Abortion in America, 2016: An Essential Reading List


This week’s Roe v. Wade anniversary comes at a particularly freighted moment for the abortion debate, with an election looming, Planned Parenthood under renewed attack, and a political class that is more deeply divided on the issue than it’s ever been.

With that in mind, here is a reading list of excellent essays, reporting, video journalism, and more from the last year or so to get you up to speed on several trends around abortion care and abortion rights.

Self-induced abortion is on the rise.

Janet Reitman’s devastating investigation into the way new laws designed to “protect fetuses” are resulting in the jailing of pregnant women is an essential read, full of information on the way the “pro-life” philosophy is leaking through to create a punitive attitude towards all pregnant women. “Though she was not afforded legal representation, Loertscher’s 14-week-old fetus was given a lawyer, known as a guardian ad litem,” Reitman writes of one woman who had a positive drug test, then gotten clean when she learned she was pregnant. “This court-appointed official represented the fetus’s interests during two hearings that resulted in Loertscher being incarcerated for refusing to enter drug treatment.”

At Vox, there’s an explainer on an issue that shouldn’t have to be explained: the return of the self-induced or “coat-hanger” abortion, that is actually resulting in women going to jail. This is not the first such case; Jill Filipovic wrote about another earlier in the year.

Violence against clinic providers is a daily threat.

After the shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, MSNBC’s Irin Carmon talked to “pro-lifers” who were less than convincing in their commitment to nonviolence. Meanwhile, abortion providers spoke out about the threats they face just going to work each day. “I have to think about whether, say, my hairdresser might call up the groups that harass me and tell them where and when I go there. Then I have to worry that they might start picketing my haircut appointments, or calling the salon and threatening to boycott or protest them if they continue seeing me, or even that at my next appointment there could be someone waiting outside with a gun,” Cheryl Chastrine told Rolling Stone‘s Andrea Grimes. “It’s absurd and appalling that I have to think about that. But I make those sorts of calculations every day.”

Fusion’s interactive package shows the erosion of abortion access in Alabama, while Broadly’s video on medication abortion (or “the abortion pill”) is a more global look at the way activists are responding to state attempts to control women’s reproduction: by putting abortion pills directly into women’s hands.

Those Planned Parenthood videos are part of a network of anti-abortion myths.

Imani Gandy took a long, hard look at the mixed legacy of Margaret Sanger — and, in particular, slammed the way Sanger’s problematic beliefs have been used to create false narratives that are a shaming tool against black women today: “The truth about Sanger and her birth control crusade is far more complex, and requires a nuanced discussion of the type that your average anti-choice crusader is either incapable or unwilling to engage,” she writes. Meanwhile, Rebecca Traister talked about why the Planned Parenthood videos wouldn’t work on women; most women — who have experienced gnarly reproductive issues for their entire adult lives — already understand the messy realities about abortion.

Later abortions are a necessity for many women.

A number of threatened 20-week abortion bans inspired several very sad stories about later abortion in difficult cases, all after 20 weeks, and one as late as eight months. “I had a choice. I could try to live with the husk of a child inside of me for more than 100 days, swallowing tears at every cheery inquiry as I grew bigger. Or I could have an abortion. And the choice wasn’t just about me. I have young children who would have had to see their mother endure this torture and give birth to someone they would never meet. So we made the painful, but I believe merciful, decision to terminate,” wrote Rebecca Cohen in the Washington Post.

Many women don’t regret their abortions.

But abortion isn’t always a tragedy. “I was relieved and went about my day. There was nothing to grieve. I had no regrets,” Melissa Petro wrote at The Daily Dot. “I have never even remotely regretted having an abortion,” wrote Mary Emily O’Hara. Anna Holmes’ essay from the anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed discussed abortion on the path to a child-free life, describing “a societal discomfort not just with women who choose to remain childless, but with those who decide to become mothers and dare to confess to feelings of frustration and exasperation over the choices they have made.”

And Lindy West wrote about the power of the #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag to puncture silence: “I never, ever talk about my abortion. I live in a progressive city, I have a fiercely pro-choice social circle and family, I write confessionally about myself for a living – so why is it that I never speak about abortion in anything beyond an abstract way, even with my closest friends?”

Phony science enables anti-choice legislation to push through:

An investigation at RH Reality Check delves into the manipulation of science and the invention of a cadre of “experts” who insinuate — conveniently for lawmakers who want to curtail abortion — that abortion hurts women: “Our work details how the scientific and medical claims of these groups and individuals have been publicly discredited in episodes ranging from lying to the public, presenting false data in scientific journals, and being forced to retract articles that proved to be works of fiction presented as fact,” the authors write.

Some really good writing about abortion:

Briallen Hopper’s short, lyrical essay on growing up anti-abortion and changing her mind is breathtaking: “I have seen enough to know that purity is not possible in this world, and to know that I wouldn’t want it even if it were.” And in the New York Times, Katha Pollitt penned two clarion call op-eds about abortion stigma and threats: “How to Really Defend Planned Parenthood” and “The Toll of Violent Anti-Abortion Speech.”