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Abortion’s Past and Future | Boston Review

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“I was a teenager back then, pregnant and desperate. Too terrified to make the midnight trip to the back alley.”

On Wednesday Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, signed into law the strictest abortion ban in the United States, rendering it illegal in all cases—even after rape or incest—except to save the mother’s life.

The Alabama Human Life Protection Act follows a recent wave of “fetal heartbeat” legislation restricting abortion in Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, and Georgia. All the laws are poised for challenges to be brought to the Supreme Court, where a new conservative majority may reject the rights recognized in 1973 under Roe v. Wade.

These pieces from our archive reflect on abortion’s troubled past and increasingly uncertain future—dissecting the morality and the medicine, comparing the U.S. context to that of India and Islam, and exposing its role in the broader politics of reproduction, gender, and inequality. 

—Matt Lord


Abortion: Whose Right?
a forum with Judith Jarvis Thompson

In an archival forum from 1995, moral philosopher Thompson (famous for her ‘unconscious violinist’ thought experiment) turns to the idea of rights, arguing that “the idea that a fetus has rights cannot be bypassed as nonsense. We have to take it seriously.”

• • •

Abortion’s Past
by Maureen Paul

“Life before Roe. I was a teenager back then, pregnant and desperate. Too terrified to make the midnight trip to the back alley with a password and hundreds of dollars. The pain and violence of carrying a pregnancy to term against my will.” 

• • •

Hillary Clinton and the Unqualified Right to Abortion
by Judith Levine

Nasty women do not just vote. They fuck. And if they are going to fuck without fear or apology—or, for that matter, if they’re going to recover from sexual assault without penalty—women will always need abortions.”

• • •

Islam’s Abortion Debate
by Tom Hundley

“Islamic jurisprudence does not encourage abortion, but unlike the Catholic Church, it does not absolutely forbid it. Scholars of Islamic law generally accept that abortion is allowable within 120 days of conception.”

• • •

The Not-So-Revolutionary Single Woman
by Jessa Crispin

“We would make more progress by focusing on responsibility for one another rather than empowerment of oneself. Subsidized day care does not do enough to fight off the neoliberal version of feminism, where you, and you alone, are your responsibility.”

• • •

Is Privacy Bad for Women?
by Martha C. Nussbaum 

“Abortion is not a private act. It usually takes place in a clinic or doctor’s office, with a number of parties present. If we are going to recognize unenumerated rights under a constitutional due process clause, why should privacy be our only way of doing so?”

• • •

The Logic of Misogyny
a forum with Kate Manne

“The cultural conflagration over abortion did not begin at the grassroots level; nor did it have an organic religious or moral basis. It was deliberately lit by political leaders, who intended that it be fueled by anxieties concerning women’s role within the family.”

• • •

All Reproduction Is Assisted
by Merve Emre

When B miscarried, she was in the middle of a job interview. She knew what was happening to her, but she had no idea how to express it. She spoke and smiled through the pain as women so often do; she got the job.”

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