Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Club: The HPV Vaccine Controversy

The HPV Vaccine Controversy: Sex, Cancer, God, and Politics: A Guide for Parents, Women, Men, and Teenagers
by Shobha S. Krishnan, M.D.

Praeger Publishers, 2008

The HPV vaccine, released in 2006, was ripe for controversy, at least in places like the United States. Here there is a strong anti-sex undercurrent from certain segments of society, and fears abound that a vaccine that protects against a common sexually transmitted infection — especially one whose symptoms disproportionately affect females — would encourage sexual promiscuity among our nation’s teenage girls. In addition, there is a segment of society that is deeply suspicious toward vaccines, a fear that is often fueled by misinformation or misunderstanding.


The HPV Vaccine Controversy is an excellent resource for anyone considering vaccination, as well as those who have already been exposed to human papillomavirus.


While Krishnan’s book is an invaluable guide for anyone considering the vaccine for themselves or their child, it covers much wider territory than just the vaccine and its attendant controversies. The first half of the book is devoted not to a discussion of vaccination but to a thorough and accessible description of female anatomy (although apparently her claim about the teenage cervix is controversial), the lifecycle and transmission of human papillomavirus (HPV), cancer screening techniques such as the Pap test, and the slow development of cancer caused by HPV infection. It also has good information on genital warts, which are caused by certain strains of HPV (such as HPV-6 and HPV-11) that often get overlooked in discussions of their cancer-causing cousins (such as HPV-16 and HPV-18). This makes the book an excellent resource for anyone who has had an abnormal Pap test and has questions — the detailed descriptions of the various cervical-cell abnormalities and the different stages of cervical cancer will assist the lay reader in making sense of her diagnosis. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Book Club: Abortion In the Days Before Roe

For as long as people have been practicing medicine, rudimentary as it might have been for most of history, people have been performing abortions. In the United States, abortion was outlawed in the mid-1800s, the reason being that the procedure was too dangerous; before then it had been legal until quickening. This rationale dissolved as techniques improved and the procedure, when performed in sterile settings by a knowledgeable practitioner, became safer than childbirth itself, and abortion was legalized with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. For the century or so during which abortion was prohibited, women continued to seek them out. We’ve all heard the horror stories about the injuries and deaths that could result from illegal abortions. This image was widespread during those years as well, which makes it all the more telling that women still sought illegal abortions – a woman’s need to control her own destiny could outweigh a genuine fear of death.

The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law by Rickie Solinger (1996) tells the story of Ruth Barnett, an abortionist in the Pacific Northwest who practiced from 1918 to 1968. Barnett’s success as an abortionist – she served tens of thousands of patients and never lost a single one – stands in stark contrast to the caricature of the back-alley butcher. Although incompetent, sloppy, and predatory abortionists did exist in the pre-Roe years, there were many, like Barnett, whose skilled work ensured that some women could obtain safe, albeit illegal, abortions. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Book Club: Histories of Oral Contraceptives

Hormonal birth control has an incredible history that stretches back almost a century, when Margaret Sanger wrote of her dream of a “magic pill” in 1912. In the ensuing decades, scientists were busy piecing together the complex system of the body’s “chemical messengers,” hormones, and when they learned how to synthesize them in the ’40s, Sanger’s dream was but a few steps away from being fulfilled. Three engaging accounts of the Pill’s development – The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World by Bernard Asbell (1995), America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May (2010), and Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill by Gabriela Soto Laveaga (2009) – contain some overlap, while offering different perspectives.

Each author tells the inspiring story of Russell Marker, the chemist who first finagled progesterone from a wild-growing Mexican yam. Despite a near lack of support from pharmaceutical companies and the scientific community, he traveled to rural Mexico on a hunch – and ended up co-founding a laboratory that became the world’s top hormone supplier for the next few decades. Before Marker formulated a way to synthesize hormones in abundance, they were derived from slaughterhouse byproducts and were prohibitively expensive. Marker’s experiments enabled further medical research in hormones, and progesterone was soon used not only in oral contraceptives, but as a precursor for other medications such as cortisone.

While Carl Djerassi is often credited as the “father of the Pill,” both Asbell and May tip their hats to Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, the Pill’s “mothers.” These two women also have fascinating biographies. As a nurse in the early twentieth century, Sanger was acquainted with the horrors that arose when women did not have control over their fertility. Many of her patients became infected or even died as the result of illegal or self-induced abortions, which motivated Sanger to become an activist for contraception’s legalization – an avocation that saw her illegally smuggling diaphragms into the country and serving time in jail after opening a family-planning clinic in Brooklyn. Continue reading