By Dana Simpson. A paper originally written for Dana's Women in History class at Oak Park River-Forest High School.(January 2001)
(Editor's Note: Dana Simpson was a sophomore student at Oak Park-River Forest High School when she wrote this. She was inspired by the Jane play and by meeting several former "Janes".)
“We are women whose ultimate goal is the liberation of women in society. One important way we are working toward that goal is by helping any woman who wants an abortion to get one as safely and cheaply as possible under existing conditions.”
-The opening paragraph of Jane’s pamphlet, their statement of purpose.
In the four years before the United States Supreme court decision in Roe vs. Wade, the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation was providing for women what the professional medical profession refused to give them. Jane, the contact name of the organization, was providing safe, inexpensive and confidential abortions for women of all races and social classes. The members of Jane answered a desperate cry from women seeking a vital service that was denied to almost all. The other illegal abortions operating at that time were horribly degrading and dangerous. Jane wanted to provide an alternative.
Jane, like the women’s liberation movement it was part of, grew out of the social and political upheavals of the 1960’s. At the time, men still exerted control over a women’s bodies. Many women were ignorant of their own reproduction physiology. After a Jane member showed one woman her cervix with a mirror before an abortion procedure, she was shocked to discover it was pink and clean. All up until that moment, her doctors and her culture had led her to believe anything in her “private area” was dirty and diseased. In addition to simply denying knowledge, women weren’t allowed total control over their own reproduction. In some places, contraceptives where difficult to obtain up to the early 70’s, especially if you were single. Women would by cheap wedding rings to convince their doctors they were married in order to obtain birth control. Abortions were denied unless continuing the pregnancy would gravely endanger the health of the mother. Some women sought out psychiatrists and claimed they would commit suicide if not given an abortion.
In ten states in 1969, the law was modified to include severe damage to the fetus or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. Even with those additions, it was estimated that fewer than 5% of women who wanted abortions actually got them.
“The same society that denies a woman the decision not to have a child refuses to provide humane alternatives for women who do have children, such as child care facilities to permit the mother to work, or role flexibility so that men can share in the raising of children. The same society that insists that women should and do find their basic fulfillment in motherhood will condemn the unwed mother and her fatherless child.” (Jane Brochure)
When needed abortions were denied by professional medicine, women sought out dangerous illegal abortions. Jane members wanted to find alternatives for the sometimes fatal back alley abortions. Women were dying of botched surgery and infection because the professionals refused to give them in a clean and reliable environment. Those who went in were treated badly, made to feel guilty that they needed abortions. A few male practioners of illegal abortion demanded sexual favors in return for their services. Sometimes women who couldn’t afford expensive abortions tried to abort themselves using poisons and dangerous instruments such as quinine or knitting needles. Jane was out to save the lives of the women that were pushed into these dangerous situations. But it wasn’t a charity mission. They were trying to liberate women from the control of others. All of the abortion providers were male and controlling, legal or illegal.
The group that soon came to be know as Jane began in 1969 to screen providers of illegal abortion. It was their goal to direct women toward the best of the doctors, and provide counseling and backup. They chose an unintimidating contact name, and sought to appear as unlike the rough back-alley abortionists as possible. Their charge was to be as low as possible, and their mortality rate at zero. Accomplishing these goals was difficult, as they had very little control of the exorbitant prices charged by the doctors. Sometimes the cost of an illegal abortion would total as much as the doctor and hospital costs for having a baby.
The fear of being arrested was always there, but providing help and comfort to women with unwanted pregnancy was more important. These were mostly white middle class women, and in the words of one woman “We’re such nice people, we do such good work. We’ll never get busted.” As with the civil rights movement of the last decade, Jane sought to undermine unjust and even dangerous laws even if it put them in a bad position with the law. But unlike the civil rights movement, the Jane service was still almost completely white. A few black women joined, but they didn’t feel very comfortable in a somewhat alien environment. This was how the racial makeup ran through the women’s movement. It was targeted mostly toward the white and middle class. But those who were helped by the efforts of Jane were of all races and classes. In fact, once their rates were lowered sufficiently, most of their clients were poor, black women.
At first, the aim of these dedicated women was not to provide abortions themselves. Very few of the workers had even basic medical training, and never thought they would be able to handle the surgery themselves. The members of Jane knew that as long as women depended completely on these male doctors, they would be helpless. The doctors were arrogant and abusive toward their patients even at the best. The only report they got on the reliability of doctors was from the patients themselves, and most of these weren’t good. They needed to become more involved with the process. Simply driving the women to the selected house and providing information and comfort wasn’t enough.
After much searching they found a doctor who was willing to work closely with them, who they could watch for themselves. The selected doctor would even pressure Jane members watch him perform the procedure and even asked a few to assist. He was secretive and arrogant, as most abortion doctors were. However, he was proud of his abilities, and that was why he was somewhat willing to share them. That was why he wanted the women to look on. He was the most concerned of all the other doctors Jane had screened for the women’s welfare, but still made disparaging remarks about the unintentionally pregnant women.
What no one knew was that this man, who called himself "Dr. Kauffman"wasn’t really a doctor. He had learned the skill from an apprenticeship to a friend’s brother, but had never received a degree. This shocking revelation, when disclosed to all members of the group, brought mixed results. Some of the less committed women simply left. But one woman found a new purpose. If this man, who was not a doctor, could perform abortions, why couldn’t we? This was a turning point in the history of the Jane group. They could liberate themselves completely from male influence and domination. The doctor began training the one member of the inner circle of the Jane group.
“She realized that the experience broke the taboo surrounding the instruments. She realized she could handle these smooth steel surgical tools. What had been a vague idea became persistent. We can learn to do this and we can charge a lot less.” (Kaplan p 158).
Most of the other members thought the idea of doing it themselves was a poor one. But gradually a few more women received limited training, until one day the first woman performed an abortion by herself, without the doctor there to help her. She taught more of her closest friends in Jane how to do it. Dr. Kauffman and the other doctors were needed less and less. They no longer help the mystic power of the doctor, not to be questioned. Jane had realized what it started out to do. Women themselves could provide safe and inexpensive abortions. It had taken several years, but they had.
At this point, Jane had been operating for several years, and no members had been arrested. There had been several close calls, and the police knew of their activity, but no arrests had been made. Most of the police force was sympathetic toward them. Officer’s wives had come in, and once even a female officer. They had seen incredible luck so far. In May of 1972, it ran out. The police found out the apartment number, and forced their way inside. The seven Jane members were arrested. They were released on bail with the money Jane had set away. Even after this, these dedicated women continued. Those that had not been caught in the raid went right back to helping the women waiting for abortions the very next day. The size of the group was cut down considerably for a time, but new women joined and brought membership nearer to its original level. When someone dropped out, there always seemed to be another women to take her place. The service members were never forced to work beyond their burnout point. The women who were arrested weren’t working anymore.
Unlike most other parts of the Women’s Liberation, which was directed to white upper to middle-class women, the availability of abortion touched the lives of every woman.
“The current abortion laws are a symbol of the sometimes subtle, but often blatant, oppression of women in our society. Women should have the right to control their own bodies and lives. Only a woman who is pregnant can determine whether she has enough resources — economic, physical and emotional — at a given time to bear and rear a child.” (Jane Brochure)
This second excerpt from the Jane brochure outlines the idea behind Jane. The organization had succeeded in its goals. They gave women control over their reproduction. They had taken back was the medical establishment had grabbed for themselves. Throughout history, it has been women who have been involved in pregnancy, childbirth, and also abortion.
With the positive decision of the Roe vs. Wade case in 1973, abortion was made legal. Jane still functioned in a very limited fashion a few months after. Then they slowly dissolved, with no celebration, no official last day. The dedicated members of Jane were just happy it was over. Some members believed the service they gave was better than what was being offered in hospitals. The Jane service had tried to be more personal and helpful than any medical establishment before or after the legalization of abortion. The service had taken up the lives of the most committed women. It had damaged relationships and brought some otherwise law-abiding housewives trouble with the police.
Jane had accomplished what they wanted to do. The women involved in it thought their time with Jane difficult, sometimes enjoyable, and very necessary. They had helped to release the stranglehold that the male medical establishment held on women’s health and contraception. As an interesting personal connection, I learned in the course of my research that I know the women who founded Jane, and also a few of the other women who worked in it.
1.Kaplan, Laura. Jane: The Abortion Counseling Service. New York: Pantheon Books, a Division of Random House Inc., 1995
2.The CWLU website at www.cwluherstory.com, 1-8-00
3.No author listed to preserve anonymity. The Jane Brochure. Publisher Unknown
Copyright 2001 by Dana Simpson. Dana was a student at Oak Park-River Forest High School and a contributor to the Herstory Project. This article was originally a paper written for her Women in History class taught by Heidi Lynch.