Abortion Wars is a book that will make you angry. It is a reminder that, in a world where women are increasingly aware of their own rights and abilities, the autonomies of their bodies continues to be under attack. Indeed in the past week, a 14-year-old rape victim died whilst giving birth in Paraguay, a country which has extremely restrictive laws on abortion. Drawing upon her experience as journalist and activist for women’s rights, Judith Orr’s study is a hot-blooded call to arms, reminding us that the fight for reproductive rights is far from over.
Orr’s book does not seek to debate the moral implications or justifications for abortion: there is no ‘for and against’ in her argument. Instead, there is the precept that women’s access to safe and legal reproductive health services should not involve religion or politics. This book seeks to celebrate people who, throughout history, have defended women’s right to autonomy over their own bodies, thus galvanising others into continuing to do so today.
This unequivocal stance is compellingly supported by her well-selected source materials; the reader is confronted by a powerful combination of statistics and personal testimony. We are reminded of recent tragedies, such as the Zika virus outbreak of 2015 to 2016, which remains fresh in our collective memory. However, Abortion Wars is most successful when it cuts through the mythologising and grandstanding which usually surrounds the debate on women’s reproductive health. It is built around one fundamental assertion: that women are defined by more than their biology and are, in fact, fully realised human beings.
A book as ambitious as Abortion Wars, which seeks to encompass the experiences of women from all nations throughout over two thousand years of history, runs the risk of overwhelming the reader. The narrative abruptly jumps from analysing the impact of 1967’s Abortion Act in Great Britain, to discussing medieval abortion and contraception methods. In places, this becomes slightly disconcerting, as it becoming unclear for whom Orr is writing. However, it is ultimately mitigated by Orr’s to-the-point writing style. Her prose is easy to follow and unpretentious, relying on the strength of her research and argument, yet does not patronise the reader.
Orr’s message is inherently pro-women, and crucially she touches on issues at the heart of third-wave feminism. When discussing the disparity in access to safe abortions, she highlights the experiences of women of colour, working class women and the trans community and how class, race and gender identity play into a woman’s opportunity, or not, to make their own choices.
Abortion Wars advocates a very pragmatic brand of feminism, where women are not romanticised as pseudo-sacred vessels. Abortion is presented as a life or death matter: permissive abortion legislation and access, Orr rightly proclaims, saves women’s lives.
Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights by Judith Orr.
(Policy Press, 2017).
Image: Policy Press.