Jane to the Rescue: Breaking Barriers to Abortion Access

Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective, cwluherstory.org

By Christine R. Riddiough

1965. That was the year the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold vs Connecticut that it was unconstitutional for the government to prevent married couples from having access to birth control. It was still illegal for unmarried women to get birth control unless they had a medical reason for requiring it. Abortion was illegal throughout the United States. It was not until 1973 that the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that bans on abortion in the first trimester were illegal. Sex education was non-existent. Most women growing up in that time knew little or nothing about sex or reproduction.

1965 seems like ancient history now. But if we look at what’s happening to reproductive rights, it doesn’t seem to be quite such a distant past.

Present Day. The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of closely-held, for-profit corporations cannot be forced to provide their employees with certain kinds of birth control if it is against their religious beliefs. Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law in 2013 restrictions on women’s access to abortion. This is one of many laws that have resulted in rolling back the gains of Roe v. Wade.

What did women do in the 1960s if they needed an abortion? What might women today face if the rollbacks of reproductive rights go forward? For women in Chicago in the 1960s, there was the Abortion Counselling Service, known as Jane, a work group of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU). Heather Booth, founder of Jane as well as the CWLU and the Midwest Academy, tells of its origins: 

In the summer of 1964, I went to Mississippi with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The summer certainly taught me that in the face of injustice we need to act for justice. Returning from Mississippi, a friend of mine told me about his sister, a brilliant grad student, who was pregnant, nearly suicidal because she could not manage a baby then, and was looking for someone to perform an abortion. I did not know what to do, but knowing you try to help others in need, I contacted doctors I knew from the civil rights movement (and the Medical Committee for Human Rights) and asked for their help.  They suggested a Dr. T.R.M. Howard.   Dr. Howard was a courageous civil rights leader in Mississippi who came to Chicago when his name turned up on a Klan death list. This connection reflects the origins of the women’s movement in the civil rights movement and the importance of having the courage to challenge illegitimate laws.

I called him; he performed the abortion; it was successful. Well, word spread about the abortion and a few months later, someone else called.  That was successful and then someone else called again.  In a short period of time, calls were coming from not only Chicago, but all over the Midwest and even beyond that. And the numbers were growing. I identified other doctors and people who would provide the procedure.

Because I was living in a campus dormitory, when people called on the phone, I spread word that they should ask for Jane.  And so this service was started. “Now this was at a time when it was a legal conspiracy to commit felony murder if more than one person met to discuss abortion. After Dr. Howard died, I found another doctor.

By 1968 I decided I needed to turn this counseling over to others and move on.  So after a meeting of various social concern and community groups, I would ask that if anyone wanted to discuss the issue of abortion and helping women who needed one, we should talk.  Several women responded.  We discussed the counseling and the process, and within a year I turned the contacts over and moved on. 

In 1971, the women in Jane found out that the person who was primarily doing the procedures was not a licensed doctor, though he performed with great safety—probably more careful than some in medical facilities precisely because of the legal risks at the time.  The women then thought, ‘Well, if he can do it, so can we.’  There also was such a great demand that more people were needed to do the procedures. So he taught them, and the women began providing the service themselves. 

Because it was illegal, measures were taken to protect identities.  In the early days, the woman was asked to go to a certain street corner. She was met by a person with a red carnation, was blindfolded and driven around several blocks, had the procedure and then was returned to that corner.  If this were the process before even routine dental exam, of course the person would be frightened and concerned.  Jane built a caring environment with a homey apartment where the women waited (called "the front") and a variety of locations for the procedure, and were then comforted in their recovery time.

On May 2, 1972, while 250 women were on the list waiting for the procedure, seven people in Jane were arrested by the Chicago homicide police. No woman who had the procedure through Jane would testify against the 7.  Organizing had been changing public opinion. While the women were awaiting trial, on January 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade was decided by the U.S.Supreme Court and women’s right to reproductive choice, based on the right to privacy, was recognized.  The charges against the 7 women were dropped.

From the start, 11,000 women came through Jane or the service.  They received medically safe and caring abortions.  But it was illegal and the fear and strain and threats of those days should not have been a part of our past and should never be a part of our future.

In the years since Roe v. Wade, the Right has passed ever more restrictive anti-abortion measures. The Hyde Amendment, named for Congressman Henry Hyde (R-IL), denied young and poor women access to abortion. Then women in the military, and the wives and children of those in the military lost access. They were followed by Native women on tribal lands. The list goes on — rural women, women in prisons, women with disabilities on Medicaid. The Hobby Lobby case shows just how they are willing to go to restrict women’s access to reproductive justice. 

We must continue to organize for reproductive justice and fight back against the restrictions of the right. The April bowl-a-thons organized by the National Abortion Federation are one way that we can be part of that effort. Click here to participate in a bowl-a-thon near you.


A former member of the CWLU, Christine R. Riddiough serves as an Honorary Vice Chair of DSA.


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