Compiled by Emily Spurlock and Kera Lovell
In light of the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, we have assembled an assortment of 5 different podcast episodes and series that can be used to teach the United States history of abortion (specifically focusing on the late-twentieth century) as well as the historical significance of the recent bans in women’s history and the history of bodily autonomy in the US. While studying Roe v. Wade/abortion in a US women’s history class is critical, the subject is excellent in broader US history or historiography courses for provoking debate around the following questions for our field (rather than the ethics of abortion):
- How do you study crime? How does the language we use about crime shape how we perceive of that topic in the past and present?
- How do you study private or taboo topics? How do we learn histories about the topics we don’t publicize in our daily lives usually relating to sex or the body, from miscarriage to masturbation?
- How do we wrestle with ongoing histories? What factors in our current digital, gender nonbinary, globally-connected context are shaping the regulation of abortion, and how will this shape future histories of abortion? (For example, with fears spreading about privacy concerns regarding digital period trackers, online search histories, and location tracking, some companies like Google and Flo are deleting user data about abortion or period-related information. How might privacy concerns shape the work of historians in tracing future histories of abortion?)
- Do historians have a responsibility to interrogate and share histories around social justice issues?
- How does language shape how we tell histories of abortion and bodily autonomy? (See current debates regarding using more gender-inclusive language versus centering sex to emphasize how sexism impacts all people)
Because abortion has not always been illegal or taboo, the topic challenges the teleological presumption that only recently (in the twentieth century) has abortion been legalized as a sign of progress. In addition, because of the ongoing debate surrounding Roe v. Wade, the recent overturning reminds us that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (William Faulkner).
Note: ***One important note on this topic, is that white women dominate coverage of podcast episodes on the history of abortion. This post skims the surface of podcast coverage on the history of abortion and, in doing so, falls short of providing a comprehensive look at how race and class impact access to abortion and rights to bodily autonomy. As activist-scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reminds us, Black women have been/continue to be disproportionally hurt by legislation limiting access to reproductive choice. At the same time, Black feminists have helped define abortion rights through an intersectional analysis. Taylor’s brief essay, in itself, serves as a brief but fantastic intersectional reproductive justice syllabus that students could mind map.
For further discussion, Jennifer Nelson’s article “‘All that has happened to me shouldn’t happen to nobody else’: Loretta Ross and the Reproductive Freedom Movement of the 1980s” could serve as a great discussion starter for how Black feminists in the long women’s liberation movement (like Loretta Ross) were active on the issue of race and reproductive justice in the 1980s through the 1990s and continue to operate reproductive justice organizations today. Also, see one of Loretta Ross’s published articles on the history of Black women’s access to reproductive choice here, that can serve as a primary source for studying the rise of the right and the Third Wave. Finally, this women of color reproductive justice syllabus can provide additional texts that might be of interest.
There are several other podcast episodes or series on the history of abortion (not the least being the in-progress season of Slow Burn or Throughline‘s handful of episodes on different moments in abortion history). Please share your suggestions for podcast episodes on the history of abortion and we will cite you and share them at the bottom of this page! And possibly feature them in future Teaching with Podcasts posts.
Tags: Abortion, Roe v Wade, Women, Bodily Autonomy, Women’s History, Taboo, Protest, Activism, Crime, Feminism, Feminist, Protest, American History, Health, Social Justice, Women’s Rights, US History, Technology, Law, Supreme Court, Religion, Violence
Episode#0282: The Many Lives of Roe v. Wade
Release Date: 6/14/2019
Hosts: Nathan Connolly, Joanne Freeman, with guests Kathy Spillar, Leslie Reagan, Mary Ziegler
This episode includes three sections about Roe v. Wade. The first section, “We Have Had Abortions” covers information about Ms. Magazine‘s similarly titled piece in its Spring 1972 issue – the original two-page manifesto that you can read here. The second section, “The Road Before Roe,” centers on an interview with historian Leslie Reagan who sheds light on the legal obstacles facing women seeking abortions before Roe v. Wade. In the final section, “The Many Lives of Roe v. Wade,” the hosts speak with legal scholar Mary Ziegler on what happened to Norma McCorvey – AKA “Jane Roe” in the Roe v. Wade case – after the decades that followed the ruling.
Notes: KL: This is a really beloved show because of its professionalism, its attention to taboo topics in history, and its historian hosts (my favorite being Joanne Freeman). Although the show is no longer active, you can access past episodes like this one. One strength of BackStory is that they have clearly demarcated sections, meaning that if you just want to assign the third segment on Norma McCorvey to pair with a reading, you can easily. In addition, their episodes offer multiple perspectives on a topic that can show complexity through layers, which can set the foundation for a great analytical response paper asking students to put all three segments in conversation with one another.
Episode #107: Jean, 66 (New York City, NY 1967)
Series: The Abortion Diary
Release Date: 7/14/2015
Host: Melissa Madera
The episode is an oral history interview with only “Jean” – a woman who sought an abortion in the 1960s, before Roe v. Wade. She describes the different networks at the time that young women would have to go through to be able to find an abortion, and discusses her own harrowing experience. Jean also reflects on the changes after Roe v. Wade.
Notes: KL: This entire series is dedicated to oral histories of abortion so it’s a great choice if you want to give students the ability to be able to choose their own episode or compare and contrast oral history interviews on the topic. This episode in particular is riveting. Another really cool feature of The Abortion Diary website is that they have mapped all their interviews, allowing you to quickly compare histories of abortion across the world. Finally, the website has a section on histories of abortion in Spanish which might be helpful for Spanish-speaking classrooms.
Episode #70: The Procedure
Release Date: 7/7/2017
Host: Phoebe Judge
In this episode several different ministers and rabbis talk about their experience helping women find abortions in the 1960s. The network they operated, the Clergy Consultation Service, connected women with abortion providers, airlines, and nurses across state lines, usually helping college coeds return to their dorms before curfew.
Notes: KL: If you want a fascinating story, look no further. This episode, like most from the series, is captivating, and should honestly be made into a film. The episode is focused, so it doesn’t feel tangential. One strength of assigning this episode is that it challenges the presumption that all religious leaders are anti-abortion. It offers insight into a time in which some religious leaders were pro-choice activists, employing what some would call a vast criminal network to help young women get access to abortion without their male partners, parents, or university admin finding out. It could be paired really well with a reading on an anti-choice standpoint from the same era such as Phyllis Schafly’s essay “What’s Wrong with ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?” (1972), as the premise for a compare and contrast essay.
Episode: The Resurgence of the Abortion Underground
Series: The Experiment
Release Date: 4/23/2022
Hosts: Jessica Bruder
This episode explains how a “menstrual extraction” device called the Del-Em (shown below) was used by feminist activists before Roe v. Wade as a technique to initiate menstruation, thereby functioning as an abortion. While the first half of the episode is historical, the second half brings the discussion of abortion devices to the contemporary context under Dobbs v. Jackson. Taken together, the episode begs the question of the government’s role in menstruation regulation as a technique in limiting reproductive freedom.
The device is a pretty simple machine that could be constructed to show students. For a brief essay on the Del-Em from 1989, see this essay by Cynthia Gorney from The Washington Post called “The Grandmother and the Abortion Kit.”
Notes: KL: This episode is absolutely stellar if you’re looking to emphasize how context shapes the debate on abortion, particularly in regards to information technology, material culture, and surveillance/privacy. However, I would strongly suggest requiring students to learn reproductive anatomy, menstruation, and how abortions work. The average listener not well-versed in terms like “D&C” or “mifepristone” might not fully grasp how radical women’s control of their own reproductive health remains today. The episode would pair well with a chapter from Jennifer Nelson’s book More than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement or work by Wendy Kline, such as their essay “‘Please Include This in Your Book’: Readers Respond to “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
Episode: Crossing the Line: The Fight Over Roe
Release Date: 5/7/2022
Host: Laura C. Morel
In this episode, the host outlines how contemporary intimidation tactics outside clinics to deter abortions are part of a longer history of the rise of the Right and the Pro-Life Movement in the 1990s. The episode discusses the FACE Act, or Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, and raises questions about the rights of abortion providers to practice safe medicine and the role violence plays in the pro-life/anti-choice movement.
Notes: KL: Reveal is a series that focuses on excavating systemic issues. This is the least historical of all the episodes listed here, however it offers an interesting perspective on the tactics of the pro-life movement. It could be paired well with a broader reading on the pro-life movement, such as this brief essay by historian Jennifer Holland or a longer chapter from Daniel Williams’s Defenders of the Unborn.
Possible Discussion Questions:
**Discussion questions will vary greatly depending on which episode above you assign. Listed below are broad discussion questions that could apply with any episode.
- How does Kimberle Crenshaw’s framework of intersectionality play into access to abortion?
- For most of US history, “quickening,” or the point at which a pregnant woman feels fetal movement in the uterus, was a legal threshold for determining the distinction between a fetus and baby. How does this concept compare to contemporary attempts to determine “when life begins”?
- What barriers to abortion were there besides the law in the pre-Roe v. Wade era? Are these barriers similar to or different than barriers for people seeking abortions today?
1) Podcast/Reading Pairing: There are a long list of chapters, essays, and articles on the history of abortion that cannot all be listed here (although check out Nursing Clio’s reproductive history syllabus) that would be great to pair with any of these episodes as the basis for an analytical response paper putting the two sources in conversation with one another. One reading you could assign is Rickie Solinger’s “Sherri Finkbine and the Origins of Roe v. Wade“ from True Stories from the American Past. It raises interesting questions about the intersections of bodily autonomy, disability, gender roles, and representation.
2) Roe v. Wade & Dobbs v. Jackson: Students in upper-level courses could be asked to compare and contrast the supreme court rulings of Roe v. Wade (1973) and Dobbs v. Jackson (2022). Even if just focusing on Dobbs. v. Jackson, reading the ruling itself shows how Supreme Court justices are revisioning history (as outlined beautifully by Jennifer Schuessler).
3) Film/Documentary/Podcast Comparison: There are a few recent films on abortion that could be a good fit as a comparative assignment. For example, the recent narrative film Ask for Jane captures how a young group of college-age women in the early-1970s created their own network to aid women seeking abortions. HBO’s documentary The Janes is on that group of women – Jane – who operated an abortion service network out of their Chicago apartment. Alternatively, a little more dated but free (with your university library account) documentary on the same activist group, titled Jane: An Abortion Service, is available through Kanopy.
4) Encyclopedia Scavenger Hunt or Instagram Report: The Embryo Project Encyclopedia is a vast collection of information on the science and history of reproduction. It could be used as a great scavenger hunt (for example, having students search the website for questions like “What is quickening and where did the idea originate?”), or as the basis of a project in which students must translate an abortion-related encyclopedia entry into a multi-slide Instagram post reporting on that topic. Students can sign up for a free Canva account for an IG template. If you need a model, activist Alok V. Menon‘s Instagram book reports are stellar (See below):
ALOK is a brilliant genderqueer activist, poet, and speaker who has many gifts – one of which is their ability to translate complex histories into beautifully consumable yet brief IG posts. You can easily find these book reports on Alok’s IG page by searching through their posts for those with outlines like these circled here in yellow. As a gender/sexuality history scholar, I always save these book reports on my IG whenever they cross my feed. Highly recommend them as a gender/sexual history syllabus.
Other Relevant Sources:
Wiki overview: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion
Books: There are numerous reproductive history/abortion history syllabi because there are numerous fantastic books, articles, and chapters on abortion history. While one syllabus has been linked above in the introduction of this post, another we will link here is Nursing Clio’s kick*ss reproductive history syllabus where you can find a definitive list of texts on the topic that would be helpful for an upper-level course or a student research project.
Primary Sources: Two options for having students analyze primary sources on abortion include Rise Up! and Rise Up! is a digital archive on feminist activism which includes some sources on abortion activism in the 1970s. JSTOR has a digital newspaper collection called Independent Voices which features thousands of newspaper articles on abortion from the underground press. The site has a search function so that you can limit sources by year (setting the results to a specific decade or year), or by genre (such as limiting the search to a broadly “campus underground” or “feminist press” periodical. For example, students could be asked to write a rhetorical analysis comparing and contrasting a campus underground news article from 1970 from a feminist newspaper like Off Our Backs! to one from the broader Left like the Berkeley Barb. The archive also features sources on abortion from Black Power and Right-Wing newspapers from that era as well.
Secondary Source: Nursing Clio is a women-centered health history blog created by leading historians in the field of reproductive health and the history of bodies. They write in an accessible way for broader audiences, usually with an eye for how historical topics are relevant today. They have numerous posts about abortion history like this one.
Website on Anatomy: It might not be a good fit for a broader US history course, but in a women’s, gender, bodily history course, it would be good to begin by having students learn about anatomy and the medical processes of the two types of abortion: medication and surgical abortions. I would recommend using Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Collective – the textbook which served as the foundation for the women’s health movement and offers an encyclopedic perspective on reproduction. Alternatively, if you’re looking for an easily accessible source that wouldn’t require a purchase or library rental, the Planned Parenthood website has a lot of information about abortion. They have resources for getting an abortion, learning about them, stories from women who have had one, and more. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/abortion
*** Note: This is a rapidly changing topic which is why we haven’t included any news articles in this list yet. Future revisions of this post will include op-eds and essays written by historians on the topic.