Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History
N.E.H. Hull & Peter Charles Hoffer
Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
$15.95, 318 pages, ISBN 0700611436.

Céline Van Kets
Université de Rouen

N.E.H. Hull, Professor of Law, and Peter Charles Hoffer, Professor of History, who have already collaborated on two other books, dealing respectively with infanticide and impeachment, have just added a new volume to the University Press of Kansas’s Landmark Law Cases and American Society series, which they co-edit. Roe v. Wade is not just a simple study of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1973, but also, as the subtitle suggests (The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History), comprehensively covers the legal history of the abortion debate, from colonial America to the first days of the George W. Bush new administration in 2001.

Roe v. Wade
examines more than the mere legal abortion question, for it places it in a wider context, tracing its historical and social background. The book is chronologically divided, but three periods can be easily drawn: before, during and after Roe, in other words, the criminalization, the legalization of abortion, and then the backlash, which shows it is not just a “natural” decision made on some January 22nd and taken for granted, but rather a process that spreads over time, and undergoes endless challenges.

What makes the book differ from other similar analyses (abortion is obviously not a new issue), is, despite a very scholarly and enlightening work, the surprising and original narrative style which, to a certain extent, turns the study into a sort of novel, or rather a Dallas-like endless TV saga. The authors create an atmosphere of suspense, and their book is filled with anecdotes, goodies and baddies, unexpected events, twists and turns. The first two pages could very well be the introduction to any fictional story, as the scene takes place in a pizzeria, and the two lawyers who challenged Texas law in Roe are first described through their clothes and the color of their hair. The various chapters often raise questions as they end, so that the reader makes her/himself sick with worry until the outcome of the next episode. And the cast is also impressive, for all the actors of the century-long drama are here, from Anthony Comstock and his 1870s “anti-obscenity” legislation, to Norma McCorvey AKA Jane Roe, from Harriet Pilpel and her 1969 Right to Abortion, to Justice Harry Blackmun who delivered the opinion of the Court in the Roe v. Wade decision.

The book first devotes three chapters to abortion history, its criminalization in the nineteenth century, the increased used of birth-control, and then the rapid changes in science, civil rights, and, above all, in society’s perception of abortion. It also examines the cases which paved the way for Roe, like Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. The authors also strongly (and rightfully) connect abortion with women’s history and the feminist movement, and show how Roe’s status was a real “progress toward a new vision of women’s rights”, and asserted for the first time that women’s bodies belong to women alone.

However, the deliberate effort of the authors to relate events and introduce both sides of the conflict in the most objective and neutral way possible, may appear sometimes vain. On the back cover of the book, we can read that “this is a book that can inform and enlighten those on either side of the debate, as well as those in between (emphasis added)”. I personally firmly agree with the first part of this statement, but the last part leaves me rather perplex. The debate about abortion has proved for a long time that points of view remain irreconcilable, and this is the reason why “the battle over Roe goes on and on, [...]because neither side —and there are only two sides, no middle (emphasis added)— can find a way to compromise or quit.” This sentence taken from the book is in complete contradiction with the statement of the back cover. Consequently, the book can do nothing but help the reader to side with a position, or at least, reinforce her/his point of view. That is why this laudable neutrality may appear a bit too naive and irrelevant. As an example, the authors pretend that doctors who led the antiabortion campaign in the mid-nineteenth century, were only motivated by philanthropic reasons and wanted to protect women from unskilled abortionists; thinking that doctors most of all wanted to get rid of the competition of the (cheaper) midwives and homeopaths would be “a cynical conclusion”. But cynicism and truth are by no means antinomies.

Nevertheless, this book is glaringly tainted with a feminism that its “neutrality” cannot hide. It denounces the male domination in American society (a scoop, indeed), the absurdity of politics, and describes the feminist struggle against the criminalization of abortion. The authors present the key actors of the feminist revolution, like Margaret Sanger and Betty Friedan, organizations like Jane and NOW, capital publications like The Feminine Mystique, or influential magazines such as Ms and Redbook. But sometimes, the book is disappointingly not feminist enough, as it were, when for example it undermines the (enormous) role of NOW, as well as the role of the pill, pretending its invention was not a revolution, though it is the most important scientific progress ever for women, that changed their life, and has become a symbol, as a feminist victory, and an affirmation of women’s right to decide when to be pregnant.

The authors offer an excellent analysis of the Roe v. Wade case and its companion case Doe v. Bolton, and examine the core debates closely. The study is crammed with information, filled with apparently insignificant but fascinating details, and almost gives the exact dialogues and even the thoughts of the justices. We even know the color of the pad on which a lawyer wrote his opinion. All the actors of the case are introduced by short biographies and legal terms are briefly explained, which does not keep the reader from getting sometimes lost among the numerous injunctions and the various plaintiffs. The three-year long process is dissected, as well as its impact on society and the role of religious leaders, politicians and activists. The authors also show how gendered this issue was (and still is) on trial, as the people favoring restrictions, and then opposing Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, the attorneys who challenged Texas law, were almost invariably entirely male. More than a trial, Roe embodied a gender war. The study introduces Roe v. Wade as a symbol, as a guarantee of women’s rights. And such a powerful symbol is hard to destroy.

The book also analyses the legal challenges to Roe, such as the Hyde Amendment, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services or Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the unceasing battle between the same handful of justices, and the endless attacks leading to the slow erosion of Roe in the following three decades. This decision did not put an end to the controversy; au contraire, the debate between pro-choicers and pro-lifers has grown more and more furious. In the 1990s, as Pro-Life (religious) leaders (who are also clearly introduced to the reader) like Falwell or Schneidler encouraged an escalation of violence towards abortion providers, and Conservative justices were appointed to the Court, Roe was only the “shell of its former self”. Even if the Clinton administration has brought some relief and security to the law in court, through the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and the reversal of the Hyde Amendment for example, the right to choose women have taken for granted for thirty years finds itself once again threatened, as George W. Bush is now president. His appointment shows how intensely moralistic the nation still is, and that the debate over abortion is a never-ending story.

Although the detailed index, the chronology spanning two hundred years of history, and the bibliographic essay at the end of the book make Roe v. Wade, the Abortion Rights Controversy in American History a readable, thought-provoking and highly recommended book, it may remain a bit too “rich” and complex for uninitiated readers.