Monday, August 31, 2015

Writing Abortion History

As I end my time on Legal History Blog, there is another issue worth discussing: the challenges of writing the history of an issue as divisive as abortion. Some of the obstacles I faced were practical. Most major archives contain very little on the antiabortion movement. Even promising libraries often did not resemble the ones I expected. I once visited the basement of a convent undergoing construction and was left completely unsupervised. Luckily for the nuns, I had no intention of leaving with boxes of archival material in my bag.

Other challenges were personal. Like many scholars, I had my own opinions about abortion. To a greater extent than I had realized, I often had preconceived ideas about the activists on either side of the struggle. Telling their story fairly and without judgment was not always easy. Conducting oral histories with many activists helped me cut through my own fixed ideas about abortion. 

Finding the language to discuss abortion history in person or in writing could also be difficult. I wanted to talk in a way that would not misrepresent who I was or what I thought, but I also wanted to create a comfortable, nonjudgmental environment for activists already distrustful of anyone asking to talk. In spite of these challenges, hearing activists describe their journeys helped me set aside some of the stereotypes I had relied on. Many of these activists were generous with their time. Some sent me personal papers or recorded oral histories. A few have passed away since I spoke with them and before I could properly thank them for their help. 

Presenting historical work on this subject can be as hard as writing it. Once, in discussing my work on compromise after Roe, one audience member asked me whether it would be good a thing if “we” could compromise with “them.” I was not sure which side of the abortion issue my questioner took, but in discussing a subject that arouses so much passion, I was not surprised that discussion immediately turned from historical to normative questions about abortion. Something similar happened in media reviews. Some only briefly discussed what the book said before moving on to what the law ought to do.

But I think it is the dominance of normative questions about abortion that makes it so important for historians to study the law and politics of reproductive health. Much of this legal history remains to be written.