Although the title of Reproductive Rights: Who Decides by Vicki Oransky Wittenstein frames the book as a political one examining the pro-life/pro-choice (or anti-abortion/pro-abortion) divide in the United States, this young adult non-fiction book ends up being much more than that. The first 89 pages of 139 pages of text is actually a history of birth control methods and ideas surrounding birth control, pregnancy, and childbirth from the earliest history up through to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade. Yes, history always carries with it a particular perspective, but Oransky Wittenstein achieves a surprisingly balanced and factual presentation of how different people from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds understood birth control, pregnancy, and childbirth. No matter where you fall in the political divide on this debate, it’s hard not to be interested in the sorts of facts she presents. For example, did you know one of the earliest rituals performed to avoid pregnancy was to “dangle a weasel’s testicles between your thighs” (p. 10)? Did you realize that even if the pro-life movement is framed as a deeply held religious belief today, in colonial America many religious women sought abortions through herbal medicines (p. 18)? Oransky Wittenstein explains, in frank detail, what it meant to be a slave in America, when you could not choose who you married and your slave master expects you to bear children. “A breeding woman is worth from one-sixth to one-fourth more than one who does not breed,” claimed one slave owner (p. 28).
Oransky Wittenstein explores the issue not simply as a feminist issue but exposes the racial politics behind birth control and abortion. I was prepared to be disappointed but I was pleasantly surprised that she does not shy away from exposing Margaret Sanger as a eugenicist instead of the more-often presentation of her as an unmitigated heroine of the fight for reproductive rights. I appreciated the fact that, throughout the historical portion of the book, she doesn’t shy away from presenting parts of the story that could offend people on both sides of the political divide–who wish to see the story told more simply with a clear narrative of righteousness on one side or the other. Likewise, Chapter 9 offers us a vision of how technological advances have created numerous ethical issues regarding reproduction–from sex-selective technologies to surrogate mothers.
Chapters 7 and 8 present the more modern and political fight over reproduction, birth control, and abortion. It is here where Oransky Wittenstein’s particular political slant–a clear pro-choice argument–emerges more strongly, particularly in the language she chooses to characterize the two sides: anti-abortion (not pro-life) vs. pro-choice (not pro-abortion). On the one hand, this is fine. Of course, she’s making an argument and wishes to make it well. But I struggled to read it because I do feel that this whole topic is much more complicated than its reductive argumentative elements. By focusing on activists in the pro-choice movement and presenting them as positive figures who face often violent opposition, and presenting the “antiabortion” movement in primarily negative ways, Oransky Wittenstein fails to provide a more detailed, complex vision of activists on the pro-life side–many of whom are also at the forefront of adopting children, including older children with disabilities, and offering free medical services and assistance with housing, clothing, and food for women who don’t wish to terminate their pregnancies. She offers us a vision of a doctor who provides abortions and faces daily the threat of violence from protestors. This is a true problem. Yet she doesn’t likewise present a positive picture of someone on the other side of the debate. She leaves us with only one understanding of pro-life activists–not an untrue vision but an incomplete one. While I have been uneasily pro-choice for many years, I grew up in a pro-life context. I know these people. I know them well, in all their loving imperfectness, and in all their attempts to make the world a better, safer place–the same thing that the people on the pro-choice side want. It is humans on both sides. Whenever I read a book like this, I long to see somebody present this topic with all its messiness. Because it’s a messy topic. Perhaps I’m asking for the impossible. But I’ve long recognized that the two sides are not in the same conversation at all. Thus, their arguments don’t even respond to each other’s ideas. I wish I knew how to bridge that gap. Perhaps the problem is that it is always presented as an argument–instead of as a vision of all the people involved, both the good and the bad sides of it.
Although I have expressed my reservations, I would strongly recommend this book as a clear, informative, and nuanced perspective on the history of reproduction and birth control.