SUMMARY: Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights

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Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights by Karen Blumenthal

Brief Overview 

The fiftieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade is fast approaching.  

Changes in personnel in the Supreme Court — including one more after the publication of this book — suggests the staying power of the decision might be at risk.  Many states are passing very restrictive laws while a few, including New York, have done things to protect abortion rights.  As I write, there is a major controversy over a new law arising out of Texas.

The abortion debate goes back a long way, but restrictions in this country first arose in the 19th Century.  And, the story told in this comprehensive account of the battle over abortion in the United States starts there. We then learn about the movement to reform abortion restrictions, while some simply wanted to abolish them.  This led to Roe v. Wade.  

But, a constitutional right to choose an abortion to not end the battle. There was pushback, both politically and in the courts.  And, people pushed back against the pushback.  And, this book covers all that ground as well, telling things from the point of view of both sides of the abortion divide, particularly for a young adult audience.  

We are left with a “to be continued” —  “The fights over whether, when, and how a woman may decide to have a child are far from over.”  

Favorite Quote

“Before too long, I was enmeshed in a much bigger story about women’s rights, reproductive rights, racial discrimination, medicine and religion.” 

I have been very interested in the subject of abortion ever since high school, when the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision was handed down. You can read about that decision in this book.  A basic reason why is because there is so much involved in the subject.  

This quote shows the many — and it is not a comprehensive list — things involved here. Religion alone is so big of a subject.  Imagine a whole lot more.  The author covers a lot of ground, well.

Should I Read It?

This book is written for a young adult audience. After all, there is a “YA” on the copy I borrowed from the library. This means it is aimed at the well-read junior high student and particularly for people in high school.   And, it is appropriate for that audience.

But, adults should enjoy it as well.  The book is written in crisp, down-to-earth language with plenty of pictures and helpful “sidebars” with useful information.  It has a helpful glossary of legal and medical terms as well as a timeline of events.  And, it is well-sourced.

The best part of it is that though the author supports abortion rights, she provides all sides of the story.  This begins with the history of abortion restrictions in the 19th Century to all sides in the Roe v. Wade litigation, and events right before the publication of the book.   

The book is useful both for those well-read on the topic — adding interesting details — and those who are new to it and want a good comprehensive overview. Those who wish for a more in-depth account of each detail might want to look elsewhere, including the book Liberty and Sexuality by David Garrow and many other books on individual stories covered by Jane.

For those opposed to abortion, many should respect its evenhandedness and reporter-like statement of details.  The author clearly writes from a pro-choice point of view, which might bother some opponents.  But, the presence of both points of view should be appreciated by those who lean more toward not supporting abortion rights.

A mature junior high student can read this book, but some parents might wish to wait if some of the sexually themed material is seen as too explicit for them. 

Comprehensive Summary 

The book is split into four basic sections with about twenty-five chapters of varying lengths.  Over three hundred pages long, the formatting is such that it is easy to read.  There is a lot of information covered, which I glide over below, but not in an overwhelming fashion.  

Prologue 

The prologue is a type of “title drop” by discussing a group known as “Jane,” who provided abortion referrals and abortions themselves when abortion was illegal.  The title is not a direct reference to “Jane Roe,” the anonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade.  

Part I: Restrictions

The first section starts with an account of Madame Restell, a 19th Century abortionist.  As her business thrived, laws against abortion began to be passed in the U.S. The opposition of abortion by the leader of the American Medical Association is discussed.  A series of “pregnant pause” sidebars begin, covering where babies come from and the early history of birth control.  

The section ends with the success of morals champion Anthony Comstock, whose efforts included the opposition of birth control and abortion.  The next chapter addresses his nemesis, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and the birth control movement. The growing opposition to abortion bans, including among many doctors (WWII-1960) is then covered.

The last two parts focus on the 1960s.  One chapter covers Sherri Chessen, a mother and children show’s host, struggles to obtain an abortion after finding out she took thalidomide (anti-nausea drug that causes serious birth defects). 

[“Sherri Chessen” is often cited by her married name, Finkbine, in abortion histories.]

Next, we learn the story behind Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court case that recognized a right to use contraceptives.  

Sidebars cover such issues as illegitimacy, how sterilization was applied in a racist way, and discussion on pregnancy and abortion related deaths at this time.

Part II: Reform

This section focuses on efforts from various parties to reform abortion laws in the late 1960s.  

The first two chapters discuss support and opposition (focusing on the Catholic Church) among the clergy.  One “pregnant pause” section images of developing embryos and fetuses, covering both the photographer who took them and their use in the movement against abortion.

The legal efforts to repeal abortion laws are also covered.  One chapter focuses on the successful effort to legalize of abortion in New York.  

Four chapters then address the growing efforts in the courts, with support from various groups (including the growing woman’s movement and supportive clergy), to obtain a constitutional right to choose an abortion.  The beginnings of Roe v. Wade and the fight of Dr. Jane Hodgson is covered.  The section ends with a fuller account of the underground “Jane” movement.  


Part III: Roe v. Wade

This section, about a third of the book, is an extended look at the process involved in bringing Roe v. Wade (after a lower court supported abortion rights but Texas still banned abortion) to the Supreme Court, the arguments in the case by both sides, behind the scenes developments at the Supreme Court, and the ultimate decision itself.  

The first chapter focuses on the first abortion case the Supreme Court took involving Dr. Milan Vuitch.  We also learn about a “companion” case to Roe v. Wade, involving an abortion reform law (allowing abortion in some cases) out of Georgia.  But, the book focuses on the road of Roe v. Wade, including briefs, oral argument (twice), and the decision itself.  

The chapters also cover things happening in the background, including backlash to legalization in New York and it being a political issue in the 1972 presidential election.  One helpful sidebar provides a breakdown on what various religions “say” about abortion, including any changes in views over the years.  The young advocate for Roe, Sarah Weddington, also is elected to office.

Part IV: After Roe  

The shortest section (about forty pages) covers the period after Roe (1973-2018).

Roe v. Wade (7-2) protecting a right to choose an abortion did not end controversy over abortion.  A brief chapter (“Politics” 1975-1980”) covers the beginning of the opposition, including the ban of federal funds for abortion (Hyde Amendment). 

The next chapter discusses a growing conservative Supreme Court deciding various abortion cases (“The Supreme Court, Again: 1980-1992”).  A narrowing majority for abortion rights seemed to put the right to choose at risk.  But, a 5-4 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) upheld abortion rights, a suprising result given the changing personnel on the Court. 

The next chapter deals with the Clinton years, with an administration more supportive of abortion rights.  But, strong opposition, including lawbreaking and violence, continued. Meanwhile, ironically, the lead plaintiffs in Roe (Norma McCorvey) and Doe came out against abortion.  McCorvey’s story is complicated, including her changing accounts of what happened.  

[A new book, The Family Roe by Joshua Prager, focuses on McCorvey’s story.]

The last two chapters deal with the events of the 21st Century.  The overall theme is a growing number of restrictions on abortion.  The murder of Dr. George Tiller is also covered.  The epilogue returns to Dr. Curtis Boyd, a doctor who chose to provide abortions when were illegal in Texas in the 1960s.  The book ends by saying the fight over abortion is “far from over.”  

Appendix Material 

This includes a Glossary of Legal and Medical Terms, a historical Timeline, a summary of Significant Supreme Court Cases on Abortion and Reproductive Rights, and Bibliography and Notes.  Notes are in summary form; there are no specific end notes.  An Index is also included.  

Points To Ponder 

I personally find that most complex subjects have various sides to them.  And, it is useful to read about, to listen to them.  This can be true even if you are strongly on one side.  Things are not totally “black and white” or “good and evil.”  Maybe, you disagree.  If so, why?  

Given your own views, how did you find this book? Was it fair? Biased?  

The book starts with a series of questions for a sixteen year old who finds out they or their girlfriend is pregnant.  (Some remind that trans and non-binary people also can be pregnant.)  That makes what comes afterward seem a lot more personal than it might otherwise be.  

Was that a good way to open up the book?  How would you answer the questions?  

About The Author

Karen Blumenthal (website) was a former Dallas Morning News reporter and editor.  

Blumenthal wrote several books for young adults, three of them were finalists for Young Adult Library Services Association awards for excellence).  A list of her books shows she did not avoid controversial topics.  She died shortly after the publication of this book.  

Other books by author: 

Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend

Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History

Tommy: The Gun That Changed America

Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different

Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man

Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition

Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America  

Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929

Is Jane Against the World Reliable? 

The author is known for her research skills and the extended bibliography and source notes show the effort provided in this book as well.  I have read up on the topic for some time ever since I wrote a report on Roe in high school and personally found the book reliable.  

Blumenthal discussed her efforts to obtain state records related to Roe v. Wade, ultimately posting a treasure trove (one file alone is over 500 pages) on the book website.  

The author is not an expert on the material, such as people like Prof. Mary Ziegler, who has written on the history of the abortion conflict.  But, Blumenthal did her homework here.  

By Joe Cocurullo

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