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When Abortion Was A Crime: Women, Medicine, And Law In The United States, 1867-1973
by Leslie J. Reagan
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From Publishers Weekly
In 1900, women attempted to induce abortions by inserting knitting needles, crochet hooks, hairpins, scissors, chicken feathers and cotton balls into their uteruses. In 1917, black women "pinned their faith on... [the] ingestion of... starch or gunpowder and whiskey." Reagan, an assistant professor of history, medicine and women's studies at the University of Illinois, dedicates her disturbing work on abortion in America before Roe v. Wade to "the lives of... women who died trying to control their reproduction." She chronicles the covert efforts and subsequent prosecution of doctors and midwives, and of unmarried women and their lovers (while married women made up the majority of clientele and were accused of "race suicide," they were pursued less often). Reagan has her work cut out for her: Though the law forbade abortions, she writes, "some late-nineteenth-century doctors believed there were two million abortions [performed] every year." And then, as now, debate raged: though some doctors disagreed, the Journal of the American Medical Association declared itself against abortion in the case of rape since "pregnancy is rare after real rape." For those who take legal abortion for granted, Reagan's work is an eye-opener.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From School Library Journal
YA?Most books written about this subject focus on the post-Roe v. Wade period. Reagan relates heart-wrenching stories of women who survived abortions and those who did not. She includes narratives from physicians, midwives, husbands, and boyfriends. The stories of poisonous potions drunk by women in an attempt to "open up the womb" remind readers that reliable birth control and pregnancy tests are recent developments. The author's research for this book comes from the Chicago AMA archives beginning in the mid-1800s when the organization led the way to criminalize abortion. Reagan utilized court records, police reports, medical literature of the day, and coroners' reports. The result is a scholarly chronicle of abortion in a large city. Containing 112 pages of endnotes and bibliography, and a 20-page index, this is a well-researched, organized, and interesting look at the inception and expansion of women's reproductive freedom as a political issue. After reading it, YAs will be better informed about the complexities of this ever-controversial subject.?Nancy Karst, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
This book brings to life both the medical and the legal history of abortion in the United States by using newspaper articles, transcripts of trials and inquests, and other archival sources to show readers how people were affected by the criminalization of private activities. Reagan (history, medicine, and women's studies, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) demonstrates that abortion has always been available to women, whether or not it was legal. The documentation here points out the use of physicians as police and moral authorities, the correlation of economic depression with the need for abortion, the discrimination against unmarried women and midwives, and the paternalism of the medical profession. These factors have, until Roe v. Wade, placed many obstacles in the path of women seeking abortion. The current backlash against abortion threatens a return to the difficult times of the past. This fascinating history, with its extensive bibliography, is an essential purchase for academic medical, legal, and women's studies collections. Highly recommended for public libraries as well.
Barbara M. Bibel, Oakland P.L., Cal.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The Atlantic Monthly, Katha Pollitt
Of all the issues roiling the ongoing culture wars, abortion is both the most intimate and the most common. Almost half of American women have terminated at least one pregnancy, and millions more Americans of both sexes have helped them, as partners, parents, health-care workers, counselors, friends. Collectively, it would seem, Americans have quite a bit of knowledge and experience of abortion. Yet the debate over legal abortion is curiously abstract: we might be discussing brain transplants.
In When Abortion Was a Crime, Leslie J. Reagan demonstrates that abortion has been a common procedure--"part of life"--in America since the eighteenth century, both during the slightly more than half of our history as a nation when it has been legal and during the slightly less than half when it was not. Important and original, vigorously written even down to the footnotes, When Abortion Was a Crime manages with apparent ease to combine serious scholarship (it won a President's Book Award from the Social Science History Association) and broad appeal to the general reader.
Moving skillfully between a nationwide perspective and a detailed study of Chicago, Reagan draws on a wide variety of primary documents, many never before examined.... [S]he not only brilliantly illuminates a hitherto shadowy aspect of American life but also raises crucial questions about the relationship between official mores and the values by which people--including the promulgators of those official mores--make the decisions that shape their lives.
When Abortion Was a Crime is rich, thought-provoking, and revelatory on many levels, not least as a triumphant vindication of the somewhat contested disciplines of women's history and social history "from the bottom up." Perhaps its greatest achievement, though, is in a way its simplest: it puts abortion back into the context in which it actually occurs--the lives of obscure and ordinary women.
Frank Rich, New York Times
From Kirkus Reviews
A solidly grounded, sophisticated history of illegal abortion in the US. Reagan, a historian specializing in medicine and women's studies (Univ. of Illinois), persuasively argues that, even during periods when legal and medical systems and religious beliefs have proscribed abortion, it has been an important, and often accepted, part of women's lives. She uses a range of materials, including government documents and the popular press, to prove her case but focuses her research primarily on legal and medical records. Reagan combines her analysis of nationwide trends in abortion practice with a study focusing on Chicago. By 1880, abortion was illegal throughout the US. Nonetheless, through 1940 it was a common medical practice that enjoyed widespread social acceptance. In the '40s the states, in cooperation with the medical establishment, began to enforce abortion laws more vigilantly. It was during this period that most of the pre-Roe ``back alley'' abortions took place. The movement to legalize abortion began in the mid-1950s, first on the initiative of a few doctors, later gaining momentum and ideological fervor with the rise of the Second Wave of feminism in the late 1960s. Reagan goes beyond the genesis of written laws, focusing on women's attitudes toward abortion and their concrete experiences of it. She points out that abortion has often been seen as a result of women's victimization (a callous man uses a woman for his own sexual pleasure and then abandons her). Reagan acknowledges that this happens but points out that, across class lines and time periods, many women have actively wanted to separate sex from procreation. She also skillfully connects abortion to larger events and tendencies in history; the Depression, for example, greatly increased the economic need for abortion. Of enduring interest to anyone concerned with the history of women's rights, sexual mores, and the relationship of law and policy to ordinary lives. (6 b&w illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
As we approach the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it's crucial to look back to the time when abortion was illegal. Leslie Reagan traces the practice and policing of abortion, which although illegal was nonetheless widely available, but always with threats for both doctor and patient. In a time when many young women don't even know that there was a period when abortion was a crime, this work offers chilling and vital lessons of importance to everyone.
The linking of the words "abortion" and "crime" emphasizes the difficult and painful history that is the focus of Leslie J. Reagan's important book. Her study is the first to examine the entire period during which abortion was illegal in the United States, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with Roe v. Wade in 1973. Although illegal, millions of abortions were provided during these years to women of every class, race, and marital status. The experiences and perspectives of these women, as well as their physicians and midwives, are movingly portrayed here.
Reagan traces the practice and policing of abortion. While abortions have been typically portrayed as grim "back alley" operations, she finds that abortion providers often practiced openly and safely. Moreover, numerous physicians performed abortions, despite prohibitions by the state and the American Medical Association. Women often found cooperative practioners, but prosecution, public humiliation, loss of privacy, and inferior medical care were a constant threat.
Reagan's analysis of previously untapped sources, including inquest records and trial transcripts, shows the fragility of patient rights and raises provocative questions about the relationship between medicine and law. With the right to abortion again under attack in the United States, this book offers vital lessons for every American concerned with health care, civil liberties, and personal and sexual freedom.
From the Inside Flap
"Exploiting legal as well as medical records, Reagan has retrieved the history of women who struggled for reproductive autonomy and provides our best account of how the practice and policing of abortion evolved in relation to medicine, the state, and the condition of women. [This] is a major contribution to social history."--James W. Reed, Rutgers University
"This is a fascinating book--energetic, even urgent in its narrative. It is based on entirely new material, making ingenious and enlightening use of criminal trials, inquests and newspaper accounts. Both creative and painstaking in her research, Reagan persuasively establishes historical patterns in the availability of assisted abortion, and documents a striking anti-abortion backlash in the 1940-50s. In addition to the book's value for scholars, it will undoubtedly be valuable to feminists, lawyers, doctors,and others intersted in the conditions of abortion today."--Nancy Cott, Yale University
"A first-rate exposition of the changing cultural and legal climate regarding abortion in America."--Thomas Szasz, Washington Post
From the Back Cover
"Exploiting legal as well as medical records, Reagan has retrieved the history of women who struggled for reproductive autonomy and provides our best account of how the practice and policing of abortion evolved in relation to medicine, the state, and the condition of women. [This] is a major contribution to social history." (James W. Reed, Rutgers University)
About the Author
Leslie J. Reagan is Associate Professor of History, Medicine, and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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