Examining the Legacy and Future of Reproductive Rights Through the Lens of Contemporary Written Pros
By Elizabeth Oladoyin
As with many cultural products, books are considered representations of the past, present and future. And, in this article we will explore how they can dictate how those concerned with the importance of reproductive rights should examine the issue.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Is America truly becoming Gilead? As shockwaves ripple around the world at the monumental decision reached by the supreme court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, many have begun making comparisons of the recent historical news to the disturbing world in Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale. The fictional work depicts a future where fertile women are turned into child-bearing enslaved people. This has recently widely become a notable cultural reference point, following its adaptation into a TV series in 2017. This adaptation had aired around the same time Donald Trump, an alleged serial sexual assailant, had been elected President of the United States which had left many people reeling and questioning the integrity of the political infrastructure that allowed someone as divisive as him to be elected. This feeling was only further cemented by the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, another alleged sexual assailant, as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court who, along with other far-right justices, was responsible for the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and the abortion rights. Suddenly, what was once touted as an imaginative, far-fetched but brilliant, fictional piece seems uncomfortably plausible.
However, quiet resistance to the "dystopian" literature emerged during the height of the almost feverish deification of Margaret Atwood's writing. The Handmaid's Tale was an all too familiar story when viewed from an intersectional perspective. I occasionally found myself a bit irritated and envious during book club discussions of this novel because my white feminist allies are able to take in The Handmaid's Tale through the lens of a fictional dread, rather than an unsettling recollection of a very real and horrific past. Instead, I was overcome with comparisons to real women from Africa who were abducted from their homes, treated like property, sold off, separated from their families, and made to live in shacks and perform strenuous physical labour for no pay during the transatlantic chattel slavery era of the 16th through to the 19th century. These discussions have since somewhat improved as more attention has been brought to these ideas from intersectional feminist thinkers, but it still bears repeating and remembering. Margaret Atwood herself has recently explained that the book draws from real-world examples though she mostly references Regan-era politics and the 1980s women's movement which was mostly led by cis-het white women.
This book, while it may not have been her initial intention, exemplifies everything that those interested in protecting and reinstating the right to abortion must work against and leave behind in the past. The Handmaid’s Tale successfully signifies the grave importance of enshrining the bodily autonomy of women into law and makes for an interesting read with this in mind.
Other important books within this category include: The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade (2007) by Ann Fessler. An uneasy read depicting the hidden, everyday tragedies unwed parents were forced into in the decade before the enactment of Roe vs. Wade. The book was written by a woman who herself was born to a young teenage mother in the mid-20th century and successfully shatters the elusive and false narrative often spun by pro-abortionists of “the good old days” before abortion was easily accessible.
Women of Colour and the Reproductive Rights Movement by Jennifer Nelson (2003). This book explores the other side of the reproductive rights coin and how the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s enabled accessible abortion options. Moreover, for some women, particularly women of colour, it was an opportunity to address the disproportionate deaths during pregnancy and demand safe maternity care and the guarantee they could keep their children post-delivery.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (2021)
Though it may not immediately appear to fit in with the other books on the list, I believe that this may be one of the most important books to discuss here. Detransition, Baby is a book that deals with how the consequences of society's constant scrutiny of transgender bodies, and the complexities of their reproductive decisions as a result of this. This highly emotive book recently made history as the first book written by a transgender woman to appear on the longlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, signifying a long overdue change in the perception of transgender women as fundamentally different from their cis counterparts.
Despite the fact that Roe vs. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court only a short time ago, access to abortion varies greatly from state to state, and there are already nine states in America where it is illegal to have an abortion. Some of these states do not grant exceptions for victims of rape or incest, and patients with serious illnesses are already being denied life-saving prescriptions because they contain abortifacients. The situation has been made worse by an ominous rise in transphobia that wrongly accuses transgender people of being responsible for the loss of reproductive health care, even permeating some of America's most respectable centrist and left-wing media institutions such as The New York Times in which an opinion piece by Pamela Paul has placed the blame on transgender women for the current political issues. This is in direct contradiction to the fact that transgender people already face widespread prejudice from medical professionals and that transgender men and some non-binary people also need access to abortion care, and as such these issues are equally important for them.
Additionally, there are new transphobic laws that threaten to revoke parental rights from adults who support their children's transitions, subjects student-athletes to intrusive genital exams, and forbids drag queen performances in front of young audiences. These are all coming into effect at the same time as this attack on trans rights. As such, in this present time of upheaval and chaos, it is now more important than ever to counteract the prejudices transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are facing by including them in all discussions related to reproductive health.
Another book to consider purchasing is Trans Reproductive and Sexual Health: Justice, Embodiment and Agency, Edited by Damien W. Riggs, Jane M. Ussher, Kerry H. Robinson, and Shoshana Rosenberg. Set to be published December this year, this book will be an all-encompassing, near-definitive collection of academic writing that will certainly amour you with the facts.
Shout Your Abortion, Edited by Amelia Bonow & Emily Nokes. Including a foreword by Lindy West (2018)
“The Left has never figured out a compelling way to advocate for abortion rights because the anti-choice movement has relentlessly flooded the discursive with so much propaganda that even those who support abortion rights often do so from an apologetic stance”. – Lindy West
Shout Your Abortion is a collection of creative work ranging from essays to photos and many other forms of creative expression by those inspired to share their personal journey of abortion. This book severely challenged my perspectives because, even as a pro-choice advocate, I realised that I still held internalised judgmental opinions towards people who had abortions. I would occasionally catch myself with condescending opinions about people who have had an abortion and would blame their lack of preparedness, or disregard of preventative contraceptive measurements as though the details around their intimacy were any concern of my own. I now hold a deep sense of shame for concerning myself with the circumstances of another person's abortion. Shout Your Abortion began from a person sharing their abortion story with #ShoutYourAbortion as a direct opposition to the US congress attempting to defund Planned Parenthood. It then evolved into a grassroots movement that inspired countless individuals to share their stories through various mediums such as art, in fashion or through community events. The purpose of sharing these stories was to destigmatise abortion and put an end to the shame surrounding them. Shout Your Abortion is now also an LLC where supporters can purchase products to support the movement and its goals. They encourage people to take up the mantle and form their own collective version of Shout Your Abortion in their local area whether in the form of an art exhibit, concert, book club or film screening – it does not matter so long as stories around the importance of safe, affordable and attainable abortions are being shared.
Unlike many other books I’ve read regarding the reproductive rights and bodily autonomy of women, Shout Your Abortion concludes with a call to action and rallying cry for all those who are interested in taking part in the revolution to definitively codify these rights into law permanently. As such, I personally deem this book to be the North Star that any budding feminist should look to as a guiding light for the future.
Another book that offers similar instructive help for those who may be feeling out of options is New Handbook for a Post-Roe America by Robin Marty with a foreword by Amanda Palmer (2021). Almost as though containing psychic premonitions, this book has been created to provide readers with a robust and creative playbook on how to defend their reproductive freedoms in the few US states that still permit them. The book works to comprehensively prepare its readers with a play-by-play manual on how they should navigate the onslaught of encroaching changes to reproductive rights. Highly informative and, unfortunately, a modern imperative need.