Rx for Change: Jane’s History Resonates

Taken from the March/April 2017 issue of the Women’s Health Activist Newsletter.

When I decided to write The Story of Jane, a history of Chicago’s underground, feminist abortion service that operated before Roe v. Wade, I had a few goals in mind: first, the Abortion Counseling service, aka Jane, was an important piece of the women’s movement’s history that needed to be better known. I also thought that Jane’s history would serve as an exciting vehicle to discuss community organizing. Jane was transgressive, in that ordinary women performed abortions (both dilation and curettage and induced miscarriages) for over 11,000 women when abortion was illegal. And, finally, I wanted to let young people know that, whatever problem needed to be solved, they could work with others to accomplish their goals. I wasn’t thinking that I was offering a roadmap for abortion activism.

While I was working on my book, the abortion landscape shifted. With the Supreme Court decisions in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services in 1989, and then with Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, the Court made clear its intention to limit Roe.   Of course, the first real shift was in 1976, when Congress first passed the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits Federal Medicaid dollars from funding poor women’s abortions. Before Roe every woman was in the same boat: whether she was rich or poor, abortion was illegal. The passage of the Hyde Amendment was and is a wedge driven between women.

Grassroots Abortion Funds organized to help people find and pay for abortions. These funds now exist all over the country. But the funds do much more than just provide financial support. The Funds provide those seeking abortions with information, support, and validation for their decisions. They let people know that they are not alone. Some Abortion Funds provide transportation to an abortion provider, a place to stay, help with childcare, help securing hard-to-get 2nd trimester abortions, and policy work to fight funding limitations, including Hyde. The National Network of Abortion Funds (one of my favorite organizations) is a membership home for funds from all around the country.

In 1969, when Jane began, long before we had any idea that we would be doing abortions, we raised money for abortions; provided information; and described, in detail, the procedure (as best we could since none of us had seen one yet). We sussed out providers who performed the illegal procedure so we could refer women to the most competent, reliable practitioners. We started out doing, in fact, exactly what present day Abortion Funds do.

So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me when, a few years after my book came out in 1996, I met two staff women with the California Access Project who told me they named their computers Big Jane and Little Jane. Big Jane and Little Jane were the names we gave to our two administrative positions: Big Jane scheduled our work days and Little Jane called back the hundred or more people who called us each week, seeking abortions. These California women understood the lineage we shared.

In 2010 the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran an article about young abortion providers. One doctor, when asked why she decided to do abortions, said that a medical school professor had given her a copy of The Story of Jane. Certainly, not an influence that we in Jane would have thought we would have.

Meanwhile, the U.S. abortion landscape continued to harden. Some states passed draconian measures, using ridiculous justifications, with the intent to make abortions inaccessible to most people who need them.

But something else changed as well. With the introduction of medical abortion using misoprostal, the technology for performing an abortion is now non-invasive and can easily be in the hands of women around the globe.

About 4 years ago, I was contacted by a South American woman. Not only had she read my book, but she is also part of a national network in her home country, where abortion is illegal, that has access to misoprostal, counsels people who need an abortion, and provides both support and the drug. They give detailed information on how and when to take the pills, what to expect, what to watch out for, and when to seek medical help. When I sat on a conference panel with one of the women from this group, she cited Jane as an inspiration.

Just two years ago, I was fortunate to meet the two women who started the Doula Project. This is an organization of full-spectrum doulas, who provide their services for the range of reproductive possibilities, including abortion. We presented a workshop together last year at Hampshire College’s fabulous annual Reproductive Freedom Conference. What resonates with them from Jane’s story is not what we did but how we did it, offering respectful, informed and supportive care.

Over 40 years after Jane folded when abortion was legalized, its echoes continue to reverberate. But the right to an abortion has never stopped being under attack. Facing the horrors the current administration presents, we all need to figure out how to confront government policies that limit our rights. I hope that Jane will be a source and that we will be inspired by the organizations I mentioned here to do the work that needs to be done.

Laura Kaplan authored The Story of Jane, and is an activist for women’s health, reproductive justice, and domestic violence. She served on the NWHN’s Board of Directors for 8 years and co-founded Woodstock Immigrant Support. Now retired, Laura continues her activism through volunteering.

Read more from Laura Kaplan.