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March 25, 2008

Ask For Jane

You live in America in the days before Roe v. Wade. You volunteer for an underground referral group that tries to help women who need abortions find the best possible services. You feel like it's not enough, but what else can you do?

If you're the women of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union's Abortion Counseling Service, also known as Jane, you decide to say fuck it and learn to safely perform the abortions yourselves, and an underground abortion collective is born.
Today it's hard to remember when abortion was illegal. But before the Roe v. Wade court decision of 1973, women with unwanted pregnancies faced difficult choices.

Women with money could travel to a country where abortion was legal. Those without that option could take their chances with illegal abortionists in this country. Others tried dangerous self-induced abortions, making the coat hanger a national symbol of women's desperation. Each year an estimated 5,000 women died from botched abortions.

The Abortion Counseling Service of Women's Liberation, better known by its nickname "Jane", began as an underground referral group. Eventually they decided to perform the abortions themselves.

Former Jane members estimate that they performed more than 11,000 illegal abortions. Working under difficult clandestine conditions, Jane became legendary on the streets of Chicago for the quality of its care and the dedication of its members.
Originally, Jane's abortion counselors would help to connect women with reliable doctors that were willing to perform abortions cheaply (since abortions were illegal but still in demand, they could get pretty expensive) and, of course, safely. (The nickname Jane came about because that was the code name that women would use when they first contacted the service.) They gave women information and instructions for before, during, and after their abortions as well as some information on abortion law and why they felt it was harmful to women. They also maintained a loan fund to help women cover the costs. They believed that no woman should ever be denied an abortion because she couldn't afford it.

Finding doctors to work with wasn't always easy, and the counselors got frustrated dealing with high prices and secret meetings and negotiations. One of the "doctors" (he wasn't actually a doctor but did have the medical knowledge and expertise to perform safe abortions) taught his techniques to some of the counselors, and as they worked on it together the women began to feel that they could safely perform the abortions themselves. This meant that they could run the whole service themselves, which allowed them to lower prices, not have to depend on any shady doctors, and provide the personal care they felt that women deserved. They believed that their patients should feel like they were a part of the process and like they were free to talk about their own experiences and not be judged and not be just another anonymous client.

In May 1972, seven members of Jane were arrested unexpectedly for performing illegal abortions, which caused a lot of strain on a group that was understandably always a little stressed out.

Jane soon figured out the arrests were not part of an overall plan to shut down the Abortion Counseling Service, but rather the actions of an individual police commander. Ironically, some of Jane’s clients came from police families and the overall attitude of the usually repressive and controlling Mayor Richard J. Daley city administration was to unofficially ignore Jane’s activities.

Not long after the Roe vrs. Wade decision legalized abortion in January of 1973, the case against the “Abortion 7” was quietly dropped. Some Jane members wanted to go on, believing that legalization did not address the issues of cost and the quality of care. Others were burned out, or feared that because abortion was now legally profitable, the medical establishment would have them prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license.

Jane officially disbanded in 1973, but what they did is still remembered for how important and brave and inspiring it was, and it's definitely something to keep in mind for us as women living in a society where our reproductive rights are chipped away at every day.

If you'd like to know more about the history of Jane and the amazing work they did (which might become even more important to learn if John McCain is elected in November):

The CWLU archives have tons of info--newspaper articles, stories from members, original Jane pamphlets, and a lot more. All of the info for this blog came from there. Check it out, they have really great stuff.

There are two videos that document the history of Jane, Jane: An Abortion Service and From Danger to Dignity: The Fight for Safe Abortion.

Laura Kaplan, a former member of Jane, wrote the book The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service based on lots of interviews with former Jane members and clients.

1 comment:

May said...

Holy crap, ladies! Are we on the same wavelength or what? I just blogged about contraceptives used in the past. O.o