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The History of Abortion

How did we get here? Essential reading on the history of abortion rights

Editor's Note: In "Partial Law," Christine Stansell discusses the Supreme Court's recent partial-birth abortion ruling and its place in the history of abortion rights. She revisits the evolution of thought on a woman's ability to make her own decisions, the science and pseudoscience informing both pro- and anti-choice campaigns, and the tactics of the anti-choice movement to discredit not only abortion, but feminism as well. Here she suggests six books that explain feminism and the fight for abortion rights.

David J. Garrow, Liberty and Sexuality: the Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade (Scribner, 1994). The mother of all books about Roe v. Wade. An extraordinary encyclopedic study which begins with a line of cases brought by Planned Parenthood in Connecticut (Garrow's first heroine is the patrician Katharine Houghton Hepburn, the mother of actress Katherine) and follows the legal, social, and political action up through Roe.

Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (University of California Press, 1984). Published as the backlash against Roe was mounting, Luker's book investigates with admirable even handedness how the furor over Roe in the 1980s came to concentrate on the nature of motherhood and family roles. Analyzes both pro- and anti-choice arguments.

Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press, 1998). The first (and, to my knowledge, only) historical investigation of the dense world of illegal abortion: inhabited by physicians with principles; profiteers and quacks; police and desperate women.

Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, Abortion and Woman's Choice: the State, Sexuality and Reproductive Freedom (Northeastern University Press, 1987). A study of the politics and demography of abortion in the 1980s, with a brilliant meditation on the moral issues surrounding the controversy. Petchesky delicately examines pregnant women's own processes of making moral decisions in pregnancy and abortion.

Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control in America (University of Illinois Press, 2002). A fascinating history of contraception and the politics of reproduction from the nineteenth century on. The book explains how, in the nineteenth century, questions of contraception and abortion moved out of the traditional place in women's culture to become matters in which religious bodies and the state came to pronounce and intervene. The best comprehensive study of the politics of reproductive rights.

Jack Balkin, What Roe v. Wade Should Have Said: The Nation's Top Legal Experts Rewrite America's Most Controversial Decision (New York University Press, 2005). This book gives a sense of the gripping debates among lawyers as they second-guess, rewrite, and reframe the decision. Concurrences and dissents from Reva Siegel, Mark Tushnet, and TNR's own Jeffrey Rosen and Cass R. Sunstein.

By Christine Stansell