Christine Riddiough talks with veteran activists Heather Booth and Judith Arcana
In late August, Texas governor Gregg Abbott, signed into law the most restrictive anti-abortion bill since the landmark abortion-rights case Roe v. Wade was decided. Women in Texas and around the country are outraged and fearful that other states will follow suit. Before Roe, (and “Jane Roe” lived in Texas), women throughout the United States lived in a similar regime and fought against those restrictions and for women’s health. For guidance on what we can do now, I turned to Heather Booth, founder of the abortion counseling service that became known as Jane, and Judith Arcana, one of the Janes who was arrested in 1971 for performing abortions. –CR.
How did you come to start Jane?
HB: To understand the formation of Jane, I have to go back to my activism in the civil rights movement. In 1964, I went to Mississippi as part of Freedom Summer. Within a year of that summer there was a voting rights act passed by Congress – that taught me that when you take action, you can change the world. When I came back to Chicago for college, one of the women there was raped in her dorm room. We took her to the student health center where they lectured her on her promiscuity. We fought to get better care for women. This was a wake-up call about the inequities in health care for women.
Not long after that I got a call from a friend whose sister was pregnant. She wasn’t in a position to keep the child. I remembered Dr. [T.R.M.]Howard from Freedom Summer and he agreed to do the abortion. After that I started getting other calls from women looking for an abortion and I knew I had to set up a system. I started telling people to ask for Jane when they called and the name stuck. By 1968, I couldn’t manage it alone, and so I started asking at meetings for people who could help. At this time, not only was abortion illegal, but three people talking about abortion was illegal – a conspiracy. By 1969, I was involved in other activism.
JA: I got involved in Jane around 1971. I had been a high school English teacher in a suburb of Chicago. Some of the parents were disturbed by some of what two other teachers and I were talking about in class and we were fired. We fought back, but it took almost a year to deal with the case, and we were blown away by the news media coverage.
That summer I thought I was pregnant and didn’t feel I could bring someone into the world in these circumstances. A medical student friend put me in touch with Jane. I talked with Ruth Surgal for a long time. It turned out that I wasn’t pregnant. A few months later, Ruth (who was heading up Jane and was known as ‘Big Jane’) invited me to attend an orientation program to bring on new Janes.
By this time we had learned that “Mike.” who was now doing the abortions, was not actually a doctor. So we pushed him to teach us how to do the abortions. He agreed, and several of us learned the procedures.
Then in the spring of 1971, several of us were busted – we became the ‘“Abortion 7,” and there was a campaign to fight back against the arrests. In 1972, the Roe v. Wade decision came down, and we were released.
From these experiences what guidance can you give us today? How do we fight back against the Texas law?
HB: There are several lessons we need to learn from this experience, and there are already people beginning to work on this issue.
First, we know that if we want to change the world, we need to organize. We need to make noise. We need to have a shared message. On October 2 there is going to be a large national demonstration – with both a large event planned in Washington, DC and events around the country. The message is that women must have the freedom whether and when to start a family.
Another lesson we learned in Jane and in other actions in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and elsewhere is that sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority. Women are already starting to do that through groups like the National Abortion Federation. And we know that you have to trust local people. We need to talk with them and engage them in this work. In many places, women are already planning support networks to help women by providing rides and other assistance.
We also need to be aware that this law not only restricts women’s access to proper care, but it empowers private citizens to take action against women and abortion providers. This part of the law goes back to the Fugitive Slave Act, when slave owners could have slaves returned because they were “property.”
Nancy Pelosi has said she will introduce a ‘Women’s Health Protection’ act and the results of the California and Virginia elections this fall will be critical in moving us forward.
DSA members can play an active role in all of these efforts. And though right now things look bleak, we should remember this quote from Antonio Gramsci – “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” and we should ORGANIZE! Join us at the October 2 actions,
Many organizations have been active for decades because of restrictions that have eroded reproductive rights for the past 50 years. The resources linked to below do not constitute a complete list.
For more information on Jane, you can visit Judith Arcana’ s Jane page at http://www.juditharcana.com/jane and https://www.cwluherstory.org/jane-abortion-service.