What Life Was Like Before Roe v. Wade in 7 Books

By Lorraine Berry
Signature Reads
February 10th, 2017

In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided in Roe v. Wade that a woman’s right to privacy was “broad enough to encompass the right to terminate her pregnancy.”

On February 10, Tom Price was confirmed as the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Price, an orthopedic doctor, is virulently anti-choice. In his years as a Congressman, he has twice co-sponsored bills that would give zygotes full human rights from the moment of conception, which would not only prevent abortions, but would also prevent several methods of contraceptives that are thought to interfere with the implantation of fertilized eggs. In addition, Price believes that women should pay for their own birth control and that insurance companies should not be required to cover contraceptive pills and devices. Price’s belief is based on his not having met a woman who can’t afford her birth control.

With an anti-choice president having selected an anti-choice HHS Secretary, and with the possibility of Roe being overturned by SCOTUS, Signature found a handful of books that talk about life in America in the decades just prior to the legalization of abortion. While many people immediately envision the dystopian hellscape of The Handmaid’s Tale, the more accurate picture is contained in these books. In 1965, without access to legal abortion, seventeen percent of all deaths linked to pregnancy and childbirth were caused by botched abortions.

Here are novels and nonfiction accounts of some of the stories from that time.

  • Braided Lives Marge Piercy
    One of the first novels I ever read as an adult about female friendship; for me, this book inspired the same resonance that some women feel about “Sex and the City” or “Girls.” Piercy’s novel is set in the 1950s, and weaves together the stories of a group of female friends who support each other through college studies, love affairs, nascent careers, and the consequences of failed birth control in the days before the Pill. When it was written in 1982, it offended the New York Times reviewer, who confessed that he only liked one of the female characters, Jill, because she “was attractive.
  • The Story of Jane Laura Kaplan
    For four years before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, 100 women ran an underground service that aided 11,000 women in ending their pregnancies. Theirs was an outlaw service, and here, Kaplan has interviewed the volunteers who created and ran Jane while risking jail for their activities. “Jane” was the code name they gave to their collective, the “Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation,” and Kaplan chronicles the years that volunteers directed clients to a constantly changing list of doctors who were willing to provide abortion services that were affordable, safe, and dependable. These anonymous women often found themselves at odds with the physicians who were drawn from a medical field that was still heavily dominated by men in the early 1970s.BuyAmazonBarnes & NobleIndieboundiBooks 
  • Florynce “Flo” KennedySherie M. Randolph
    Flo Kennedy was one of the prime movers and shakers of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. After her graduation from Columbia Law School, she brought with her many of the concerns and lessons of Black Power to the predominantly white feminist movement, helping to bring two movements together. Famous for her lightning-quick mind and her quips, it was Kennedy who gave the pro-choice movement one of its most memorable slogans: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
  • Revolutionary Road Richard Yates
    The post-WWII dream of a house with a white picket fence in a white suburb is explored in shattering prose by Yates, who wrote the novel in 1961. Frank commutes into work each day and leaves his wife, April, behind. April is bright and talented and, like many educated women of her generation, bored and depressed at home. The tensions in the marriage lead to an irrevocable decision, which makes this novel timely for this list, and timeless in the literature of American suburbia and marriage
  • Forgetting to Be Afraid A MemoirWendy Davis
    Wendy Davis came to national prominence when she stood for eleven hours against Governor Rick Perry’s anti-abortion bill. Her filibuster was inspired by her own experiences: the daughter of a single mother, she attended Texas Christian University and Harvard Law School while a single mother herself. In her memoir, she shares her hope for women’s futures, and her belief that the American dream belongs to all. Receiving thousands of messages while she was standing on the floor of the Texas Senate, letters in which women told her their stories of having their reproductive rights taken away, inspired Davis to share her own story in this memoir.  “Giving voice to the truths of so many women made me see that I needed to give voice to my own truths, the truths that had made me who I am and had brought me to stand there that day, and not yield until my job was done.
  • The Girls Who Went Away The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades
    Before Roe v. WadeAnn FesslerFor many years, young, unmarried women who got pregnant while still living at home would be pulled out of school and “sent away.” Neighbors were often told that the girls had gone off to boarding school for a year, or that they had gone to live with a relative, but the truth was that these young women had been sent somewhere else to have their babies in shame and secrecy. Fessler brings together the stories of over a hundred of these women, who tell her their stories of being forced to give up their babies for adoption because their families did not want the stigma of having a “bastard” child in the house. Fessler is one of those babies who was put up for adoption and, just prior to the book’s publication, had made contact with her birth mother
  • Killing the Black Body Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty Dorothy Roberts
    The black female body has been the locus of governmental control from the beginning of America. Enslaved women were raped and forcibly impregnated. And, in the 20th century, thousands of women of color were sterilized without their consent in government eugenics programs. Roberts calls for a recognition of the connections between reproductive freedom and racial equality and for an acknowledgment that the fight for white women’s reproductive rights has sometimes led to painful repercussions for women of color.

Back to Marge Piercy’s Author Page