February 9, 2012
Book Review: Griswold V. Connecticut - Contraception and the Right of Privacy

Even though it essentially engendered the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, its predecessor, Griswold v. Connecticut doesn’t have nearly the same recognition amongst the general public (although it should be noted that it has actually gotten some attention recently what with comments from Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum condemning it as judicial activism).

Suffice to say, plenty of folks erroneously believe that the right to privacy (whether you believe that is something enshrined in the Constitution or invented by the Supreme court) was recognized for the first time in 1973.  I myself was one of them- it was only a year or so ago when I read Cristina Page’s “How The Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Sex, Virtue, and the Way We Live Now" that I learned of the origins of the right to privacy and the inextricable connection between the birth control movement and the abortion rights movement.  I wasn’t particularly looking to educate myself further on the subject- Supreme Court says Connecticut can’t stop married folks from using a rubber, what more d’ya need to know?- but on a stop to the library to pick up some new books on hold (hint, hint), my eyes caught sight of Susan C. Wawrose’s “Griswold V. Connecticut - Contraception and the Right of Privacy" and I couldn’t help but throw it on top of the pile.

Clocking in at just 129 pages, it’s a slim, quick read (I finished it in a single sitting); this isn’t a heavy tome of legal analysis, but rather, a highly readable overview of the events leading up to, and the effects after, the Griswold v. Connecticut decision.  Given that it was published in 1996, it is somewhat outdated- it speaks of John Salvi III, Paul Hill, and Michael Griffin, but not Scott Roeder, and mentions Bowers v. Hardwick but not Lawrence v. Texas- a murderer and a ruling, respectively, not to come until later.  Nonetheless, given that most of the information therein is historical, the book doesn’t suffer for its age.

The charm of Wawrose’s writing is in the details- while by no means a novelization of true events, there are more than enough colorful tidbits of information about the participants engaged in the birth control battle to make up for the dryness that necessarily accompanies listing multiple court filings and appeals.  Over the course of reading the book, I couldn’t help but exclaim aloud “Why is this not a movie yet?”- maybe a TV period piece a la Iron Jawed Angels, at the very least*.  In other words, this book is quite entertaining, although it does taper off into a more textbookish tone in its last chapter’s discussion of the aftermath of Griswold.  Equally wonderful is its nearly thirty black and white photographs- a political cartoon or two, but mostly portraits or candid shots of the people written about, the legislatures and courts doing the voting, and birth control dispensation (the picture above, of Griswold celebrating the decision, is just one example).

Wawrose’s book is not comprehensive- she finishes with a “For Further Reading Section”- and I imagine someone wanting to know more would do well to seek out more expansive books about the birth control rights movement.  But for someone who only knew the bare bones of the court decision, it was still pretty enlightening.  I had no idea, for instance, why the decision took place in Connecticut as opposed to other states (Connecticut was the only state with laws preventing not just distribution of contraception, but also its actual use), or how calculated Griswold’s arrest was or how it came about (they were hoping for it, and one lone angry Roman Catholic dude badgered the police to raid her clinic), or the politics surrounding the legislative (rather than judicial) efforts to repeal the antiquated laws regarding contraception (hint: Catholics).  And, of course, there are also a lot of other fun and interesting facts- like the role of circus magnate P.T. Barnum in outlawing contraception.

"Griswold V. Connecticut - Contraception and the Right of Privacy" is not a "must-read" or a book I’d shell money out for, but if you come across it at your library and have some spare time, it’d be well-worth it to augment your current knowledge about this rather crucial but oh-so-overlooked Supreme Court ruling.

* No, seriously, you guys.  I am like this close to writing a crappy screenplay.

February 8, 2012
Book Review: Who Decides?: The Abortion Rights of Teens

With the exception of Helena Silverstein’s “Girls on the Stand: How Courts Fail Pregnant Minors”, J. Shoshanna Ehrlich’s book “Who Decides?: The Abortion Rights of Teens" is the only other about minors, abortion, and judicial bypass of which I am aware.  The first volume in the Praeger Series On Reproductive Rights and Policy, Ehrlich lays out the evolution of abortion rights, minors’ Constitutional rights, and the alternate joining and cleaving of the two over time, sharing observations and insights gleaned from her in-depth interviews with 26 young women who had chosen to seek the option of judicial bypass rather than parental disclosure in order to obtain abortions in their home state of Massachusetts.  For anybody curious about the current rights held by minors to access abortion, or those wondering why teens might choose to bypass their parents for permission, this book is absolutely indispensable.

I was initially somewhat disappointed that “Who Decides?” wasn’t an all-encompassing book about parental notification and consent laws across the U.S.; as someone who answers plenty of online questions minors have about obtaining abortion, I was quite eager for a comprehensive pan-national investigation into such laws.  Upon further examination, that was probably unfair; after all, the laws are most definitely still in-flux: according to the Guttmacher Institute, 5 states have laws whose enforcement has been permanently or temporarily enjoined by a court order, and states have been trying to pass new laws even very recently.  To expect a book to delve adequately into the laws of 50 states and remain current in spite of changes taking place as we speak would be a challenge, indeed.

What the book lacks in minute detail about each state’s laws, though, it more than makes up for by delving into the court decisions that govern the constitutionality of minors’ consent laws.  Anybody whose knowledge of abortion-related court cases extends only so far as Roe v. Wade (or the holy trinity of which I was previously aware, Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade, and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey) will have their eyes opened immensely to other significant but unknown judicial decisions regarding abortion; Ehrlich’s writing is simultaneously brief but comprehensive and functions well as a crash course in lesser-known court cases, as well as the motivations of the Supreme Court and their evolution on abortion with time and changes in membership.

The main, overarching theme of the book is that the 1979 Supreme Court decision in Bellotti v. Baird, often praised as a wise compromise between protecting teens’ right to an abortion and protecting them from their youth by requiring the option of judicial bypass for any parental consent law, was in fact wrong and hardly a compromise, simultaneously failing to take into account the ability of teenagers to make competent, informed decisions and departing from the abortion-as-a-medical-procedure decree of Roe to imbue teen abortion with religious and moral implications.  The hypocrisy with which the Supreme Court treats teen abortion compared to teen motherhood, as well as teens’ ability to consent to any medical care other than abortion, is laid out bare in an incisive indictment.  Ehrlich makes an incredibly strong case that is hard to dispute, thoroughly supplementing her thesis with respected research about teenage decisional capacity, the rich context of the lives of the young women with whom she spoke, historical analysis, and the words of the Supreme Court itself.

In her conclusion, Ehrlich notes that while there is little to no evidence that judicial bypass has any positive effects, the trend seems towards more and more strict parental consent laws.  In that light, she makes a few suggestions that are relatively mild- liberalization of the laws to allow other relatives or professionals to give permission, for example- rather than an all-out call to return the decision to minors.  It is perhaps not very heartening to read (particularly when it follows a few brief but heartbreaking tales of the judicial bypass option failing perfectly mature teenagers in other states), but the book is an important one nonetheless.  Any pro-choicer who advocates against parental notification or consent laws would do well to read it, the better to understand how such laws have come to be, how they affect the teens who must abide by them, and to gain a more nuanced understanding of the reasons why some teenagers choose non-disclosure.

February 6, 2012

China has been on my mind lately.

Most of the books I’ve read so far on reproductive rights focus mainly on the U.S. (it’s where I live), but Michelle Goldberg’s “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World" included a chapter on sex-selective abortion, focusing mainly on India but also cluing me in to the phenomenon ‘s existence in China.  And indeed, China’s reproductive policies seem to be in the headlines lately- most noticeably when Joe Biden made waves speaking of their one-child policy, for example.

Of course, the one-child policy and sex-selective abortion are usually the most widely recognized parts of reproductive politics in China- understandably so- but just recently I came across this fascinating Slate article by Mara Hvistendahl, titled “Cesarean Nation: The Cautionary Tale Of How China Came To Have The World’s Highest C-Section Rate.  Ever since I randomly picked up Jennifer Block’s “Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care" (review forthcoming) in the checkout line at the last Border’s blowout and impulsively threw it on top of my already precarious stack, I have been utterly fascinated by the politics of childbirth in the U.S.; everybody around me has now heard more about Cesarean sections than they care to know, I’m sure.  Learning that the problem of unnecessary Cesarean is not only also present in China, but even worse, really has me utterly intrigued and even willing to possibly shell out some money to learn more (though I’m going to try my darndest to get my library to buy some books on the subject instead).

I’d kind of love to take a break from my America-centric readings and do a series of books about China- from Tina Johnson’s Childbirth In Republican China: Delivering Modernity, Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, Kay Ann Johnson’s Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son: Abandonment, Adoption, and Orphanage Care in China, to Xinran’s Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love.