9 Books on Reproductive Rights to Get Educated About the Issues
What are reproductive rights? On the large scale, they’re the right to freely decide the course of your sexual and reproductive choices. On the smaller scale, they’re being able to choose if, when, and how you’ll have a child and being able to make those choices without fear of violence or coercion; they’re about being able to access contraception and safe abortions; and having the freedom to receive comprehensive, medically accurate information about reproductive health. With big Supreme Court decisions being handed down, midterm elections coming up, and a presidential election not too far away, it's important to know what your rights are and how they can be protected.
Though reproductive rights appear to be pretty basic, America has an historically terrible track record of protecting them. NARAL Pro-Choice America reports that 29 governors are anti-choice (pro-choice being supportive of a women’s right to safe abortions, of course, but also being supportive of access to birth control, sex-ed, and medical care for healthy pregnancies); for 2014, NARAL gave the U.S. a “D” on their annual report card. Luckily, some politicians are still fighting for our reproductive rights. President Obama’s Affordable Care Act will provide millions of women with reproductive health services and, last year, he made it possible to purchase the morning after pill without a prescription.
So, onto these books below. Why read 'em? Not only will picking up some of these texts, both fiction and nonfiction, enable you to make the right choices for you and your partners, they'll actually entertain you, make you laugh, and move you. They're not just dry policy books — these authors and stories will give you a 360-degree view of the issues, maybe making you consider reproductive rights in ways you might not have even thought of before.
1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s dystopia is the result of an American revolution, a total undoing of feminism’s second wave in which ultra-conservative gender roles are performed; women are not allowed to read, write or vote, and some women (Handmaids) are forced to work as birth surrogates for the society’s leaders. Though this particular one is fictional, these extreme societies have existed before and still do, to some extent, in other places in the world. Atwood’s consideration of women’s bodies and freedom as political tools is complicated but fascinating; through this allegory, we can see how gendered and fundamental reproductive rights are and how dehumanizing it is when they’re taken away.
2. Baby Love by Rebecca Walker
Walker (yep, Alice’s daughter!) explores what she refers to as her lifetime of ambivalence over motherhood. The founder of the Third Wave Foundation, a feminist organization that's particularly concerned with youth and intersectionality, Walker’s memoir is an honest discussion about the conflict many women find within the theory and practice of motherhood, and puts to rest the idea that reproductive rights are only about choosing not having children.
3. Sweetening the Pill by Holly Grigg-Spall
Is the birth control pill the greatest feminist innovation of the 20th century, or the worst? Grigg-Spall considers the economics (and ethics) of pharmaceutical companies and sees the pill as an extension of the commodification of women. She argues that the pill is meant to give women freedom, but it instead traps them in an expensive monthly habit that can have dangerous physical side effects. Controversial and certainly thought-provoking, Sweetening the Pill is a great read for anyone who’s had a less than positive experience with hormonal birth control and a good education for all women on their contraceptive options.
4. The Cider House Rules by John Irving
Irving’s 1985 novel follows Dr. Lurch, a doctor and orphanage director, and his protégée, Homer, in the WWII era. Dr. Lurch was once against abortion, but decides to perform them after visiting a dangerous back-alley clinic; Homer, too, is morally opposed to abortion, but we watch as he reconciles his pro-life stance with his ability to help women end their unwanted pregnancies. Irving's realistic portraits of women dying from dangerous, incorrectly performed abortions will remind you how necessary it is to keep the procedure safe and legal.
5. Abortion & Life by Jennifer Baumgardner
Baumgardner — co-author of the monumental Manifesta — has curated this amazing volume of portraits of women (including Gloria Steinem and Ani DiFranco) wearing a shirt that says “I Had An Abortion.” Accompanied by their own stories, these women humanize the experience and show female readers who've had abortions that they're not alone.
6. The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti
Valenti — one of this generation’s most respected feminist thinkers — uncovers America’s obsession with female purity. She argues that the idea of chastity hurts young women; placing someone’s worth on what they have or haven’t done sexually is damaging and reliant on false, heteronormative conceptions. Her writing about abstinence-only education will make you realize the importance of learning about your own options, and the consequences if you haven’t (unwanted pregnancies, STIs, and not knowing the parameters of sexual assault).
7. Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy by Vanessa Fong
In 1979, China implemented their one-child policy, in which couples are allowed to have only one child (they may apply for another if their child is a girl or if the child is physically or mentally disabled), a violation of reproductive freedom that comes with unwanted abortions, forced sterilization and infanticide. Fong spent a few years living in China, interviewing the first generation of only children and her book reports interesting findings about the social and economic consequences of enforced family planning.
8. Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman
Feldman was raised in an ultra-strict Hasidic family. Her conservative community doesn’t teach young girls about reproduction and, when married at 17, Feldman finds herself in an unconsummated marriage; she and her husband know next to nothing about sexuality, which makes sex nearly an impossible act. Her lack of familiarity with her own body makes her unequipped to deal with vaginismus, a painful condition that she has, and feels forced and rushed into having children. Feldman’s memoir is revealing and will show you the extent in which community can dictate sexuality.
9. Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier
Ever wonder why women sync up their periods, what estrogen really does, or how breast milk is made? Angier has got you covered in this oddly engrossing and delightfully fascinating journey through a woman's body; part scientific analysis and part feminist manifesto, Angier provides honest and empowering facts about the female form. Still unsure on where you stand regarding reproductive rights? This book will make you want to celebrate (and liberate!) women's bodies.