Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Linda Kerber: Abortion From a Historical Perspective

The October 2012 issue of Perspectives in History has an excellent essay by Linda Kerber on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.  She challenges historians and students of history to dig deeper into the history of abortion in their states and localities. The piece also serves as a bibliographic essay on some of the best books on the history of abortion in the United States. 

Here is a taste:

Here is where our students—undergraduate and graduate—can make a real difference by their research. Working with advisers and archivists, they can frame questions, and they can seek to reconstruct a history that is in grave danger of being lost. The answers they find can contribute to the accumulation of necessary knowledge (see sidebar for some sample questions); their research, and our own, is indispensable.

Activists in the 1960s—on both sides of the debate—are now in their 70s and 80s; activists of the 1950s are in their 90s. The time available to us is short. Most have never been interviewed; many are hungry to place their experience on the historical record. Some have the records of the small groups of which they were a part and do not know that they may be welcomed by historical societies and college and university based archives. Local newspapers—many now digitized—can be searched...

...Many of us have already had the experience of how energized we and our students become when their work can clearly be seen to have value outside the boundaries of the course. Roe's 40th anniversary is both a warning of rapidly fading memories and an opportunity to capture a history that still shapes American lives and politics.

In a sidebar, Kerber raises several opportunities for further research in this area. 

Here are her "Questions That Need Answers":

Do you know when the last abortion provider was found guilty of crime in your state? (In my own state, Iowa, it was Dr. J. A. Snyder, convicted in 1953.) Do you know when the first family planning clinic was established in your state? In your county? Who were involved in establishing it? Did they face any opposition?

Do you know if abortion reform was established—and on what terms—in your state before January, 1973? Do you know whether your state legislature debated abortion reform, and for how many sessions? Do you know how many deaths in your county were ascribed to botched illegal abortions in the decade before abortion became legal in your state?

Do you know who introduced bills for abortion reform into your state legislature and in what year? Do you know to what party the initiators belonged? [It surprises most of my students to discover that most were Republicans.] Are any of those legislators still alive? Can they be interviewed? Do you know when your own college's student health service first prescribed birth control? Do you know many women students in your own college or university died from illegal abortions in—pick a decade, any decade— before 1973? Does your college know?