The History Of Reproductive Rights In The US, As Told Through 20 Books

If you’re looking to learn more about the issue, pick up one of these titles.

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With health care access under fire across the United States, Bustle has pulled together a list of 20 nonfiction books about reproductive rights you should be reading right now — because conservatives won’t stop at overturning Roe v. Wade.

With its 6-3 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court struck down Roe — its 1973 ruling guaranteeing Americans’ right to abortion access — as well as Planned Parenthood v. Casey: a 1992 case that upheld Roe and prevented states from imposing “undue burden” on people seeking abortions. Writing in his concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas, a George H.W. Bush appointee, held that SCOTUS “should reconsider all… substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” Those three rulings, which guaranteed married couples’ access to contraceptives, struck down state sodomy laws as unconstitutional, and legalized same-sex marriage across the United States, could very well be on the chopping block next.

Now, less than two weeks after Dobbs, abortion access varies widely from state to state. Without Roe, abortion has become illegal in nine states, several of which make no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. Additional states have seen their abortion bans overturned by lower courts, leaving pregnant people and their health care providers in a state of legal limbo. Meanwhile, chronically ill people are already being denied their life-saving medications at the pharmacy, simply because those medications are abortifacients.

To make matters worse, America’s most trusted centrist and left-wing media sources are drowning in an insidious wave of transphobic sentiment, one which wrongfully blames trans people for the loss of reproductive health care. Takes like those recently published in The New York Times, which make trans people into a scapegoat for the revocation of cis women’s rights, ignore the fact that trans men and some nonbinary people also need abortion access and that trans people are already subject to “rampant discrimination… by health care providers.” This assault on trans rights — from people formerly believed to be allies — comes at a time when a crop of transphobic new laws threaten to revoke parental rights from adults who support their children’s transitions, subject student-athletes to invasive genital examinations to ensure that only cisgender children play sports, and ban drag queens from performing in the presence of children.

Activists must understand the fight they’re in if they have any hope of winning it. The groundwork has already been laid for anyone interested in fighting to protect health care access, and newcomers to the battlefront would do well to educate themselves before diving in. Below, 20 nonfiction books about reproductive justice you should read as the assault on health care access continues.

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Taking Children: A History of American Terror

In this surprisingly slim book, Laura Briggs examines how genocide has been carried out in America through the displacement of children of color from their families for over 400 years, from slave auctions and residential schools to the modern-day foster care system and refugee camps.


Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement

Published at the start of President Barack Obama's second term in office, Sarah Erdreich's Generation Roe discusses the challenges that reproductive rights advocates must face in order to eliminate the social taboo on abortion, so that it can be treated as the common, life-saving procedure it is.


The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade

Written by a woman who was born to a teenage mother in the mid-20th century and subsequently adopted, The Girls Who Went Away offers an eye-opening look at the tragedies suffered by unwed parents in the decades before Roe v. Wade. Ann Fessler's book is not an easy read, but it is a necessary one if you want to fully understand what a return to "family values" means for the United States.


Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women's Reproduction in America

Written by Fordham University Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Jeanne Flavin, Our Bodies Our Crimes examines the myriad ways in which people of color are punished for having children — and rewarded for not reproducing. The right to be pregnant and the right to not be pregnant are of equal importance, and this book is a fantastic — if depressing — primer on an often-overlooked aspect of reproductive justice.


The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World

Michelle Goldberg's The Means of Reproduction explores the lives of people with vaginas on four continents, examining how advancements in reproductive justice can radically alter the trajectory of entire societies and bring about new developments in public health and well-being.


Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation

In Every Third Woman in America, Linda G. Brandon and David A. Grimes — a doctor who performs abortions and once led the CDC’s Abortion Surveillance Branch — examine the social history of abortion, including how the country changed in the wake of Roe v. Wade, and what those of us born post-Roe should know about pre-Roe America.


Reproductive Justice: The Politics of Health Care for Native American Women

Barbara Gurr's Reproductive Justice focuses on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, exploring the barriers Native American people face when seeking adequate reproductive care, including prenatal treatment, through the Indian Health Service.


The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service

In the years before Roe v. Wade, the Jane Collective operated an underground network that provided thousands of pregnant people in Chicago with access to safe abortion and low-cost health screenings, accepting $100 or whatever patients could pay. Laura Kaplan traces Jane's inspiring history in this fantastic book.


Just Get on the Pill: The Uneven Burden of Reproductive Politics

In this day and age, why is birth control the sole purview of people who can get pregnant? In Just Get on the Pill, Krystale E. Littlejohn argues that assumptions about which partners are responsible for preventing pregnancy lead many cisgender women to accept unequal sexual dynamics.


Handbook for a Post-Roe America

Robin Marty's Handbook for a Post-Roe America is a necessary primer on organizing, fundraising, and avoiding legal trouble when and if you must break an unconstitutional law.


Motherhood and Choice: Uncommon Mothers, Childfree Women

With legislatures across the country restricting access to both abortion and contraceptives — and factions of so-called feminists embracing gender essentialism — Amrita Nandy’s deep dive into the politics of motherhood couldn’t be more timely to read.


Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth

The United States has worse outcomes for infants and pregnant people than most of its closest allies, and those statistics are particularly grim for Black women. Birthing Justice centers Black voices to expose the inadequate natal care provided to Black American communities.


How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Sex, Virtue, and the Way We Live Now

If you're on the fence about abortion's importance to the well-being of this country, look no further than Cristina Page's How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America. This handy microhistory, written during the second Bush administration, exposes how increased family planning choices have improved quality of life for millions of people across the United States.


The Family Roe: An American Story

Joshua Prager’s Pulitzer-shortlisted book offers an insightful look at the impact of the landmark Supreme Court case, paying particular attention to four individuals: Linda Coffee, the lawyer who found and defended Jane Roe; Curtis Boyd, a fundamentalist Christian turned late-term abortion provider; Mildred Jefferson, a founder of the National Right to Life Committee; and Norma McCovey, aka Jane Roe.


Trans Reproductive and Sexual Health: Justice, Embodiment and Agency

Forthcoming in December 2022, this collection of academic essays highlights the challenges trans people encounter when pursuing routine health care — particularly when that care relates to reproduction and sexual wellness — and outlines plans for trans-inclusive reproductive justice.


Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

A Black feminist anthem and a rallying cry to civil rights activists who have gone soft, Dorothy Roberts' Killing the Black Body exposes how recent legislation has restricted the reproductive rights of Black people, particularly those who live in poverty. No discussion of reproductive or racial justice is complete without this book.


Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice

One of the criticisms lobbied at the Jane Collective was the overwhelming whiteness of its staff, who served a largely Black clientele. In Undivided Rights, authors Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta J. Ross, and Elena R. Gutiérrez use archival research and interviews to unearth the history of women of color's reproductive organization and activism.


Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade

Focusing on the two decades that followed World War II, Rickie Solinger's Wake Up Little Susie dissects the double standard that emerged around unwed pregnancy in the postwar period. White parents gave up children for adoption, which was not available to Black parents, and this disparity was used — and continues to be used today — to argue against Black families' worth and self-direction in the United States.


My Body My Choice: The Fight for Abortion Rights

Clocking in at just over 200 pages, My Body My Choice is a quick-and-dirty primer on the facts surrounding abortion in the United States. For people who are new to reproductive activism, this is an excellent place to begin reading.


This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor

Susan Wicklund worked for 20 years as an abortion doctor in reproductive health clinics — and for part of that time, she was compelled to wear a bulletproof vest and carry a gun for protection. In This Common Secret, Wicklund draws on her own experience and patient testimonies to give readers an illuminating look behind the closed doors of American clinics.

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