Jane Against the World

The words on the dust jacket of Karen Blumenthal’s newest book for teens are enough to grab their attention as they skim library shelves. “Imagine that you’re sixteen years old and still in school. Now imagine that you have just discovered that you’re pregnant.”

Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights is similar, in ways, to Blumenthal’s earlier books outlining the history of Bonnie & Clyde, the Tommy Gun and Prohibition – she seeks to educate teens aged 14 and up about the background of real-life subjects. With books about booze, guns and bank robbers under her belt, she may have imagined this one would be a breeze.

“There’s nothing out there like this that tells the story of how Roe v. Wade came about,” explained Blumenthal at her book launch Sunday. “I thought this book would be short, then I discovered you can’t separate contraceptive and reproductive rights from the subject and tell the story.”

The material isn’t for children, Blumenthal admits, but inquisitive teens are ready.

“I think of the bar and bat mitzvah kid as my sweet spot,” she said, “because that’s when the world gets bigger. You discover how imperfect adults are, and you start to have questions that aren’t answered in our schools or in appropriate materials for kids.”

Meticulously researched, the book is filled with informational asides Blumenthal calls “Pregnant Pauses.” One shares the history of pregnancy tests, explaining why folks sometimes say euphemistically “the rabbit died” to reveal that a woman is expecting. Another describes the double standard of the so-called “rule of 120,” applied to white women until the early 1970s to refuse them sterilization unless their age multiplied by their number of children equaled 120. Women of color, on the other hand, were sometimes sterilized without their consent.

“I remember doing research and discovering some things that were really shocking to me,” she said. “From 1967 to Roe v. Wade in 1973, thousands of ministers in the United States referred women to safe, illegal abortions. We think of religion and abortion as being all about ‘against’ and ‘anti,’ but a good number of religions, including Southern Baptists at the time, felt abortions should be more available to women.”

The timing of Blumenthal’s book is no accident. She understands that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case establishing reproductive rights for women, is in jeopardy as the 2020 presidential election draws near. With new members sure to be added to the court over the next 5 years, teen readers of her book could become young adults without personal rights their parents took for granted.

“I think it would have been a different book if I’d written it in 2015 or 2016,” Blumenthal said. “I don’t think it could be more timely.”

You can hear Blumenthal, a longtime Lake Highlands neighbor, discuss Jane Against the World with Krys Boyd on KERA’s Think today at noon.