Solinger's (Wake Up, Little Susie, 1992) biography of abortionist Ruth Barnett introduces us to a compelling character and to the underdocumented history of illegal abortion before Roe v. Wade.
Between 1918 and 1968, Ruth Barnett performed some 40,000 abortions in Portland, Oreg. Her life story reveals as simplistic the popular stereotype of illegal abortionists as unscrupulous, predatory opportunists indifferent to women's health and safety. Although Barnett lived well and flamboyantly, she was also motivated by a profound desire to help those in need. All her life, she acknowledged that her work was illegal but insisted that abortion should be a woman's personal decision. Indeed, she could not turn down women and girls who had no other options. Barnett's skills--she never lost a patient, and medical complications from her operations were extremely rare--were well-known to doctors throughout the Northwest, who frequently referred patients to her, and her antiseptic offices with up-to-date-equipment were hardly the dangerous, infection-ridden sites of current "back-alley'' mythology (though such outfits certainly did exist). Solinger manages to thoroughly engage the reader in Barnett's life without excessively lionizing her or retreating into revisionist polemics. This groundbreaking work should encourage further research on--and popular interest in--the pre-Roe abortionists. Unfortunately, Solinger's prose is inconsistent: at times too dry, at times overwritten and melodramatic. A plethora of mixed metaphors muddy the text, and awkward phrasing disrupts the narrative throughout.
Though she has a superb story, Solinger never quite finds the voice with which to tell it. Despite these rough edges, well worth the attention of anyone interested in the history of women's reproductive rights.