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  • The Politics of Abortion and Birth Control in Historical Perspective
  • James C. Mohr
Donald T. Critchlow, ed. The Politics of Abortion and Birth Control in Historical Perspective. (Originally published as a special issue of the Journal of Policy History, 1995, 7[1].) Issues in Policy History, no. 5. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 181 pp. $13.95; £12.50 (paperbound).

This book consists of an introductory overview by the editor, six essays by different scholars, and a selected bibliography. The reprint title is a bit misleading, or at least imprecise: the contents might more accurately be summarized as “how birth control and abortion became national policy in the United States” (which is the subject of the first three essays), and “some of the implications that have followed from that development” (which is the subject of the last three). Since the federal government avoided overt policies on birth control and abortion until after 1960, these essays as a group concentrate heavily on the second half of the twentieth century.

Critchlow’s overview neatly summarizes major twentieth-century turning points and policy questions in the field. James Reed offers an excellent synopsis of the long-term developments that shifted federal policy from tacit pronatalism to the official endorsement of family planning. He emphasizes large social factors as well as the role of private foundations and the medical profession. For students in a social history course, this would be an outstanding essay to discuss.

For historians of medicine, Ian Mylchreest advances two of the most intriguing insights of the volume. First, by noting that some access to abortion became nationally sanctioned policy more or less simultaneously in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, he reminds us that any explanation specific to just one of those nations may miss significant larger patterns (though it is not clear why Mylchreest limited his argument to those three English-speaking nations). Put differently, many analysts of modern abortion policy in the United States may inadvertently have been trying to explain the American variant of a larger global phenomenon. Second, he claims that the international acceptance of abortion was intimately intertwined with the rise of modern medical practice, since the legalization of abortion in all three nations was achieved by sanctioning “the modern doctor-patient relationship” (p. 68). He might have made his argument more complex by noting that the doctor-patient relationship was precisely the same context in which the United States had originally outlawed abortion in the nineteenth century.

In a sprightly fashion, John Sharpless explores the sometimes bizarre foreign policy implications of America’s commitment to population control worldwide. An essay coauthored by Joseph Davis and James Davison Hunter attempts to analyze the role of the abortion issue in America’s contemporary culture wars—but its major points are closer to speculation than to informed history, and its principal arguments are summarized more effectively in the essay that follows it. The latter, Keith Cassidy’s look at the Right to Life movement, is a first-rate piece of scholarship on a subject too seldom taken seriously by modern historians. Cassidy not only summarizes the history of the movement but also explores the various hypotheses advanced to date by scholars who have tried to explain it. On [End Page 151] a base of solid evidence, Cassidy finds all of the easy theories wanting and argues for more nuance and more research. Like Reed’s essay, Cassidy’s would also make for terrific class discussions. Finally, Suzanne Staggenborg asserts some rather superficial and tautological reasons why the pro-choice movement has been able to sustain itself as a political force. The volume’s selected bibliography is well done, a good place to send students for more detailed studies.

Historiographically, this volume is interesting for the willingness of several of its authors to treat somewhat skeptically a subject generally viewed by modern liberal scholars as a progressive reform. Critchlow, for example, puts considerable stress upon the eugenics component of the birth control movement and shows how well-funded private agencies with their own less-than-lovely agendas were able to influence public policy; several authors see embarrassing Cold War dimensions to population...

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