Linda Kerber on Roe v. Wade: Thinking Ahead to the 40th Anniversary

January 22, 2013, will mark the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. On that day, the annual ritual of protests and counter-protests in front of the Supreme Court, just a few blocks from AHA headquarters, will likely be larger than ever before. The national conversation about this decision will ripple out from these and other demonstrations, into print, television, and online media, and even into classrooms.

The AHA would like to see those conversations grounded in an understanding of history. To that end, we are making widely available an essay by the celebrated historian and past AHA President Linda Kerber. Recently published in Perspectives on History, Kerber’s essay discusses some of the best books on the history of Roe v. Wade and related topics, and goes on to offer suggestions for research.

We hope that students, teachers, researchers, journalists, librarians, and curators will find Professor Kerber’s timely recommendations helpful as they prepare for an intense and heated, but hopefully productive, exchange on one of the most important decisions handed down by the Supreme Court.

From Linda Kerber’s essay, “The 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade: A Teachable Moment”:

“Every state—and indeed every locality—has its own history of abortion: every state and every locality is less than a half-century removed from a time when abortion was illegal everywhere.”

“As Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel observe in their remarkable documentary history, Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling, ‘the Supreme Court decision itself proved a distorting lens through which to look back on what had preceded it.’ … Roe made [all the other legal] challenges unnecessary, but when those files were discarded or locked in archival cases, with them went evidence of lived experience.”

“Activists in the 1960s—on both sides of the debate—are now in their 70s and 80s; activists of the 1950s are in their 90s. The time available to us is short. Most have never been interviewed; many are hungry to place their experience on the historical record.”

“Many of us have already had the experience of how energized we and our students become when their work can clearly be seen to have value outside the boundaries of the course. Roe’s 40th anniversary is both a warning of rapidly fading memories and an opportunity to capture a history that still shapes American lives and politics.”

Additional Resources from the pages ofPerspectives on History:

Teaching Controversial Topics: Abortion
By Trysh Travis

Friends of the Court: A New Role for Historians
By Michael Grossberg

To Feel a Part of History: Rethinking the U.S. History Survey
By Kathi L. Kern

The Stateless as the Citizen’s Other: A View from the United States
By Linda Kerber (presidential address delivered at the 121st Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, held in Atlanta, Georgia 2007 )

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