I believe that reading is a form of activism, that knowledge is power, and that an open mind makes for a better world. This applies to the topic of abortion just as it does for everything else. Thus, I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the best books to introduce you to what people actually mean when we say that abortion is a good thing and a necessary human right.
To round out the list, I’ve discovered a handful of books from other similar lists, such as this new one by the New York Times, this one from Cosmopolitan, this one from Charis Books, and this one from Goodreads. Since this post came out, I’ve also discovered this community-sourced reading list and this list from a local Black-owned bookstore. There were so many books to choose from that I had to leave a lot off (which is why I encourage you to look through the other lists as well). I wanted this list to serve as a good place to start when reading about abortion, without too much overlap. I don’t want anyone to feel that you have to read all of these books or none; if you find at least one that helps you, I’ve done my job.
Abortion Stories and Perspectives
We begin with one woman’s story, to illustrate how reproductive justice can change what we know about the past, how we interpret the present, and how we envision the future. We also begin with a story because we want to show how storytelling is an act of subversion and resistance. Stories help us understand how others think and make decisions. They help us understand how our human rights—and the human rights of others—are protected or violated. Storytelling is a core aspect of reproductive justice practice because attending to someone else’s story invites us to shift the lens—that is, to imagine the life of another person and to reexamine our own realities and reimagine our own possibilities.Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: an Introduction, pp. 58-59
1. The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having―or Being Denied―an Abortion by Diana Greene Foster (2020)
If you have spent any time educating yourself about abortion, you have probably encountered The Turnaway Study. This book, based on the ongoing study of the same name, uses storytelling to show the real-life consequences for women who face unintended pregnancies.
2. The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler (2006)
An oral history of the women who were forced to surrender children for adoption before Roe v. Wade. (My review)
3. Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era by Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May (1988)
An oral history of the women who sought illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade.
4. Doctors of Conscience: The Struggle to Provide Abortion Before and After Roe v. Wade by Carol Joffe (1995)
Uses interviews to document the stories of physicians who provided illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade.
5. The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service by Laura Kaplan (2019)
A former Jane employee uses interviews to document the stories of a group of women in Chicago who provided illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade.
6. You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Meera Shah (2020)
Dr. Meera Shah, Chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic, shares the abortion stories that strangers have told her upon finding out that she performs abortions.
7. Bodies on the Line: At the Front Lines of the Fight to Protect Abortion in America by Lauren Rankin (2022)
Tells the history of and shares the experiences of clinic escorts who keep abortion patients safe from protesters at clinics.
8. Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion by Karen Bender (2017)
A collection of personal essays about a myriad of experiences related to reproductive health.
Reproductive Justice for People with Intersecting Marginalized Identities
9. Reproductive Justice: An Introduction by Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger (2017)
A thorough and digestible introduction to the new discipline of reproductive justice, including the history of The SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and what activists must do going forward. (My review)
10. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice by Loretta Ross, Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, and Elena Gutiérrez (2004)
Tells the stories of various women-of-color-led reproductive justice coalitions and how they have spearheaded the reproductive justice movement.
11. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts (1997)
Details the history of how Black women have suffered from reproductive oppression throughout American history beyond abortion. (My review)
12. How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics, and the War on Sex by Cristina Page (2006)
Uses a focus on how anti-abortion advocates restrict access to birth control to expose how the “pro-life” movement is anything but.
13. Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt (2014)
Addresses anti-abortion arguments head-on, focusing on the rights and needs of women and not just fetuses. Unfortunately, however, Pollitt is against using inclusive language when discussing people that can get pregnant, so keep that in mind as you read. (My review)
Christian Pro-Choice Arguments
While I am not a Christian, I felt very strongly about including Christian pro-choice and pro-reproductive justice arguments on this list. Remember that it is a small and radical sector of Christians who are so vehemently against reproductive choice, and that many are fighting for justice along with everyone else.
14. Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice by Rebecca Todd Peters (2018)
Uses a feminist Christian perspective to show why the anti-abortion position is an extension of patriarchal misogyny. I haven’t read this yet, so I don’t know if Peters literally means reproductive justice in the official sense, or if she uses it synonymously with reproductive choice.
15. Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice by Willie Parker (2017)
A former fundamentalist, turned progressive Christian and abortion provider, explains why he believes that fighting for reproductive justice is precisely the Christian thing to do.
16. Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic by Margaret Kamitsuka (2019)
Uses the context of church history to show that Christianity has in fact not always been as unflinchingly anti-abortion as most anti-abortion Christians today may believe.
History of Abortion
17. Transcending Borders: Abortion in the Past and Present, edited by Shannon Stettner, Katrina Ackerman, Kristin Burnett, Travis Hay (2017)
The bad news is that physical copies of this book start at $100. The good news is that the Kindle version starts at around $40, which is much more attainable. I haven’t given up on finding some way of affording a physical copy, however, because this book tells an incredibly thorough and diverse story of the history of abortion all around the world and all through time, from Japan to Africa and from Europe to Australia.
18. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West by John Riddle (1997)
We don’t talk enough about what ancient people did in terms of abortion and reproductive health. Most people probably don’t imagine that they had many options. But many ancient women, and many Indigenous women to this day, know which herbs to use to induce a miscarriage. Riddle asks why this knowledge was largely forgotten to time, but with the dire circumstances of abortion access right now, knowledge of herbal and safe self-induced abortions is making a comeback.
History of Abortion in the United States
19. Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy 1800-1900 by James C. Mohr (1978)
Shows that even in the United States, the ideas of personhood at conception and of abortion as murder are not as old as we think.
20. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 by Leslie Reagan (1996)
A detailed look at what history has to tell us regarding what life is like when abortion is illegal.
21. Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling by Linda Greenhouse, Reva Siegel (2010)
Provides great context on abortion discourse leading up to Roe v. Wade with numerous primary sources.
22. Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood by Kristin Luker (1984)
Was the primary book on abortion politics in its time. Shares accounts from both pro- and anti-abortion activists from the time and shows that there is more to the debate than fetuses.
23. Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights by Karen Blumenthal (2020)
If you don’t have the time, energy, or money to read the other four books in this section, consider this one. Jane Against the World is written for a young-adult audience to prime readers in the history of this fight in the United States.
24. New Handbook for a Post-Roe America: The Complete Guide to Abortion Legality, Access, and Practical Support by Robin Marty (2021)
Speaking of herbs for self-induced abortions, this book has a guide for that. Rather than something to read through, this looks like a great resource to have on hand if you ever find yourself in a situation where you may need it.
The Anti-Abortion Movement
25. The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart (2020)
Tells the story of how the force of Christian Nationalism in the United States became what it is today, and abortion’s position as a “single issue” is a central part of that story. (My review)
26. Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment by Mary Zeigler (2022)
Releasing in June 2022, this intriguing book shows how the anti-abortion stance combined, and later destroyed, the Republican Party’s platforms of conservative Christianity and big business.
27. Wrath Of Angels: The American Abortion War by James Risen and Judy Thomas (1998)
Documents the history of the anti-abortion movement in the United States.
28. The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce (2013)
If you want to know why abortion access is so essential, you need to know the politics of adoption. Adoption is not the be-all and end-all answer to abortion; it, too, is an industrial complex tied up with conservative Christianity. Adoption, too, can ruin lives.
I hope that this list has helped you to find a good place to start in your own journey of educating yourself about the importance of abortion access. Which of these books have you read and which are you hoping to pick up next?