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Book Review: Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era 

JMB Publications, 2016, $21.99

click to enlarge back-rooms_messer.jpg

These are not normal times, so this cannot be a normal book review. The present assault on women's health care has polarized people (not just women, fortunately) to an extreme extent. More to the point, it's not just an assault on women's health care. It's an assault on women and their right to determine the course of their lives, both despite and because we have the biology to bear children. So to blithely review the re-release of this incredible book as if it's just business as usual would be doing its authors and everyone else a profound disservice. I can't find enough adjectives to underscore this point: Back Rooms is a harrowing, necessary look at the stark realities of life and death before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

Messer and May first gathered these first-person accounts of the women who lived to tell in 1988, but this is a book that should never be out of circulation. These are true stories, told candidly and without the benefit of fancy editing or rhetorical agendas, by both women and men. There are women who, for one reason or another (as it always is), were saddled with pregnancies they either could not have, were not ready for, or did not want. There are men looking back on those times with tremendous regret—not for playing a role in terminating a pregnancy, but for being as insensitive as they were to their partner's position. In other words, this is not just a woman's issue, and it affects everyone.

But these are women's bodies being put through the ringer: There are descriptions of botched, back-room procedures, of hemorrhages, of (yes) coat hangers; of that dread moment of finding out; or asking discretely for the name of that doctor off some street; of taking mystery pills that are supposed to induce a miscarriage but instead induce far worse; of going septic; of hearing tales of women who never made it out of the office. The stories fill these pages like the retelling of the Dark Ages, and indeed, that's what one man calls those times.

This book is a testimony to what happens when abortion is illegal: It still happens. It happens to people in all walks of life, whether married or not, religious or not. The book is simple but eloquent; forceful in its clear descriptions and unflinching personal testimony but also hopeful that we don't wind up back where we were then. It isn't meant to be an alarm as much as a humanizing wake-up call: Each person telling their story is described in a dignified and short profile that sometimes contains a zinger. One woman, "Ann," now a grown mother with daughters, had never talked about her own abortions before. She was married and in Europe for the first, and went to a hospital in the Netherlands, where she was well cared for and treated decently, and discretely. She recounts this as if it were a surprise. Her second time, a shadowy arrangement with a doctor in West New York, New Jersey, was more typical: The doctor used no anesthesia and it hurt like hell. "I was lucky," Ann says. After all, she lived through it. Think about that. 

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