The best books that unearth abortion’s hidden history

Why am I passionate about this?

I began gathering stories about pregnancy and its avoidance in Mexican archives twenty-five years ago when I was working on my dissertation on religious history. This topic fascinated me because it was central to the preoccupations of so many women I knew, and it seemed to present a link to past generations. But as I researched, I also realized that radical differences existed between the experiences and attitudes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexican women and the concerns, practices, and understandings of my own period that I had assumed were timeless and unchanging. For me, this was a liberating discovery. 


I wrote...

Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905

By Nora Jaffary,

Book cover of Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905

What is my book about?

My book centers on reproduction and its avoidance in Mexican history by chronicling women’s experiences of virginity, contraception, pregnancy, childbirth, abortion, infanticide, and obstetrical medicine across time.

I focused on criminal trials because they recorded the voices of pregnant women themselves and the views of their family members, employers, neighbors, and sometimes the men who impregnated them, as well as the midwives and doctors who attended them in pregnancy and childbirth or who treated them for miscarriages, whether accidental or induced. I also used medical texts, hospital records, laws, and newspapers to study institutional views of reproduction and contraception. Evidence from these sources shaped my central argument that state and community scrutiny over abortion increased dramatically in the last decades of the nineteenth century. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

Nora Jaffary Why did I love this book?

This book is one of the reasons why I became a historian.

Ulrich uncovered the nearly illegible diary of an eighteenth-century midwife in Maine and included excerpts of the original at the start of each chapter. When I read the excerpts, I thought: How could these possibly be significant and what do they mean, anyway?

And then, like a detective, a gifted mind-reader, and a learned botanist all rolled into one, Ulrich unpacked each entry, weaving each snippet into the fabric of a wide textile of social history that includes reproductive history, gender and marital relations, local economies, political conflicts, and religion.

Abortion and abortifacients play a marginal role in the story Ulrich tells, but the history of midwifery and reproductive health are central to it. 

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked A Midwife's Tale as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER • Drawing on the diaries of one woman in eighteenth-century Maine, "A truly talented historian unravels the fascinating life of a community that is so foreign, and yet so similar to our own" (The New York Times Book Review).

Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. On the basis of that diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gives us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and…


Book cover of Abortion in Early Modern Italy

Nora Jaffary Why did I love this book?

I appreciate Christopolous’ book because he renders concrete the abstract realm of papal pronouncements by studying their reception by sixteenth-century Italian women and their confessors. He also unearths the complexity of attitudes to abortion that existed even within the church establishment in this period.

When Pope Sixtus issued a 1588 edict declaring all who aborted their pregnancies were automatically excommunicated and reserving the right to absolve them to the papacy alone, bishops across Italy’s Renaissance states objected. They argued that neither they nor their confessants could afford to travel to Rome to seek absolution; they sought mercy and forgiveness for the women to whom they ministered.

With this example, and in other parts of his book, Christopolous treats his subjects with sensitivity and precision.

By John Christopoulos,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Abortion in Early Modern Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A comprehensive history of abortion in Renaissance Italy.

In this authoritative history, John Christopoulos provides a provocative and far-reaching account of abortion in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy. His poignant portraits of women who terminated or were forced to terminate pregnancies offer a corrective to longstanding views: he finds that Italians maintained a fundamental ambivalence about abortion. Italians from all levels of society sought, had, and participated in abortions. Early modern Italy was not an absolute anti-abortion culture, an exemplary Catholic society centered on the "traditional family." Rather, Christopoulos shows, Italians held many views on abortion, and their responses to its…


Book cover of Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World

Nora Jaffary Why did I love this book?

Londa Schiebinger adopts a highly original premise in this book by casting a plant, the flos pavonis or “peacock flower,” as the central protagonist of the story she tells.

In this book, she presents in rich detail the story of how enslaved Africans and Indigenous women regularly and effectively used this plant to abort unwanted pregnancies. While the peacock flower itself was quickly transplanted into the Old World, knowledge of its abortifacient properties did not accompany its movement.

By Londa Schiebinger,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Plants and Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Plants seldom figure in the grand narratives of war, peace, or even everyday life yet they are often at the center of high intrigue. In the eighteenth century, epic scientific voyages were sponsored by European imperial powers to explore the natural riches of the New World, and uncover the botanical secrets of its people. Bioprospectors brought back medicines, luxuries, and staples for their king and country. Risking their lives to discover exotic plants, these daredevil explorers joined with their sponsors to create a global culture of botany.

But some secrets were unearthed only to be lost again. In this moving…


Book cover of A Miscarriage of Justice: Women's Reproductive Lives and the Law in Early Twentieth-Century Brazil

Nora Jaffary Why did I love this book?

Cassia Ross captivatingly conveys the stories of the individual women and girls, most of them financially desperate, whom the modern Brazilian state’s policing of women’s reproduction victimized.

Her book studies women’s reproductive health in Rio de Janeiro in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery (1888) and the dissolution of the country’s monarchy (1889). She argues that in this period, women’s reproductive capabilities became crucial to the expanding Brazilian state while the latter increasingly criminalized fertility control. 

By Cassia Roth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Miscarriage of Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Miscarriage of Justice examines women's reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the onset of republicanism in 1889, women's reproductive capabilities-their ability to conceive and raise future citizens and laborers-became critical to the expansion of the new Brazilian state. Analyzing court cases, law, medical writings, and health data, Cassia Roth argues that the state's approach to women's health in the early twentieth century focused on criminalizing fertility control without improving services or outcomes for women. Ultimately, the increasingly interventionist state fostered a culture of…


Book cover of Surgery and Salvation: The Roots of Reproductive Injustice in Mexico, 1770-1940

Nora Jaffary Why did I love this book?

Elizabeth O’Brien narrates the unexamined history of obstetrical surgery in Mexico, beginning with the late colonial history of the Catholic-directed emergence of a mandate to perform caesarean sections on dying or dead women to access and baptise fetuses before to ensure their eternal salvation. O’Brien then treats various groups, medical procedures, institutions, and events delineating the conflicted history of obstetrical care through the 1930s.

The episodes are fascinating and disturbing and include such instances as the 1901 riot of a group of women forcibly confined to Hospital Morelos for suspected venereal infection and a new medical procedure–“vaginal bifurcation”—a medical student designed in 1932 to allow for the temporary sterilization of pregnant women deemed imperfect reproducers.

By Elizabeth Aislinn O'Brien,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Surgery and Salvation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this sweeping history of reproductive surgery in Mexico, Elizabeth O'Brien traces the interstices of religion, reproduction, and obstetric racism from the end of the Spanish empire through the post-revolutionary 1930s. Examining medical ideas about operations (including cesarean section, abortion, hysterectomy, and eugenic sterilization), Catholic theology, and notions of modernity and identity, O'Brien argues that present-day claims about fetal personhood are rooted in the use of surgical force against marginalized and racialized women. This history illuminates the theological, patriarchal, and epistemological roots of obstetric violence and racism today.

O'Brien illustrates how ideas about maternal worth and unborn life developed in…


You might also like...

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

New book alert!

What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope…

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in health, midwives, and women?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about health, midwives, and women.

Health Explore 117 books about health
Midwives Explore 16 books about midwives
Women Explore 619 books about women