15 Books to Read About the Abortion Debate

These works provide perspectives on both sides of the issue.

By Michelle Darrisaw
Oprah Magazine
May 17, 2019


On Tuesday, May 14, Alabama legislators voted in favor of a controversial abortion bill. Although Alabama is the first state to ban abortion at every stage of pregnancy—with no exception for rape or incest—other states in the South and midwest are also moving to pass more restrictive laws. These bills could challenge the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, which established a woman’s legal and constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy while also protecting her “right to privacy.” On one side of these legal battles and the nationwide debate are those who argue that abortion is a reproductive right. On the other side are those who say they are defending the rights of a fetus. The following 15 novels—both fiction and nonfiction—offer perspectives and historical commentary on both sides of the issue.

1 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

As you prepare to binge-watch season 3 of the Hulu series on June 5, it’s important to remember the origins of its source material, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece. In both the book and TV show, women are persecuted under Gileadean law and forced to bear children for barren wives. The Handmaid’s Tale truly gets at the heart of reproductive laws imposed by legislators, particularly when it comes to rape, incest, and sexual assault. 

2 Life’s Work by Dr. Willie Parker

Regardless of your ideological and political beliefs, Dr. Willie Parker’s series of essays is worth reading, particularly because he goes into great detail about the science, medicine, and religious aspects behind this complicated issue. Though he does advocate specifically for poor women and women of color, his impassioned plea for a woman’s right to choose is backed by scientific data. Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

3 A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

In this powerful work of fiction, best-selling author Jodi Picoult transports readers back in time, with each chapter beginning one hour earlier than the previous. It’s hard not to get swept up in the emotional thriller involving a shooting at a women’s reproductive clinic known as “The Center.” Though the standoff between the shooter, victims, and hostage negotiator takes center stage, the individual stories of how all of these people came together on one fateful day is the heart of this story.  

4 The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler

Upon first glance at the title, it would appear that Ann Fessler manifested her real-life experience as an adoptee into a book. But The Girls Who Went Away traces a time in American history when sex-ed classes didn’t exist and conversations about sex were less honest and more regressive. Instead of young mothers being empowered, they were sent away to give birth and, ultimately, forced to surrender their babies. Here, Fessler seeks to recount the stories of birth mothers before Roe v. Wade was enacted.   Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

5 Subverted by Sue Ellen Browder

Sue Ellen Browder was a former reporter for Cosmopolitan magazine in the ’60s and ’70s. In this autobiography, she chronicles the differences between the feminist movement back then versus today and her role in perpetuating the narrative around sexual liberation through her work. Browder argues that men, instead of women, shaped the policies and reforms of various social movement in the ’60s.

6 Handbook for a Post-Roe America by Robin Marty

As the future of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance, Robin Marty’s work can serve as a manual and resource on how to navigate in a society where the law ceases to exist. Marty outlines the repercussions for each state and how the lack of access to reproductive care affects disenfranchised women and women of color. 

7 A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates

In Joyce Carol Oates’s novel, fiction mirrors reality. An abortionist doctor is shot by an evangelical Christian, marking a series of similar murders committed between 1993 and 2015. Oates offering orchestrates a story from the point of view of both the killer and the victim’s daughter, so readers get an inside perspective from two people on opposite sides of the abortion debate.  Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

8 Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments by Randy Alcorn

Randy Alcorn carefully and thoroughly lays out a rebuttal for every pro-choice claim you’ve read about in the news or on social media. While Alcorn does use quite a bit of religious text to support his arguments, he also includes scientific evidence to back up his research. 

9 The Mothers by Brit Bennett

In Brit Bennett’s debut—currently being adapted into a movie by actress Kerry Washington—a secret abortion threatens to unravel a small town and friendship between two young Black women. Yes, The Mothers normalizes the issue. But it also humanizes abortion beyond statistics and political talking points. 

10 Shout Your Abortion by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes

Shout Your Abortion gets its cues from the viral hashtag and campaign started on Twitter in September 2015. The 2018 book includes more than 250 pages of personal testimonies from women who have had an abortion, as well as administrators and medical professionals who have performed the procedure.  Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

11 Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Leni Zumas asks the hard questions in the speculative fiction novel Red Clocks. What if there were a society where a woman couldn’t have a legal abortion or receive IVF treatment? What if only heterosexual couples were legally allowed to adopt? Given the current political climate, those questions may no longer be so speculative.

12 My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Trailblazer Gloria Steinem is hailed as the “world’s most famous feminist.” The journalist and activist is a pioneer of the modern-day women’s liberation movement. In this memoir, she recounts her upbringing and the important life events, like co-founding Ms. magazine, that shaped her into the pioneer she is today. The anecdotal tidbits weaved in throughout the book are a welcomed relief from some of the heavier and more sensitive subject matters. 

13 Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin

Mira Ptacin’s debut is both heartbreaking and hopeful as she grapples with whether or not to go through with a medical-related pregnancy termination. Ptacin expertly crafts a story of triumph after surviving a tragedy, detailing a plan for the reader about how to bounce back from mistakes—and accept the inevitability of death.  Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

14 Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts

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The social issues of reproductive rights and infertility are examined through a racial lens in Dorothy Roberts’s book. Warning: it’s not for the faint of heart, as the violation and exploitation of Black women and their bodies are laid out, chapter by chapter. If there were a case to be made for the role racism can play a part in government policies, this is the book to reference. 

15 When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Scarlet Letter or The Handmaid’s Tale may come to mind when reading Hillary Jordan’s sci-fi novel. A young girl and a married preacher have an affair that results in an unwanted pregnancy. After aborting the child, the woman’s punishment is that her body is tinted crimson for 16 years, rather than donning the scarlet red letter of Hawthorne’s classic historical fiction book. 

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