst of all that, you wrote about how pro-choice advocates, as they're now called, became a bit complacent.
Whenever you're kind of winning — you feel like you have control. I did try to reflect both sides of the debate and the history of both sides, which you almost never find in a book about abortion. The pro-life movement starts also in the late ‘60s in response to some efforts to liberalize abortion laws or to reform abortion laws, by people who have really strong beliefs that abortion is wrong. But they don't get a lot of traction until abortion becomes legal, in part because people didn't see the change coming.
I think, for many decades now, people who believe that women should have a choice on these issues have thought the law was really behind them. There was a moment in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the Reagan administration, where it really did look like [how it looks] today, and many people believed Roe v. Wade was going to go away. And it was a very dramatic move where three of the Supreme court justices, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy and David Souter, got together and decided that they would issue a very unusual opinion from all three of them supporting a woman's constitutional right to make that decision, but also changing sort of the standards. And that's where we get today's standard, which is that you can impose restrictions as long as it doesn't “cause an undue burden.” And boy, there isn't much — In Texas, a 24-hour waiting period isn't an undue burden. Telling a woman she's increasing her risk for breast cancer is not an undue burden, even though it's not true.
There's a number of things that have been allowed, but there still is a constitutional right. The moment that we're at today looks pretty bleak. I didn't write the book to convince people; I wrote the book for people to make their own decisions. But I personally believe that reproductive rights [are] 100% [an important issue] on the ballot in November — whether or not women have them in 2021 will depend a lot on what happens in November of 2020.
Why do you feel like it's important for this next generation, who may not even be of the voting age, to understand how their access to abortion could be just as limited or more limited than their mothers?
It directly affects them, if they don't have the rights their mothers had. Frankly, they're going to be voting pretty soon, too. It affects their ability to choose what they want to do in life, whether or not they have choices about whether or not to become a parent or whether or not to become a mother, because men, frankly, have different choices in most cases.