A Roe v. Wade reading list: Must-read books to understand the landmark abortion ruling

People praying at abortion clinic Credit Diocese of Saginaw CC BY ND 20 CNA People praying at an abortion clinic. | Diocese of Saginaw, CC BY ND 2.0.

Part of a continuing series examining the U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a direct challenge to the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion throughout the United States.

With oral arguments for the greatest challenge to Roe v. Wade in a half century set for Dec. 1, readers may be intrigued to know more about the landmark 1973 abortion case. These books can help explain where Roe went wrong and how to get it right.

Getting the science right

"Embryo: A Defense of Human Life" (Doubleday, 2008) by Robert P. George and Chris Tollefsen.

Legal scholar Robert P. George and philosophy professor Chris Tollefsen team up to provide a scientific and philosophical argument as to why the human embryo is a human being from the moment of conception. Though heavily focused on stem cell research, this book provides an excellent summary, based on scientific realities, as to why it is immoral to take the life of a human being in the womb.

Amicus Curiae brief filed in support of the petitioners in the Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization by Monique Chireau Wubbenhorst, M.D., M.P.H., Grazie Pozo Christie, M.D., Colleen Malloy, M.D. and the Catholic Association Foundation (July 2021.)

While Supreme Court briefs aren’t generally the easiest or most compelling reads, this 35-page document is an exception to the rule. Filled with important scientific advances, the brief contextualizes what Roe didn’t get right about the science. It includes stunning visual information that helps average readers conceptualize the fetus as a human being. Medical doctors treat these human beings as patients endowed with the right to life and who call forth from them a responsibility to save, thus many of these doctors are on the vanguard of new interventions that save lives. These scientific advancements uncover the hypocrisy of also treating fetuses as human beings that should be eliminated upon demand.

Getting the public policy right

"What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics" (Harvard University Press, 2020) by O. Carter Snead.

O. Carter Snead, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, lays bare the anthropological undergirding of abortion case law — an anthropology known as “expressive individualism”— and its implications for society. By returning to the fundamental question about what it means to be human, Snead asks his readers to consider a more “capacious” understanding of humanity: human beings as embodied, vulnerable, social, and dependent beings whose good is found in community, and not simply the naked expression of self-determination. Chapter three, which focuses on abortion, provides a robust summary of the six most important cases that have shaped abortion case law, beginning with Roe v. Wade, and analyzes the questions underneath the case law, bringing to light all the anthropological shifts that need to be made in order to get the public policy right.

"Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice" (Cambridge University Press, 2007) by Francis J. Beckwith.

According to Siobhan Maloney from Humanum Review, “Francis Beckwith’s book is heralded as the ‘most comprehensive defense of the pro-life position, morally, legally and politically, that has ever been published.’ Perhaps the word comprehensive is the best that can be found to describe the task undertaken in this book.”

This 314-page work focuses heavily on answering the arguments made by pro-choice activists and politicians. It provides a thorough moral and legal response to the questions that are at the heart of Roe v. Wade, with chapters such as “The Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade, and Abortion Law,” and  “Abortion, Liberalism, and State Neutrality.”

Beckwith, a philosophy professor at Baylor University, tackles the policy questions by asking and answering questions about anthropology, ontology, and morality. Because we can know that the fetus is a human person by reason and not just by faith, he argues, we know that they are endowed with the same human rights as every being who is human in nature.

Understanding Roe’s impact

"Black and Pro-Life in America: The Incarceration and Exoneration of Walter B. Hoye" (Ignatius Press, 2018) by Robert W. Artigo.

Robert W. Artigo, an award-winning investigative journalist, details the powerful witness of the Rev. Walter B. Hoye II, a popular black Baptist minister who defied an unjust law without compromise, despite all the efforts of pro-abortion authorities to avoid the embarrassment of penalizing a beloved black minister if he would only "bend a little." 

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Book cover of "Black and Pro-Life in America," by investigative journalist Robert W. Artigo. CNA screenshot
Book cover of "Black and Pro-Life in America," by investigative journalist Robert W. Artigo. CNA screenshot

Hoye was arrested on March 20, 2009 after defying a law passed by the City of Oakland, Calif., that made it illegal to approach a woman entering an abortion clinic without her consent. He went to jail for standing on a public sidewalk with a sign saying, "God loves you and your baby. Let us help you."

Hoye was offered a lesser sentence of community service, provided he agreed never to return to the clinic. Instead, the pro-life leader spent 30 days in jail to serve as a witness to his constitutional right to free speech and his Christian duty to offer help to women in need, most of whom were black like him. 

Two higher courts eventually exonerated Hoye; one overturned his criminal conviction, and the other struck down the Oakland "bubble law" as unconstitutional. Artigo provides a detailed play-by-play account of the political pro-abortion machinations that created the "bubble law” and the unexpected violator who defied it — a descendant of slaves and disciple of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Hoye not only scored a huge legal victory for the pro-life movement, he became one of the greatest pies in the face to attempts to legally sacramentalize abortion.

Critiques of Roe v. Wade

"Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade" (Encounter Books, 2013) by Clarke D. Forsythe.

Much can be said of Clarke D. Forsythe's incredibly detailed recount of how Roe was nothing but an embarrassing legal blunder by seven out of the nine justices of the 1973 Supreme Court. But let's just quote the review that Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey Rosen wrote back in 2013.

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"Mr. Forsythe's generally fair-minded narrative about the internal dynamics on the Roe court will not change the minds of activists on either side of this intensely polarized debate. Nor can it tell the justices whether to overturn Roe, given that the case has been repeatedly reaffirmed over the past 40 years. But ‘Abuse of Discretion’ provides a cautionary tale about the political and constitutional hazards of unnecessarily broad Supreme Court decisions,” Rosen wrote in his review.

“Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe, said in a 1991 interview that the court's decision to hear the abortion cases was a ‘serious mistake’ because the justices initially thought they were considering a narrow procedural question of when courts should intervene in pending criminal prosecutions. As a result, they decided the abortion cases without possessing a factual record about the medical, social and legal effects of various abortion restrictions,” Rosen continued.

“This gave a free-floating quality to the deliberations, which Mr. Forsythe documents in detail. Drawing on the private papers of the justices that have been released in the past two decades — including those of Blackmun, Potter Stewart and Byron White — he traces the horse-trading that occurred behind the scenes.”

Forsythe is the senior counsel at Americans United for Life Action (AULA.) So far, there is no account from the pro-choice side that has dared to refute his explanation of how the Supreme Court failed the country and the rule of law by legalizing abortion.

"A Private Choice: Abortion in America in the Seventies”  (Life Cycle Books, 1979) by John T. Noonan, Jr.

While Forsythe makes his case in a massive, 477-page book, John Thomas Noonan Jr., a brilliant Catholic scholar and federal judge, makes his argument in 192 pages divided into 21 chapters called “Inquiries.”  

In a review of Noonan's book published by the Marquette University's Linacre Quarterly journal in 1980, philosophy professor Patrick Lee accuses Noonan of being too nice to the "enemy." But at the same time, Lee recognizes that the book gives "a political and legal history of the abortion controversy, explaining where abortion got its political support, how its proponents and the press masked the ‘liberty’ of abortion with legend, and how the ‘liberty’ so expanded that its proponents forced the active cooperation of all in the abortion act.” 

Noonan's effort to reach a compromise may be dissapointing, but Lee highlights one of the strenghts of  “A Private Choice”: The proof that "mere legality of abortion was therefore not enough." 

Noonan points to the fact that "pro-abortionists demanded that government finance the exercise of this ‘liberty,’ even though the government finances the exercise of no other traditional, real liberty, such as of speech or of religion.”

Noonan continues: “Government does not buy printing presses or build churches for the poor. Supposedly, humanitarian concern for the poor motivated the demand for funding. Yet no one objected when the same Supreme Court ruled also that states can refuse welfare assistance to the fifth child of a mother on welfare.”

By this logic, “government must finance the poor's ‘right’ to abortion ... but not the poor child's right to eat,” Noonan writes. “How ‘humanitarian’ is a government that says, ‘We will help you, but first let us abort your children’?" 

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