The following book is reviewed by Prof. Douglas Kuiper, professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Trinity PRC in Hudsonville, Michigan.
The Story of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History 1652-2022, by Marvin Olasky and Leah Savas. Wheaton: Crossway, 2023. Pp xv + 494. Hardcover. $39.99.
This book is a history of abortion in America from colonial times to the present. Abortion in America is a grim reality, an infant holocaust, a legal killing of at least half a million unborn persons annually. For it the nation will endure, and is enduring, the just judgment of God. No Christian should be oblivious to, indifferent to, or unmoved regarding this national sin.
As the subtitle indicates, the book is “a street-level history,” in distinction from a “suite-level history.” This means that the authors write the history of abortion, not from the viewpoint of legislatures and law offices, of theories and abstractions, but from the viewpoint of the street (3)…the level at which a woman decides, perhaps under great pressure, whether to abort her baby, and the level on which she enters an abortion clinic or a pregnancy resource center.
As “street-level” history, the book contains many stories about abortions, abortionists, those prosecuted for obtaining or providing abortions, males who often supplied the “need” for an abortion, and more. The males include boyfriends, employers, bums, men in high standing in civil society, and, sadly, ministers. Some chapters focused on specific people and instances, while others traced the development of a pro-abortion mentality or an anti-abortion response.
Written by opponents of abortion, the book was intended to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, in which the Court declared abortion a constitutional right under the fourteenth amendment. Late in the book’s publication process, the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade; in the epilogue, Olasky makes final comments about what life might be like after Roe v. Wade. Olasky does not expect a Christianized society that loves the unborn and protects their rights, but one in which women will still be pressured by the fathers of their child, or their own families, and society, to abort their baby. And yet, hopefully, it will be a society in which more people openly and vocally oppose abortion because it is murder, the ending of the life of an unborn person.
Marvin Olasky is the editor of WORLD magazine, and Leah Savas a regular contributor to that magazine. No doubt their careers in journalism greatly helped them in writing this book; in addition to research in law court records and other documents, they refer to hundreds of newspaper articles. The book is a well researched and gripping account.
The book’s fifty chapters are divided into five sections, each covering an era in American history. Section one spans the years 1652-1842, when abortion was “Unsafe, Illegal, and Rare.” In those years the Bible shaped the American worldview. Because the Bible prohibits murder, abortions were rare. But they were not nonexistent. Even then, men impregnated women, usually after convincing the woman that he would marry her if she became pregnant; even then, men showed themselves to be liars; and even then, men pressured women to abort their baby. This pressure was not due to any thought of the baby as less than a person, or to any idea that abortion was a holy thing. The pressure was due, very simply, to a desire to protect one’s own reputation. The methods were crude and not sterile: up to one-third of women died as a direct result of the abortion.
Section two, “Specialization Begins,” covers the years 1838-1878. Realizing that providing abortion drugs could become a lucrative business, some used newspaper ads to convince prospective clients that abortion was good, in their best interests, and their husband’s (he was “hard-working,” and more children would require him to “toil” more, 104). Earlier, unwed women sought abortions; now married women did too. Prostitution only increased the demand further. Abortion was not yet legal, but the lucrative business provided plenty of money to bribe the police and politicians to turn a blind eye.
During these years, one fact was never challenged: no matter at what stage of development, the fetus was not just a piece of tissue; he was a baby; she was a person.
During this era, the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted, prescribing that a person born in the U.S. is a citizen, with all the rights of life and liberty that citizens should have. Ironic that the Supreme Court in the 1800s determined that a “person” could include an entire corporation, but in the 1900s that a “person” did not include an unborn child (152).
Section three, “Supply and Demand, 1871-1940,” traces advance over the previous period in several ways: more attention is paid to trying to care for the unwed mother, and encouraging her not to abort her baby; women understand that they may bear their child and put it up for adoption if they are unable to care for it; and sterilization techniques are developed, so that fewer women die after having abortions.
The years 1930-1995 are covered in section four, “Seeing Life.” One could “see” through ultrasound pictures, which were developed late in this era. But even early in the era, one could “see”: realistic sculpted models of fetuses in different stages of development were created. One could see the fetus’ distinguishable features—hands, legs, and more. How could that fetus not be a person? Some states began to require abortion providers to show a woman the ultrasound picture of her baby, and ask her if she wanted to proceed with the abortion.
Sections two through four each contain chapters that relate how abortion proponents developed and refined their arguments for abortion. This fourth section culminates in the adoption of Roe v. Wade. Harry Blackmun, influential in drafting the court’s opinion, envisioned legalized abortion as being very different from what it became. Blackmun envisioned the woman’s personal physician, who knew her particular circumstances, leading her through the decision-making process by having her weigh facts. This would happen in a fully staffed and equipped hospital. He also was clear that the Supreme Court was not giving women “an absolute right to abortion” (308).
The reality became starkly different (306). Women went to an abortion clinic. If the life of the mother was suddenly jeopardized, the clinic had to have an agreement with a local hospital, to which she could be rushed for treatment. The clinic’s providers were personally disinterested in their patients, and provided no consultation. That the woman had come to the clinic meant she already knew what she wanted; why talk her out of it? Did she not have a right to it? So the clinic treated the women on a “disassembly line” (305ff.), one after another, the faster the better. More abortions meant more money.
The final section, “Still Unsettled,” would bring the history to the present, had Roe v. Wade not been struck down. Theological justifications for abortion were developed, and manifested humanity’s skill at twisting God’s Word to teach the very opposite of what God meant it to teach. New arguments to justify abortion (353ff.) included the 2011 edition of the NIV’s translation of Numbers 5:27: the man who suspects his wife of infidelity will make her drink a drink, and she will miscarry. (This is not the translation of the 1984 edition of the NIV; the reader is reminded that the NIV is a changing, not a fixed, translation.) Other new arguments for abortion included God’s creation of humans in His image, and His love for all: apparently these meant that the woman’s choice was always right and pleasing to Him, no matter what.
At the same time, the political tide and the mentality of some in America seemed to be changing—or was it? Perhaps a majority of Americans, including a sizeable segment of Democrats, never had supported Roe v. Wade (367ff.). At any rate, some abortion opponents began pushing for restrictions on abortions; the outcome was greater than they imagined. In the end, Roe v. Wade was overturned. One thing remained the same, however: the abortion industry remained an industry that was very profitable, even receiving government subsidies, and that exploited women rather than truly helping them (395ff.).
A review can only say little. The book says much. Excluding the indices at the end, it has almost 450 pages of text. But it reads quickly and holds your interest.
I recommend the book highly to all who know that abortion is murder. I recommend it for the mature reader. Some of the stories, or at least facts related in them, are not pleasant to the stomach, let alone the soul.
Many women’s stories are told in the book. Two I will not forget. One is late in the book: a woman, hearing that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, was relieved to hear that she did not have a legal right to choose, and then dismayed to be told she still did (415). The fact is, God created a maternal instinct in a woman such that she wants to have and hold her baby.
The other is early in the book. An unwed woman, impregnated by a married cheat, scoundrel, and liar, and then pressured to get an abortion, confessed both her sins. Regarding her dead baby, she said, “It was a great Sin to get it, but a greater to make it away” (23).
I conclude with a word to all fellow believers who read, especially fellow members of the PRCA.
Abortion is a centuries-old phenomenon that has been legal in our country for our whole life (for anyone under fifty), or most of it (for anyone over fifty). Have we become complacent about it? Anyone who reads the book but does not ask this question has not really read the book.
Some of us have been tempted to get an abortion, or to pressure a daughter or girlfriend to get one. For some of us, I would imagine, the temptation has led to the sin (I Cor. 10:13). Sin it is—a heinous, intelligent, deliberate, irreversible sin. The book demonstrates that, regardless of what abortion advocates say, it comes with a high cost: at least one person is murdered (the baby), if not two (when the mother does not survive); the relationship between the child’s father and mother is usually adversely affected; and women who have had abortions often experience guilt and remorse (181ff.), as well as mental health issues (379ff.). A woman’s “right” to choose and her “liberty” to decide matters pertaining to her own body are costly when she chooses sin.
But it is not the unforgivable sin. Those who have committed it must confess it to God, and only in that way find forgiveness in Christ’s blood. By confessing, repenting, and finding forgiveness in Christ, one will again know God’s favor and live in gratitude to God. Young women and married women, do not let sin lead to more sin!
Young men and married men, love the unborn child!
Young women who are reading this, if you have had an abortion, I pray you will acknowledge your sin to God, and find forgiveness, and healing. Should you come to me for counsel and encouragement, you will find it; I will bring you to the cross of Christ, and pray that the Holy Spirit cleanses you by that same blood that cleansed me!
But should you insist that you exercised your right and liberty, I will remind you that those are the devil’s lies. Our true rights and liberties are those that Jesus secured for us. They are expressed in words such as these, spoken to redeemed Israel: “Thou shalt not kill.”
And may the men among us be true men, defending the unborn who cannot defend themselves.