The Politics of Abortion in Europe and America

About this Episode

Guests
Anna M. Peterson

In this Origins podcast of Writers Talk History, historian Anna M. Peterson joins the show all the way from Oslo, Norway. Host Patrick Potyondy interviews her about one of the most contentious topics today—abortion—as well as her research experience in a foreign country.

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Cite this Site

Patrick R. Potyondy , "The Politics of Abortion in Europe and America" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
April, 2013
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/politics-abortion-europe-and-america?language_content_entity=en.
April, 2013

Transcript

Doug Dangler  
From the Center for the Study of Teaching of Writing at The Ohio State University, this is Writers Talk. I'm Doug Dangler. Today OSU student Anna M Peterson will describe her research on abortion in the United States and abroad. And she'll be talking to Origins associate editor Patrick Potyondy.

Patrick Potyondy  
Welcome to Writers Talk History, a partnership between the magazine Origins from the Ohio State history department, and the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing also at Ohio State. All Origins articles and podcasts can be accessed for free online @origins.osu.edu and at writerstalk.org. I'm your host, Patrick Potyondy, and our guest today is OSU historian Anna Peterson, who specializes in comparative women's and European history. Anna joins us today from Oslo, Norway, where she's been conducting research. Welcome to the show, Anna. 

Anna Peterson  
Thanks. 

Patrick Potyondy  
So your article for Origins covers abortion in the United States and Europe, and you titled it, quote "From Commonplace to Controversial", which is very interesting phrasing. Why that title? 

Anna Peterson  
I chose that title because I think it really gets across the point that abortion used to be quite commonplace. It took place in society with little kind of legislative repercussions. But at some point in time, namely, you know, the 19th century, the state did become interested in legislating this and it became also therefore our culturally controversial topic.

Patrick Potyondy  
Interesting, interesting. And in your piece, you note a much longer history to this issue than the mere 40 years that Roe v. Wade has been around. What's important to remember about this larger background?`

Anna Peterson  
I think that Roe v Wade is an important moment in this larger history of abortion, but that the focus on Roe v Wade really becomes a focus on legalization. And so a lot of Americans thoguht Roe v. Wade, okay, abortion became legal then. And then that's kind of prevents them from thinking about the fact that well, it wasn't always illegal. So I wanted to take us back, you know, a few hundred years and look at the time when abortion was commonplace, was legally practiced in both the United States and Western Europe, and what, you know, really led to the illegalization of abortion. And then, of course, the processes that took place in order for it to become relegalized like with Roe vs. Wade in the United States.

Patrick Potyondy  
Great. You mentioned the difference between Europe and the United States and given your research what are some of the historical reasons women in some countries have better access to abortion services and birth control than in other coutries?

Anna Peterson  
Abortion scholars typically think about this question in terms of an abortion triad. So the relationship between women, medical practitioners, mainly doctors, and governmental officials or the state apparatus. And depending on the balance between these three actors, you have different types of abortion policy. Well, as a historian, I would say that the balance between these actors are historically contingent, right? So if you have moments where the state is more willing to listen to women, or women's organizations, or moments where medicine and therefore doctors have greater power, you're gonna see a different alliance, then, between doctors and the state. And so, there's a lot of things that come into play, but I would say, you know, a lot of historically contingent things like I talked about in the articles, such as the Great Depression, so economic crisis can alter the relationship between these actors. Moments where feminism is quite strong, so in the 1960s and 70s, you can see a change also in this relationship.

Patrick Potyondy  
You've mentioned a couple different, this triad as you've described it, and I'm wondering about a specific case that's been in the news lately. Abortion in Ireland has recently been in the news because of its strict abortion laws. The Economist magazine reports that every year 4000 Irish women go to Britain to terminate their pregnancies. Is there anything unique about the Irish context?

Anna Peterson  
Well, Ireland certainly has divisive religious politics. And we see from kind of this long history of abortion, that predominantly Catholic countries or countries with, kind of stark religious tensions, might be able to include the United States in that group, have more restrictive access to abortion in the 20th century. And Ireland, in particular, is now one of the only countries in Western Europe where abortion is illegal in if I'm correct, almost all circumstances. This, the reason I hesitate with that is because Ireland now is considering loosening some of its abortion restrictions because of the backlash that has been occurring, because there have been a number of women who have died because they were not able to get access to legal abortion services in Ireland.

Patrick Potyondy  
Interesting. And so for those who are maybe more interested in exploring the topic a bit more, is there a book or two that you highly recommend for further reading on the topic?

Anna Peterson  
Yeah, the Origins article online has a bibliography but I would highlight. Dorothy McBride's "Abortion in the United States, a Reference Handbook," which is exactly what it is. It's a reference handbook and it's really good place to start. It not only explores abortion in the United States, but she also does have some comparative chapters where she looks at other places, including Europe. I think that she also looks at South America as well. And then if you want to really go in depth at abortion, or the history of abortion in the United States, Leslie Reagan's "When Abortion Was a Crime" is really a classic and very interesting read.

Patrick Potyondy  
And do you think both those books can have a good effect if people are interested in forming or learning more about general American public policy, do you think?

Anna Peterson  
Yes, I think so. Um, abortion cuts across a lot of different policy issues, including social policy, reproductive policy, and health care policy. And so I think that looking at this particular issue of abortion, we're able to get a much more complex understanding of policy development in certain places.

Patrick Potyondy  
That's great. And I think really kind of draws out the use of, you know, historical analysis for these sorts of issues. And so your article for Origins on abortion laws in the US and Europe is directed at a broad audience. Given the difficult nature of the topic, were you at all nervous about writing a piece for the general reader? 

Anna Peterson  
Yes. Abortion is a difficult topic. It's a complex topic. It's a very controversial topic, like the title of my article implies, and I was taking on a quite a long period of time and this comparative aspect. So I was, first of all, I was nervous about condensing such a complex topic into something that the average reader wouldn't be bored with. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Right. 

Anna Peterson  
And I was, I knew that by doing that, I would have to sacrifice some of the complexity and the nuance, which as a historic brain was difficult to do. And I was also a little bit nervous about the digital format, because it is a volatile issue in the United States. And the fact that Origins does allow people to put comments on the articles. So that was something that I was quite nervous about. But it was really nice to be able to write something that I could or perhaps I should say, it was nice to be write something that my mother could, or perhaps, would want to read.

Patrick Potyondy  
Definitely So despite these difficulties that you've referenced, did you still enjoy writing this piece as compared to your academic work? Would you recommend this sort of thing to your colleagues?

Anna Peterson  
I did enjoy writing it, it was certainly a challenge, which was part of the, you know, part that made it enjoyable. Um, it caused me to really think and write in a very different way. And I think that that is, in and of itself is quite rewarding. And so yes, I would recommend it to my colleagues. Because I think that it's a really great opportunity to push yourself and think about doing public history, think about what history has to offer for the general audience and really provide that kind of historical contextualization, for a lot of the current debates going on in society.

Patrick Potyondy  
That's really great. And I'd like to ask you now a little bit about your research. What is it like conducting research in a foreign country? Right now, we know you're in Oslo, Norway.

Anna Peterson  
It's a lot of fun. Um, Oslo in particular is perhaps challenging to be here during the winter, it gets very dark very early.

Patrick Potyondy  
Right. 

Anna Peterson  
And it's quite cold. And you have to take into considerations, into consideration, different habits of work. So for example, you know, scandinavians have a of great quality of life, they work a lot less hours than Americans. And then that means that the archives are not open as long. That means that nothing is open on Sundays. That means that most people go home from work at you know, 3pm. So I think that it's  definitely can be challenging and you really have to think in a different way and adopt a different kind of routine and a mindset. But it's really rewarding to get to interact with people who approach your research problem from completely different perspective, who have different backgrounds, then, you know, then you're perhaps used to, and that that has been beneficial for me.

Patrick Potyondy  
I'm wondering how traveling abroad and doing research in Oslo, how that might have changed your writing process? Are you writing as you're doing the research? Are you mostly collecting materials? Are you thinking about the process as you're collecting the materials? Give us some reflections on how you're going about that.

Anna Peterson  
I am writing at the line here, in addition to doing research, I think that that's really, I mean, I guess I would say that that's a very smart way to do it, because I'm in you know, close vicinity of the sources if I need to, you know, go back and look at something in order to keep writing about it. So, try to do that. And I find that writing, while I'm here is also beneficial in the way that I can ask, you know, Norwegians certain questions. So if I'm, you know, in doubt about a way to translate a certain word, I can go and talk to some of my colleagues at the Center for Gender Research at the University of Oslo and say, hey, you know, this Norwegian word, I want to translate it like this, but what do you think, and that's been really helpful to be able to, to run that stuff past them. It's also been really great because at the center where I have an office right now, there's political scientists as well who know quite a bit about legislative process and how to get access to legislative materials. And so I can talk to them about certain problems. I'm encountering with parliamentary debates or you know laws, and they're able to point me in the right direction that I can then use in the archives. So if I'm coming across those sorts of problems while I'm writing, I have really great resources here that I wouldn't have if I was at OSU. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Definitely it sounds like some of those contacts that you kind of mentioned earlier, have they become really helpful for you?

Anna Peterson  
Yes, invaluable, I would say.

Patrick Potyondy  
Great. Well, Anna, thank you very much for joining us on Writers Talk History.

Anna Peterson  
Thanks for having me.

Doug Dangler  
That was OSU student, Patrick Potyondy, the associate editor of Origins magazine, which can be found online @origins.osu.edu and he was talking to OSU student, Anna M. Peterson about her work as a historian at The Ohio State University. And I encourage you to go look at that website to find out many great articles about history, historians, and work being done at The Ohio State University

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