I read The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service after I’d already responded to bebinn’s call to expand her reading list on abortion. But boy, oh boy, would I recommend it heartily to anybody and everybody.
I’ll go right out and admit it- while I’ve always believed it’s incredibly important for stories of pre-Roe illegal abortions to be shared and widely disseminated, I’ve tended to pass over collections of such in favor of books with current discussions about abortion as it exists today. I mean, yes, those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, but once you’ve got the general gist- it was awful, women died, whole wings of hospitals were able to close after Roe- what more is there, really?
I’m glad I didn’t let that attitude dissuade me when this title caught my eye on the library shelf. And perhaps that’s just it- The Story of Jane is about illegal abortion, but unlike most of the other stories, for once, the illegal abortionists are not the villains, but the heroines. The tales are, for the most part, happy rather than sad. And perhaps most promisingly, the tale told within deviates from the standard, tragic narrative of women’s helplessness and exploitation during abortion’s criminalization, instead presenting the reader with one of action, pragmatic efficacy, and yes, empowerment.
The title of the book promises exactly what’s inside: the story (told by one of the members, with information and quotes supplemented by interviews of other members) of an underground abortion service named “Jane” that ran in Chicago in the years leading up to Roe v. Wade. But unlike the shady, fly-by-night illegal abortionists who still live in the public consciousness at best as opportunistic criminals and at worst as butchers, Jane was a non-profit, ideological feminist organization with two goals in mind: to help women access safe and empowering abortion, and by doing so, raise her feminist consciousness.
It felt almost alien to read about, to be quite frank. I’m used to abortion as a feminist discussion- we talk a lot about bodily autonomy and control and the full complexity of women’s lives and the misogyny rampant in the anti-abortion movement. But of course, the feminism of the early 70’s looked a lot different than it does today, too. And so it is so striking to read about the approaches Jane took- consciousness-raising discussions in the waiting room, strictly demanding at least some payment (even as they subsidized the remainder) with the understanding that doing so put the woman in charge of her decision, strongly insisting that women were obligated to pay it forward to their sisters if they had the means, that the women of Jane were risking arrest to help her and so she too had debts to pay to womenkind.
Now there’s something you won’t find in most abortion counseling sessions today.
Indeed, there’s something intensely disturbing to realize you’re reading a book about illegal abortion and longing for those days … but of course, that longing is really to have the sort of effect these women did. Uniquely situated in secrecy due to its illegal nature (albeit amidst police who looked the other way and doctors who agreed to provide post-abortion care), Jane was able to create quite a different operation to anything existing then or now. As the only reputable place to get an abortion in the city, everybody but the ultra-wealthy (able to fly out of country or, later on, to New York) were forced to co-mingle and witness firsthand the universality of their experience- sitting in rooms as they were with women of various races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Beholden to no hospital (and certainly no HMO or other modern care network), the women of Jane were free to intertwine feminist messages of empowerment with their abortion provision. And with their locations secret, there were no protesters there to harass and inflict shame and judgment. Unlike other social justice work whose problems seemed insurmountable, whose labor frustratingly bore little short-term fruit, or that required placement in positions of power to effect change, Jane was immediate and direct. You needed no qualifications to join but someone to vouch for your trustworthiness, training was on the job and hands-on, and every single woman who left no longer pregnant was a concrete example of the good they had done, a crisis conquered. And as their own collective, the women who eventually came to provide the abortions could create their own standards of care, which included pre-abortion counseling, warm kindness, detailed explanations of what was happening at each step, making the woman a participant in the procedure rather than someone “having something done to her”, contraception counseling, and even offering other well-woman services near the end. To put that in perspective, one of the women, a patient who later joined Jane, explained that she called her boyfriend afterwards to tell him “I can’t believe I’ve just had the best medical experience of my life, and it was an illegal abortion.”
The Story of Jane is the product of it’s time- it’s difficult for someone as young as I am to keep in mind that while certainly changing, the 1970’s was still a time before patient’s rights, patient-oriented care, and easy accessibility to medical information by laypeople. The vast majority of doctors were men acting as medical gatekeepers- and in an era only beginning to burgeon with the idea of women’s liberation. After Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, the book notes, a few Jane members attempted to work on the legal side of abortion provision and most found it untenable; the cold, clinical attitude and strict insistence on maintaining a barrier between doctor and patient-as-object-to-be-acted-on turned them off. It really speaks, I think, to the revolutionary nature of Jane- if it were only about the abortions, Jane members should have been able to slide seamlessly into the new, legal system.
Obviously, some things have gotten better in that regard (interestingly enough, rather than moving to a more holistic approach to remedy the problem, we seem to have simply compartmentalized: doctor plus the addition of abortion doula, but that’s a discussion for another time), but I still think that The Story of Jane will be inspirational food for thought for anybody interested in reproductive healthcare. And while I doubt many abortion providers today can achieve what Jane did- particularly in this political climate where even keeping a clinic open can be a challenge in some states- it should be our goal.
Read this book. I urge you. Not only is it meaningful and important, but it’s also incredibly well-written and engrossing and difficult to put down, too. It reinvigorated so many of my interests- reproductive healthcare, abortion, feminism, activism- through the sheer hope it offers. At a time when the future of Roe v. Wade is tenuous, when the past was tragic and we may well be hurtling backwards towards it, when the work feels like a stop-gap measure, I think it can really help to hear a feel-good story about women who took matters into their own hands and created something amazing. At least it did for me.