Book Review: Jane Against the World by Karen Blumenthal

Today I’m sharing my review for JANE AGAINST THE WORLD, a nonfiction book about the history of women’s reproductive rights. It’s an important, easy, and relatively comprehensive read for those who want to learn more about this topic.

Author: Karen Blumenthal
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publish Date: February 25, 2020
Print Length: 400

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Official Synopsis

A riveting look at the extraordinary and tumultuous history of abortion rights in the United States from the 19th century to the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, by award-winning author and journalist Karen Blumenthal.

Tracing the path to the pivotal decision in Roe v. Wade and the continuing battle for women’s rights, Blumenthal examines, in a straightforward tone, the root causes of the current debate around abortion and its repercussions that have rippled through generations of American women.

This urgent book is the perfect tool to facilitate discussion and awareness of a topic that affects each and every person in the United States.

My Review

JANE AGAINST THE WORLD: ROE V WADE AND THE FIGHT FOR REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS covers exactly what the title describes. I found it to be a very approachable summary of reproductive rights in the United States from, generally, around the 19th century to present day (2020). The title of the book takes its name, Jane, from a group of women who created an underground abortion network prior to the ruling of Roe v. Wade.

Though the title suggests a bias towards the pro-choice faction, I felt this book was, instead, very factual in its coverage of societal “norms” during their time as well as various laws and court cases concerning reproductive rights. Never did I feel as though Blumenthal was trying to insert her own political opinions onto the pages. It reads more like a succinct, but engaging, history book. In the Bibliography section, Blumenthal recounts that this book began as a “look at abortion through a history of the famous lawsuit Roe v. Wade;” but during her research she realized this history is “a much bigger story about women’s rights, reproductive rights, racial discrimination, medicine, and religion” (Loc 3902).

Much of what I read in JANE AGAINST THE WORLD was new to me. There were so many facts and historical nuggets that I highlighted that it’s impossible for me to cover them all here. So I’ll mention what I thought were some of the more surprising points. While I intend to accurately represent what Blumenthal describes in the full text, I encourage you to read the book yourself. Anyway, buckle up because this review/summary is longer than my usual reviews, mainly because there was so much interesting history.

Criminalizing Abortion

The most surprising (or maybe not) motivations in the mid-19th century for criminalizing abortions were due to 1) money and 2) xenophobia, in additional to moral positions and misogyny. At this point in time, when there wasn’t the technology we have today, the “official proof of pregnancy was feeling the fetus kick, typically in the fourth or fifth month.” This was called “quickening” and both “the Catholic Church and Protestant churches considered quickening to be when…the soul entered the fetus.” After that point “aborting the pregnancy was a crime under common law, or law based on long-held understandings and court precedents rather than a written statute.” (Loc 151-158)

During this time trained doctors competed with others who had less formal training than them, so they formed the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847 to establish expectations, ethical standards, and oversee medical education. This gave Robinson Storer a platform to voice his moral position that abortion went against nature and a fetus was alive and worth preserving. Eventually many laws were revised or enacted to criminalize abortion at any time during pregnancy. This resulted in many competitors shutting their businesses, including female midwives. (Loc 202-225)

But Storer and other anti-abortion doctors apparently also had another agenda. They publicly worried “that white, Protestant, American-born women were choosing to have fewer children at a time when they should be having babies to counter an influx of immigrants.” This was a time when millions of Catholics emigrated from Europe to the U.S. (For my non-U.S. readers, this influx of Catholics, many from non-English speaking countries such as Italy and Poland, incensed a country founded by English-speaking Protestants. Politico has a brief history here.) From Storer’s and his AMA colleagues’ point of view, women only existed to marry and bear children, and they fought to keep women from being recognized as doctors. (Loc 232)

Nationwide Ban on “Indecent” Materials

Another man named Anthony Comstock joined the abortion opposition for different reasons. He was a very religious person and found anything related to sex and reproduction, including contraception and medicines, as religiously and morally wrong. An interesting tidbit for the bookish community is that he bought what he considered obscene materials at bookstores and reported it to the police, which resulted in bookseller arrests. (Loc 240-247)

His beliefs resulted in the Comstock Act, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in March 1873. It banned the sale or advertisement of “obscene material” by mail, which included products intended to prevent pregnancy or produce a miscarriage. Comstock was even made a special agent of the U.S. Post Office, which basically handed him the power to enforce this law. (Loc 255-258). P.T. Barnum, mostly known for his circus, went further in Connecticut and in 1879 the “Barnum law” banned the use of birth control (Loc 717).

The Comstock Act had a long-term effect on women for about 100 years. It “drove basic information about reproduction and the practice of safe birth control and abortion underground” (Loc 283). What this means is that women had few or no resources for controlling their reproduction, including basic knowledge of their own anatomy.

Class, Race, Religion

One point emphasized by pro-choice supporters is the negative impact banning abortion had, has, and will have on those who are economically depressed. Without using inflammatory rhetoric, she uses firsthand accounts or statistics showing that the rich aren’t really hindered by abortion bans/limitations and can buy safe abortions. One’s economic class also, unfortunately, determined whether unelective sterilization was performed at the time of the abortion, which also disproportionately affected Black people. (America has a disgusting history of forced sterilization.)

Blumenthal covers these topics of economic class and race throughout the book because it is so inherently connected with reproductive rights. It is worth highlighting, though, that Blumenthal provides statistics on how drastically the deaths of women from abortion fell after Roe v. Wade legalized the practice (Loc 876).

Another interesting fact is that abortion attitudes were determined more by one’s religion than one’s political affiliation in the 1960s and 70s (Loc 3294). This shifted in the late 1980s or early 1990s as a result of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals becoming uncomfortable in the late 1970s with a host of social revolutions. These included “gains by women, affirmative action for minorities, sex education in schools, abortion rights, gay rights, and a more relaxed attitude towards sex…[and the] Internal Revenue Service rulings that Christian schools had to accept nonwhite children if they wanted to keep their nonprofit status” (Loc 3185). Thus, political strategists saw a means to bring this groups under the Republican party wing. Before this shift Blumenthal states that “about as many Republicans supported abortion rights as did Democrats” (Loc 3185). It’s always interesting to read how/why a political party’s views change.

Interpretation of the Constitution

Another important takeaway for me is just how fragile the ruling of Roe has been since 1973. The media and liberals have hoped that stare decisis, or adherence to precedence to make decisions, would continue to uphold Roe. But what history shows is just how close Roe has come, several times, to being overturned and/or further restricted simply based on who sat on the bench of the Supreme Court. And as circumstance would have it, the majority of justices who’ve sat on SCOTUS over the past 50 years were confirmed during Republican presidencies.

For example, when Sandra Day O’Connor was on the bench (nominated by Reagan), her presence resulted in a 5-4 decision in Stenberg v. Carhart that a narrower version of the law banning a particular later-term abortion method violated Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in criminalizing the procedure. However, when she retired as Samuel Alito Jr. (nominated by G.W. Bush) replaced her, Gonzales v. Carhart ruled in 2007 that a narrower law banning this procedure wasn’t an undue burden. (“Undue burden” is a whole other separate legal topic covered in this book around Loc 3319.)

What this basically broaches is how non-partisan is the Supreme Court? Blumenthal doesn’t force her opinions about this on the reader, but rather presents the history of these cases and internal deliberations of justices (both documented or from interviews). This may prompt some readers to think about whether the Constitution is a living document or something that should be strictly interpreted.

Final Thoughts

For a nonfiction book, this was a fairly quick read. I also found it quite inclusive in scope, though undoubtedly there is room to expand on a variety of the topics mentioned. I think one area that Blumenthal should have given coverage to, though, is the sect of pro-life people whose beliefs aren’t based on religion. Another area I would have liked to see better described is how women’s reproductive rights affect men. Blumenthal does cover this a bit, but as more of an aside, perhaps understandably since this book focuses on women’s reproductive rights.

Though quite comprehensive, JANE AGAINST THE WORLD isn’t meant to be a detailed, statistic-laden, put-you-to-sleep break down of reproductive rights in the U.S. It’s a very approachable introduction to this history that provides a starting point for those who are curious about this broad topic in general and who, perhaps, might use this book as preface to further research.

Rating: 4
Content warnings: discussion of abortion
Reading format: Library e-book

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Jane Against the World by Karen Blumenthal

  1. Wow. It sounds like an incredibly impressive feat to take so much information and make it an interesting and fast paced read. I’ll definitely be checking this one out. Thanks for the heads up!

    1. You’re welcome! I appreciated it so much I ended up buying a physical copy of it to have easier access to the information. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

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