11 Books For Understanding Reproductive Rights

by E. Ce Miller

Of the myriad freedoms in ever-increasing peril in the wake of America’s 2016 presidential election, a Trump administration’s threat to women’s reproductive rights is an issue at the forefront of many women’s minds. In the past week dozens of publications, from CNN and the Washington Post to Elle, Glamour, Jezebel, and Vogue, have reported that the number of women requesting IUDs — a small, T-shaped device implanted in a woman’s uterus, and a form of long-term birth control that could outlast a Trump presidency and is still covered by the Affordable Care Act — has skyrocketed since the election. Planned Parenthood has received more than 200,000 private donations between $10 and $10,000 since November 8, in part thanks to the #WeWontGoBack hashtag on Twitter, which is being used to share important news and information about reproductive rights and encourages donations to Planned Parenthood in response to the election. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve defended my own vagina’s inalienable rights more in the last two weeks than I have in the last 28 years put together. Suffice it to say: women are nervous. And more than a little pissed off.

Donald Trump’s most inflammatory policies about birth control include revoking federal funding from Planned Parenthood, returning abortion laws to the discretion of individual states (which means restricting access to legal abortions for millions of women — "they might have to drive to other states," Trump said in a recent 60 Minutes interview, as though we all just have Trump's private Boeing 757 at our disposal), and toying with the idea of “punishing” both abortion-seeking women and their doctors. But when it comes to legislating the uterus, Trump’s VP pick is a whole other story. Mike Pence’s history with women’s reproductive rights includes his being the first congressman to propose revoking all federal funding from Planned Parenthood (in 2011), signing eight anti-abortion bills into law during his first four years as governor of Indiana, co-sponsoring a bill designed to redefine “rape” in order to further restrict women from seeking legal abortions, delegitimizing condoms as a safe and effective form of birth control and STD-prevention (in a CNN interview), and closing so many Planned Parenthood locations in Indiana (none of which even performed abortions) that egregious lack of affordable care led to a 2015 HIV epidemic that has since been declared a public health emergency. So, plenty to look forward to if this proposed administration holds.

One of the biggest issues when it comes to understanding your reproductive rights is the wealth of false, inaccurate, and misleading information available today — and revoking a woman’s access to fact-based knowledge about her reproductive health is an essential step towards revoking a woman’s access to reproductive healthcare. Whether you’re against abortion or pro-choice, whether you’ve never stepped foot in a Planned Parenthood or they were your first stop after you and your boyfriend had “the talk” that summer after 11th grade (by the way: thanks for that, PP) knowing what is actually going on inside your body and having a working knowledge of the history of reproductive politics are essential in making your own empowered, informed healthcare decisions.

Here are 11 books to help you understand your reproductive rights — and the rights of all women, for that matter. And hey, if you’d like to make a donation to Planned Parenthood when you’re done reading this, click here.

1. The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World by Michelle Goldberg

If you’ve ever wondered why women’s rights, and specifically women’s reproductive rights, are such a fiercely-debated issue not just in the United States but all over the world, Michelle Goldberg’s reporting demonstrates the ways the emancipation of women impacts economics, culture, religion, and healthcare across the globe — and why sexually empowering women is often seen as a threat to patriarchal norms. The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World tackles not only birth control, but also issues like forced prostitution, the enslavement of young women, and female circumcision in order to offer a global perspective on women’s reproductive rights.

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2. Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion edited by by Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont

Despite what many hyper-conservatives would have you believe, a woman’s reproductive decisions don’t begin and end with her stance on abortion. Contraception, infertility, the healthcare available to a woman during and after giving birth, and even the process of adoption are all essential considerations during the child-bearing (or not) years of a woman’s life — and if Planned Parenthood closes, the affordability of all of these freedoms will be in jeopardy. In Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion editors Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont have collected a series of 24 personal essays that explore all of the decisions a woman might have to make throughout her reproductive life, and takes great lengths to humanize a deeply personal experience that has become inundated with dangerous political rhetoric.

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3. Reproductive Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know by Rickie Solinger

Consider Rickie Solinger’s Reproductive Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know your crash course in American reproductive law, from the years before Roe v. Wade, through that landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, up until today — when women’s reproductive rights are just as hotly contested as ever. She explores issues like contraception, abortion, adoption, and surrogacy from legal, political, religious, social, ethical, and medical perspectives, giving a comprehensive overview of some of the country’s most-debated issues.

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4. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 by Leslie J. Reagan

Written almost a decade ago, for the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Leslie J. Reagan’s book When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 looks back at the 100+ years when abortion was illegal in the United States, and illegally-performed abortions were a crime that threatened both the woman and her doctor. Reagan explores the experiences and perspectives of women — who come from every class, race, and marital status — who obtained illegal abortions during that time, and what Roe v. Wade would have and did mean to them.

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5. Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America by Andrea Tone

The evolution of contraceptives in the United States has been rapid and tumultuous, relatively speaking. From changing attitudes and improved technology to what the invention of the birth control pill meant for women all over the United States and the world, Andrea Tone’s Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America is filled with everything you ever wanted to know about how modern birth control came to be.

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

As research shows, the experience of procuring and using birth control isn’t always universal across race and economic class — black women, and especially black women living in poverty — have historically experienced more roadblocks to making their own empowered healthcare and reproductive decisions, from slavery through today, than white women. Dorothy Roberts’s Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty explores the different roles racism can play in women’s access to birth control, and how oftentimes women of color experience even greater challenges when trying to exercise their reproductive freedoms.

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7. 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

In the 30 years before Roe v. Wade, a least 1.5 million women chose to, or were more often forced to, give their babies up for adoption — a shame-filled and devastating experience, whether it occurred by choice or not, that these women almost universally experienced alone, enforcing a double standard that still resonates through American gender politics today. Author Ann Fessler was one such adopted baby, and her book The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade shares the stories of hundreds of women who went through the same heart-wrenching experience Fessler’s own birth mother went through.

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8. The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti

Feminist columnist Jessica Valenti has written four books on feminist politics, and you should seriously read them all. This title, The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, explores America’s unhealthy obsession with virginity — from the portrayal of virginity in the media and entertainment, to the religious implications of one’s sexual decisions, to the abstinence-only education that is still proliferated through many schools and institutions throughout the United States, to the double standards placed upon sexually active young women, versus their equally-active male peers. Valenti details the dangers of the constant messaging imposed upon young girls and women, which still teaches us our worth is dependent on our sexuality.

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9. Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt

As recently as May of 2010, when the last statistics were gathered (by Guttmacher Institute researchers), 61% of U.S. women seeking abortions were already mothers, and many cited that their choice to terminate their pregnancy was based partly, if not entirely, on their inability to financially provide for additional children. Keep that statistic in mind as you read Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, a powerful and necessary book that dissects the language we still use to talk about abortion in the United States, takes a critical look at the (largely male) impulse to legislate women’s bodies, and emphasizes the importance of upholding the Roe v. Wade ruling. Pollitt argues that abortion is not only a woman's moral right, it can also have positive social and economic implications for women and their families.

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10. Abortion & Life by Jennifer Baumgardner and Tara Todras-Whitehill

This collection of portraits and anecdotes doesn’t stop at this book’s striking cover photograph. Author and activist Jennifer Baumgardner and photographer Tara Todras-Whitehill combine images and anecdotes to put faces to the politics of pregnancy termination in the United States, while debunking some of the myths and answering many of the questions that are avoided on both sides of the abortion debate.

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11. Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti

Because we seriously just cannot get enough of Jessica Valenti, she appears on this list again, this time accompanied by author and activist Jaclyn Freidman, who tag-team to discuss how female sexuality and a woman’s right to both sexual empowerment and pleasure have gotten lost in our understanding (or lack thereof) of rape in the western world. Rather than perpetuating feelings of shame around female sexuality, Friedman and Valenti argue that making space for women to feel in charge of their own sexual activities and enjoyment will ultimately lead to a decrease in sexual violence, and a reframing of how the culture as a whole understands the female body.

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