The Politics of Abortion and Birth Control in Historical Perspective

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While there is extensive literature on the social history, politics, and legal aspects of birth control and abortion in the United States, the history of family planning as a policy remains to be fully recorded. This volume is intended to contribute to this history by examining birth control and abortion within a larger cultural, policy, and comparative framework. The essays contained in this volume represent a variety of perspectives and scholarly interests. In many instances the authors differ with each other as well as with the editor on fundamental points of historical interpretation. They all, however, share a commitment to study the politics of population within a scholarly framework that emphasizes the importance of policy history for understanding past and contemporary problems.

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Editorial Reviews

Cynthia Harrison
This collection of seven essays appeared originally as a special issue of the JOURNAL OF POLICY HISTORY (vol. 7, no. 1, 1995). As with most such anthologies, the articles are uneven. Nevertheless, this volume constitutes a contribution to the still lively scholarly conversation about reproductive rights on two fronts: first, all the essays emphasize historical development and, second, two essays address population control as a matter of domestic and foreign policy, broadening the discussion beyond the contest over the behavior of individuals. The major portion of the volume deals with abortion politics. An essay by Keith Cassidy concentrates on the evolution of the Right to Life movement and the allegedly simplistic understanding of this movement on the part of other observers. Cassidy singles out Kristin Luker's interpretation for particular criticism, although the counter-argument he offers -- that the two sides possess "fundamentally opposed worldviews" (p. 134) that go beyond their views of women's roles -- is in fact not inconsistent with her observations about the beliefs of activists. Suzanne Staggenborg discusses the professionalization of the pro-choice movement and the problems of maintaining an energetic grass-roots movement in the face of judicial success; but her essay is so abbreviated -- the shortest in the volume -- that her treatment of the history is cursory. Ian Mylchreest examines abortion policy-making in Great Britain and Australia, pointing out the similarities among contemporaneous movements to reform abortion law. Removing the disparity between the law and the actual practice of doctors supplied a common rationale for permitting doctors to offer abortion services to their patients when appropriate. Adopting a more cultural approach, Joseph Davison Hunter and Joseph E. Davis connect abortion to euthanasia, RU-486, Norplant and in-vitro fertilization and describe the division over "the meaning of personhood" that fuels the conflict, what they refer to felicitously as the "Enlightenment divide." The authors assert that views on these subjects closely track beliefs on human worth: The one-third who find it arising from the creation of humanity in God's image are more likely to label abortion "murder" than the half who locate human distinctiveness in human ability to reason. The principal treatment of birth control in this collection is found in James Reed's reprisal of his book, FROM PRIVATE VICE TO PUBLIC VIRTUE. For a teacher seeking a summary piece to assign to students, Reed's "The Birth-Control Movement Before Roe v. Wade," represents a model of the genre: an economical survey of the history, incorporating throughout not simply the policy decisions but the effect of social movements and social change on the shaping of those decisions and vice versa. Critchlow's opening piece, "Birth Control, Population Control, and Family Planning: An Overview," is less satisfactory. Critchlow focuses exclusively on individual policy-makers; in talking about Roe v. Wade in 1973 and the contest over the role of the Population Council, Critchlow does not hint at the existence of a feminist social movement, although he does acknowledge "the emergence of an organized pro-life movement in the mid-1970s." John Sharpless, who continues the attention to global population policy, however, does portray the growing pressure to consider women's well-being as an aspect of population control politics in developing countries. He also explains the way in which the impact of both anti-abortion politics and environmentalism has complicated the question of U.S. support for global population control efforts. A stronger editorial presence might have shorn this book of trivial errors and confusing locutions and crafted a better linkage between the essays. The "selected bibliography" is, perforce, limited. But taken as a whole, the compilation would provide the uninitiated reader a brief overview of birth control, abortion, and population control as policy matters, likely a more efficient introduction than a series of monographs or surveys on each topic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271015705
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/1996
  • Series: Issues in Policy History, #6
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 182
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald T. Critchlow is Professor of History at Saint Louis University and the author of The Brookings Institution, 1916–1952: Expertise and the Public Interest in a Democratic Society (1985), as well as the editor of five other books.

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Table of Contents


1. Birth Control, Population Control, and Family Planning: An Overview

Donald T. Critchlow

2. The Birth-Control Movement Before Roe v. Wade

James W. Reed

3. "Sound Law and Undoubtedly Good Policy": Roe v. Wade in Comparative Perspective

Ian Mylchreest

4. World Population Growth, Family Planning, and American Foreign Policy

John Sharpless

5. Cultural Politics at the Edge of Life

James Davison Hunter and Joseph E. Davis

6. The Right to Life Movement: Sources, Development, and Strategies

Keith Cassidy

7. The Survival of the Pro-Choice Movement

Suzanne Staggenborg

Selected Bibliography

Donald T. Critchlow and Christina Sanders

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