Jane: Abortion and the Underground
(This originally appeared in the WomanNews section
of the Chicago Tribune Online in September 1999)
Susan was 21, in a dead-end job and a dead-end relationship, and
she had just discovered her IUD birth control had failed her.
wanted children eventually, she knew it wasn't a good time to have
So she called
Jane in Hyde Park.
From 1969 to
1973, before the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision
legalized abortion in the United States, thousands of women did
just what Susan did. Jane, officially known as the Abortion Counseling
Service of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, arranged and participated
in more than 11,000 illegal abortions in Chicago and the suburbs
in those turbulent years.
of Jane, many of whom were college students, housewives and mothers,
eventually learned how to perform abortions themselves--despite
having no formal medical training--and did them in the bedrooms
of various secret apartments around the city. The idea was to decrease
the cost and increase the availability and safety of the procedure
for otherwise desperate women.
and freelance writer Paula Kamen became fascinated when she heard
of Jane at a women's rights panel several years ago. The result
is her play, "Jane: Abortion and the Underground," which
opens this Saturday as a Green Highway Theater Co. production. In
recent years, Jane also has been the subject of a book, "The
Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service"
by Laura Kaplan, herself a member of Jane, and a documentary, "Jane:
An Abortion Service," that aired on PBS in 1998.
intrigued by these bourgeois housewives running an illicit abortion
service between car-pooling to dance lessons," Kamen, 32, says.
"Women of my generation have no idea--before Jane, it was just
shocking what people had to go through. Cook County (Hospital) was
getting hundreds of (victims of) botched abortions a month. Abortions
were unsafe, they cost thousands of dollars, and many of the abortionists
had mob ties."
the play around case histories of the women involved in Jane, after
interviewing dozens of Jane members and those who sought the service's
help. The play originally debuted for a brief run in 1993, then
was completely revised for its new run.
of the work written about abortion is a debate on the issue,"
notes Janel Winter, producer and director of the play. "This
is about women's lives and women working together to help each other."
women who called Jane, Susan (who did not wish to be identified
by her real name) was told an abortion would cost $300. She balked
and was told that if she could scrape together $100, an abortion
could be arranged.
Susan was directed
to a house where a woman would counsel her on what to expect during
the procedure. "While her kids were playing in the room, my
counselor served me tea and told me what was going to happen,"
Susan remembers. "I was so impressed that someone with kids
would help me have an abortion."
She was directed
to go to what Jane members called "The Front," a dorm
room at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, where she found
a dozen other women waiting for abortions. From there, the women
were driven in groups--Susan's driver was a happily pregnant woman
a month away from delivery--to an apartment, where each was blindfolded
as she entered the bedroom, to protect the abortionist's identity.
Jane members called the apartment "The Place." (The locations
of The Front and The Place changed frequently.)
there were so warm, and they explained everything," Susan recalls.
"Even the doctor was nice. (Susan later found out he was not
a real doctor). And a counselor was with me the whole time. Afterward,
I felt queasy because I hadn't eaten anything and someone made me
an egg. A few days later, my counselor called to make sure I was
the best medical experience I ever had," she says.
The roots of
Jane--or "the Service," as members called it--date to
1965, when a friend told Heather Booth, then a young University
of Chicago student, that he was worried about his sister, who was
pregnant and nearly suicidal. (The woman is now president of a college,
was active in social causes and had spent the previous summer in
Mississippi working in the civil rights movement, called around
and found a doctor who would perform an abortion for her friend's
and hear about someone in need and you try to do something about
it," says Booth, who went on to become a leader in the Democratic
National Committee and now lives in Washington, D.C. "It's
hard now to remember that that's what those times were like. You
rose to protect those who needed it, even if it meant you went against
that Booth could arrange abortions and demand grew. After several
years, Booth knew she needed help arranging the service. She was
pregnant, teaching, working on a master's degree and involved in
other activism. She recruited a team. A handful of others joined
the cause, and soon, Booth bowed out.
that we were for abortion," Booth recalls. "We were for
women having the right (to) make this most personal decision."
The name Jane
was selected for the group because it had an anonymous, everywoman
sound to it, Kaplan writes in her book.
same period in the late 1960s, a group called the Chicago Women's
Liberation Union formed. A few people at the organizing meeting
suggested making abortion one of the union's causes.
were opposed, the union agreed to make Jane a work group within
the organization, Booth notes, under the premise that a woman having
control of her own body was the most basic of rights.
the members of Jane also note that women had far fewer options
in those times. Single motherhood was taboo, and birth control
was not widely available. It wasn't until 1965 that a Supreme Court
ruling guaranteed the right of married people to use birth control,
and not until 1972 that the justices affirmed that single people
also could legally obtain contraceptives.
of mine at the time was raped at knifepoint and went to the university
health care center, where she was told there were no gynecological
services," Booth said. "And she was given a lecture on
pregnant in those days was a tragedy--it was the end of your life,"
recalls Sunny Chapman of New York City, who turned to Jane when
she was pregnant at 19. "I knew people who had had botched
abortions, and people died from illegal abortions. You really felt
safe once you made contact with the Janes."
grew in numbers. More than 100 women worked for the cause at one
time or another during the four years it was in operation, according
to Kaplan, and none of Jane's clients died as a result of the procedure.
members counseled the women, told them what was going to happen,
held their hands through the abortion, advised them on birth control
for the future, and made the environment warm and friendly, "an
abortion with Jane was a surprisingly positive experience, as many
women expressed at the time," Kaplan wrote.
Most of the
women in Jane were middle class and white. Those who used the service
ranged from housewives to students to poor women, and ran the gamut
of all races, recalls Eileen Smith, of Chicago, a member of Jane. "It was a mishmash of people in one room."
woman, one of the few who worked with Jane, recalls her race was
one of the reasons she felt compelled to help out. "For African-Americans
who walked in and then saw me, you could see their faces relax,"
says the woman, who did not want to be identified. "They had
a fee structure set up, and didn't turn anyone away."
Even if she
could pay only $10.
woman also had helped a roommate through an illegal abortion years
earlier. "I didn't want anybody to ever have to go through
that experience," she said.
Early on, the
women of Jane constantly struggled to line up doctors who would
perform the service and eventually almost exclusively relied on
one abortionist. When they discovered in 1970 that he was not a
real doctor, they continued to use him because he had proved to
be well-trained (by a real doctor). The women of Jane also had
persuaded him to instruct them in the procedure, and by spring
of 1971, they were performing the abortions themselves, allowing
them to lower the price to $100, according to Kaplan.
didn't perform abortions, she assisted, giving the women shots
of a drug to control the bleeding, and using some of the preparatory
like we (women) were all working together," Smith said. "We
weren't doing this to them or for them. It was regular people making
a big difference. It really shaped my life and showed me what's
services across the country referred women to practitioners for
illegal abortions, Jane was unusual because it counseled the women
and actually provided the abortions.
about Jane through listings in alternative newspapers--it was even
listed in the phone book under "Jane Howe." There were
also referrals from sympathetic doctors and even, as it turned out,
from the police, who mostly looked the other way, the women say.
that one woman who had come to her apartment for pre-abortion counseling
couldn't figure out which apartment was hers. As the woman stood
out front looking confused, a police officer drove by and said
she must be looking for Eileen's place. The police officer directed
the woman to the apartment and drove away.
But in 1972,
the police raided Jane after the sister of a Jane client lodged
a complaint, and seven women were arrested. The case was continued
into 1973, and dropped after the Roe vs. Wade decision. But Smith,
who was baby-sitting for the child of one of the arrested women,
remembers that after the bust, some argued that Jane should disband.
One of the
main women insisted they continue. "We don't have a choice,"
Smith recalls her saying. Women needed the service.
Roe vs. Wade ruling, abortion clinics opened in Chicago and Jane
some of Jane's former members worry that abortion rights are slowly
eroding, through parental consent laws, waiting periods, clinic
violence and complacency, Booth says.
About 84 percent
of United States counties have no abortion provider and the procedure
is not taught at many medical schools, according to the National
Abortion Federation, an association for abortion providers. There's
general consensus that many abortion providers are near retirement
age, Booth adds.
political climate, Kamen says some of Jane's members told her they
would be unable to do what they did in the pre-Roe days.
then all we had to worry about was jail," one member said.
"Now you have to fear for your life."
PLAY'S HISTORY HAS A FEW BUMPS
Abortion and the Underground" is no stranger to controversy,
and not just because of its subject matter.
The play debuted
in 1993, but its run was abbreviated because of a battle over
authorship. Although the original director had claimed co-authorship
with Paula Kamen, Kamen eventually was credited as sole author.
The play is
back now, after being completely revised, Kamen says, and in
the hands of a different theater company. Here are details:
- When: 8 p.m. Saturday, and Thursdays through Saturdays thereafter
until Oct. 23
- Where: The Chopin Studio Theater, 1541 W. Division St.
- Tickets: $15
- Contact: 773-334-6032
- Benefit fundraiser: Oct. 10 will be a fundraiser for the Green
Highway Theater Co., a non-profit group that focuses on women's
voices and lives. A panel of former Jane members will speak to
the audience afterward. Call for details.