The Brief Wondrous Life of a Perspectives Department

Thirty years ago, folks who wanted to read the text of an important Supreme Court decision on abortion—instead of relying on a superficial news story—had a couple of options. One was to call a bunch of libraries, find one that collected the Court’s annual compendiums of opinions and wait many months for the next volume to arrive. Alternatively, they could open an issue of Perspectives.

In 1987, the journal launched Documents, a department created to present “detailed excerpts from long or very technical documents of a legal, investigatory or scientific nature” that could not be summarized without “a very real loss of their original impact.” The initial installment presented three pages of key passages from a U.S. District Court decision striking down a Minnesota parental notification law. In subsequent years, readers were able to pore over excerpts from Supreme Court decisions that prohibited providers at Title X–funded clinics from discussing abortion with pregnant clients and that upheld (but chipped away at) Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, those who were allergic to legalese could peruse a letter that Surgeon General C. Everett Koop sent to President Reagan; assigned to prepare a report on the health effects of abortion, Koop explained—presumably to the president’s dismay—that available evidence did not allow him to conclude that abortion had adverse effects on women’s psychological or physical health.   

After 1992, Documents disappeared from the journal’s pages, although it resurfaced for a brief valedictory appearance in 1996. The department’s demise was never explained in the pages of Perspectives, but the emergence in late 1991 of the first web browser designed for public use—thus allowing technophiles to obtain legal and other documents online—eventually made Documents obsolete.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine