Book Review: Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v Wade to the Present

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v Wade to the Present. By Mary Ziegler. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. xvii, 312 p. Includes timeline, notes, bibliographic references, and index. ISBN 9781108735599 (softcover) $33.95.

Reviewed by Margo Jeske
Emerita Law Librarian (Retired)
University of Ottawa
In CLLR 46:2

On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court handed down the landmark decision Roe v Wade (1973), holding that the United States Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose abortion. For almost fifty years, Roe v Wade became shorthand for the American abortion debate. In this comprehensive legal history of a vital period, the author illuminates the shift in the terms of debate, from the clash between pro-life and pro-choice rights, to battles about the policy costs and benefits of abortion and the laws restricting it.

Author Mary Ziegler is the Stearns Weaver Miller Professor of Law at Florida State University College of Law. She specializes in the legal history of reproduction, the family, sexuality, and the United States Constitution. She has written extensively about Roe v Wade and its influence on American abortion law. Her first book, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate, was published by Harvard University Press in 2015 and won the 2014 Harvard University Press Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize for best first manuscript published by the press in any discipline. Her second book, Beyond Abortion: Roe v Wade and the Battle for Privacy, was published by Harvard University Press in 2018.

In this, her third book, Ziegler presents a comprehensive legal history of abortion in America. Using stories from the abortion conflict, Ziegler weaves together numerous threads: the quest for incremental restrictions; the distinction between rights-, policy-, and consequences-based arguments; LGBTQ+ rights; movements for a constitutional amendment; and the quest to ensure access. Ziegler situates the new reader within the abortion debate and provides new insights for those more familiar with the history.

Throughout this book, Ziegler discusses the importance of politics alongside actors such as special interest groups, religious institutions, and medical professionals and the roles these actors have played and continue to play. The stigma around abortion is a continuing thread. Ziegler investigates the journey from Roe v Wade, the constitutional right to abortion; through to the Hyde Amendment, a United States federal ban on abortion coverage for federally funded healthcare recipients, including women enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid; and the introduction of the undue burden standard from the Planned Parenthood v Casey (1992) United States Supreme Court decision. Arguments and actions from both sides of the debate are detailed in this work.

Changes to the makeup of the United States Supreme Court fuel the continued anticipation of a Roe v Wade reversal. Ziegler suggests that overturning Roe v Wade, seen by many to be inevitable, is unlikely to make the abortion battle less polarized. Ziegler concludes with reflections on how such a reversal will result in substantial legal and social changes and how these changes will be unlikely to resolve existing conflicts. Ziegler suggests what new avenues will likely be examined.

A notable addition to this book is the timeline, which highlights when major United States court decisions were rendered, along with significant news items, judicial appointments, and special interest group and political activities. The notes section provides extensive references and annotations that enable readers to delve deeper into critical analysis and research. It refers to articles, books, cases, precedents, and further analysis. The index assists the readers in pinpointing specific points of law along with the people or parties involved. Abbreviations of organizations are listed at the beginning of the book with names often repeated in full throughout the text for ease of comprehension. 

There is much literature to be read on the topic of abortion. Given its unique place in society, and the passion with which it is debated, there is much benefit to the addition of a readable, thorough legal history. This book is strongly recommended for academic or large public library collections and is a critical title for law libraries.

Those involved in studying divides within social movements will find this a fascinating read. This includes those who are interested in how various legal strategies are undertaken or abandoned and those who are interested in the development of political party interests. Although the book focuses on the United States, parallels can be drawn in debates surrounding abortion rights in other jurisdictions.

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