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This week, when a Supreme Court majority permitted Texas to eviscerate Roe v. Wade and created a legal path for other states to end legal abortion after six weeks, I dashed off an email to feminist Heather Booth.
A lifetime organizer against social injustice, Booth’s work began in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. In 1969, she was a founding member of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. But Booth’s work helping women to access abortion had begun four years earlier when a friend asked for help—and that friend told another friend, who told another friend. The need was far greater than one person alone could serve. So using a contact from the civil rights movement, Booth developed a method, then a collective effort, which became “Jane,” an underground abortion access network.
If you have ever had the pleasure of knowing, or working with, Heather Booth, you know that she rarely speaks in terms of I: her default is the collective “we” and “us.” Of course, an interview is always collaborative, but Booth told the story of the Jane Collective so beautifully it required little intervention from me. Below, there is an audio clip from our conversation prepared in collaboration with Public Seminar.
It all started with the civil rights movement. In 1960, I joined the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) to support the demonstrations against Woolworths, which wouldn’t let African-Americans sit at their lunch counters in the South. I quickly found my way to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As a student at the University of Chicago, I became the chair of the campus Friends of SNCC group. Then, in 1964, I went South for Mississippi Freedom Summer, a project where civil rights organizations recruited northern students to support the very courageous work of Black people in the South, focusing on the right to vote.
That summer gained notoriety when three of the young volunteers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, were killed by the Klan. But because people organized within a year, we had a voting rights act, and we could win when people organized.
Those are the lessons and the moral principles that guided much of what I did for the rest of my life. I learned that to make change, you need to take action, organize, unite with others, listen to what people want, and respond to people’s real needs.
Freedom Summer also taught me that sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority. In 1964, I was doing voter registration with others in our Freedom Summer Project, just supporting the efforts of Black people trying to register to vote. It was the first time I was arrested and put in jail. We were held to undermine the voting rights drive. And I realized that sometimes you take action to challenge illegitimate authority, advance democracy, and extend justice for all.
When I came back to my campus, other things happened, just to give you a sense of the condition for women. There were parietal hours, which meant the university was acting as your parent. Women had to come back to the dormitories by 11 o’clock, and men could return by midnight. One night, I stayed out past 11:00, comforting a friend. When I came back, I was investigated for contraceptives and informed that they would tell my parents.
It was all pretty frightening, and I was shocked that they would do this. Later, a friend was raped at knifepoint in her bed in off-campus housing. We went with her to Student Health to get a gynecological exam. Student health said they didn’t cover gynecological exams, and they gave her a lecture on her promiscuity.
We sat with her, and they called it a sit-in. Over time, because people protested and took action and organized, now the University of Chicago and others provide gynecological coverage, supportive counseling, and a supportive framework for women students who have been raped. It’s part of what women need to be full participants in the university. But that’s only because people took action.
So, it’s against this backdrop—the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the anti-war movement—that we organized for abortion.
In 1965, a friend told me his sister was pregnant and was nearly suicidal because she wasn’t ready to have a child: would I help her find someone to give her an abortion? I didn’t know where to start—I’m not sure I had ever discussed the issue before or thought about it. So I went to the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), which was the medical arm of the civil rights movement.
I was referred to a doctor, T.R.M. Howard. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had been a civil rights leader in Mississippi who came to Chicago because his name was on a Klan death list. He set up a women’s clinic called Friendship Clinic on 63rd street, bordering the University of Chicago.
He agreed to talk to my friend, and the procedure was successful. I thought that would be the end of it, but she must’ve told other people because word spread and someone else called. So I made contact again with Dr. Howard and then someone else called.
At that point, I realized I should set up a system, and I called Dr. Howard. I learned what was involved in the procedure. What do you do beforehand? What do you do after? What can you expect? Does it hurt? What was the price?
The price was $500. As women started to come through, some didn’t have $500, which at that point was a great deal of money. Could you do two for the price of one? Could you do three for the price of one? Could you do one without charging? And if we raised concerns about how women were treated, would you respond to those concerns? He was very responsive.
We set up a counseling service that went from about 1965 to 1968, at which point I was married, expecting my first child, working full time, and in a graduate program. It was just too much, more people were coming through, and I couldn’t manage it. So, I recruited others. When I went to a regular meeting that I would attend anyway, at the end of the meeting, I’d say: “If you’re interested in working on abortion, please see me.” When I got a core of about 10 or 12 women, I arranged for a meeting at a friend’s house, where I prepared them with the system that I had learned and things that Dr. Howard had taught me.
They called the network “Jane” because it was a common women’s name. The organization would post flyers and take out ads in left alternative publications. The notices contained a telephone number and urged women who were pregnant and did not want to be to “call Jane.”
By this time, perhaps because of an arrest or something else, Dr. Howard was out of contact with us. I found another provider, and his name was Mike. I never met Mike, and I worked through his associate (that’s what he would call her, his associate.) It was that connection that I passed on to the other women. Once they were operating, we only publicized it by word of mouth. It involved college students at the University of Chicago, then college students throughout the Midwest, then other families through Chicago.
Mostly the contacts were made by phone. It was before answering machines, so you had to be there to pick up the phone. The women would say, “I’m looking for Jane.” When I was first doing it, I could almost always tell that it was someone calling about getting what we call “the service” because there was a pause. And I’d often say: “Are you looking for Jane?”
By 1970, as abortion laws started to change in New York, Hawaii, Colorado, if you could get there, you could get a legal, medical abortion, and women who could afford it were able to get procedures. So, the people who remained were poor: community people, much more African American, and younger. Some people had several children and couldn’t medically have another child or couldn’t afford it.
And that was really the development of Jane. Over time, so many people came through Mike was asking for Jane’s help, and the numbers of the people in Jane expanded. By the time of Roe v. Wade (1973), there were probably a hundred women participating in Jane. And as Mike asked for their help, they learned the procedure. They realized they could do it. Much later, a study showed that Jane’s relative safety and positive health outcomes compared favorably to the health outcomes of, in what became later legal providers. And the study was done, I believe, by Jenny Canalis, and she found out that Jane had better health outcomes. And we certainly were the most loving and supportive of communities for the women involved.
Then we found out that, even though it was safe, even though it was loving, Mike was not a licensed doctor. So at that point, the women felt, “Well, if he can do it, we can do it.” And so, with Mike’s support, the women took over providing the procedures. They set up a waiting area, a rented apartment called “The Front,” and different houses where the procedures occurred. They performed over 11,000 abortions between 1965 and 1973.
By 1972, we knew the police knew about it. At least one woman whose husband was a policeman brought her daughter in to have the procedure. Then, an undercover agent referred to one of the women who was part of Jane as “Jane”—but that wasn’t her name.
One night, detectives arrested seven of the women who were part of Jane. They kept saying: “Where is he?” They meant, where is the doctor? They assumed the doctor was a man, but there was no doctor. Those women’s cases were on hold for two reasons. First, no one would testify against the arrested women; all the women who had been pregnant were taken care of by what remained of Jane or sent to other places. Then, no one was pregnant by the time the case would have come to trial. And when Roe was decided in 1973, the case was moot, and the charges were dropped.
Jane’s activities ended when abortion became legal. But Booth emphasized that its activities reverberated in women’s lives long after the collective disbanded.
The women of Jane were learning about how you build participatory structures, but the secrecy and the tension and the lack of full-time staffing taxed relationships. People who had been part of Jane, who were doing the procedures—it was an enormous strain on some of them. People were worn out: by the trial, by the events of the 60s and into the 70s, and by a rising right-wing movement. Some felt Jane should continue, who felt that our fight was also against a medical establishment, which at that point said only men were the physicians. Others felt that abortion was now legal, and we can keep it safe and legal.
But people participating in Jane, and other feminist organizations, learned skills and took them into other arenas. Some institutions like Midwest Academy continued, and new organizations have developed that reflected new times. Now it’s largely women, often young women of color, who often head up groups like the Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives, the Caring Society, and the Fight for $15. So, there are many ways the strength of women’s organizing has morphed, learning good things from the past and adding new lessons.
Now we face a rise of a right-wing that is vicious on the issue and has politicized it to build a Republican party that will victimize women and prevent them from having the freedom to decide when or whether they want to start a family.
That’s what this is about, and we need to talk to the American people in language that they will hear and be comfortable with and understand. It’s really about whether women will have the freedom to be full participants in this society. And that is one of the more effective ways we’re finding to talk about abortion rather than the right to choose. We’re for choice, but it’s really the freedom to decide when or whether a woman should start a family.
The Supreme Court, with this vile, Republican-appointed majority who disrespect women, racial minorities, and young people, doesn’t reflect the vast majority of this country. But by not stopping the Texas law from going into effect, they have laid the basis for undermining Roe without reversing precedent.
State after state will follow Texas’s lead, passing laws that are not implemented by state but rely on neighbor telling on neighbor. Say you’ve gone to a Lyft driver, you’ve gone to a friend to drive you to a doctor, you’ve gone to a doctor themselves: others can inform on you and even get up to $10,000 for that informing. This is what authoritarian countries do.
In the face of this, there are many things that we need to do, and there are many things that I believe the movement that’s fighting for women’s lives will do, and there are four things that I will share at this point. First, we should consider reinforcing the national abortion funds, abortion funds that already exist, to provide abortions for people. This also means starting an underground railroad that provides the transportation and resources—legal help, medical help, housing—so that women from Texas and around the country can find safety and support.
The second thing is that I think there should be, you might say, a boycott—I call it a “womancott” or a “personcott”—against Texas. In Arizona, organizers tried this tactic to reverse SB1070, which mandated that immigrants carry identification and freed the state from following federal immigration laws. But, then, we really need to focus on electing a pro-women majority to the Senate, which makes decisions about who is on the Supreme Court. We can demonstrate, we can protest, but we need to move this issue into elections to show our power: 2022 will be on us even sooner than we can imagine, and we need to start organizing for it now. Finally, I hope that Justice Breyer, in his great wisdom and his great humanity, decides that it’s time for there to be another and younger pro-choice, pro-woman, pro-justice, Supreme Court justice confirmed by this remarkable pro-woman, pro-justice, president and Senate.
I just pulled up figures from the Guttmacher Institute about who accesses abortions now, just so that people know that 75% are poor or low income, 62% have a religious affiliation, 59% already have a child, and 60% are in their twenties. Only 4% are minors, that is, under 18. To consider what the population seeking to terminate pregnancies really looks like by race, 39% are White, 28% are Black, 25% are Hispanic, 6% are Asian, Pacific Islander, and 3% identify as other.
So, who is it who needs abortion? It’s all of us. Because this new law will undermine women’s full participation in society, it is a call for us to organize.
Heather Booth is an organizer and political strategist. Currently, she does consulting work through Democracy Partners. She is also chair of the board of Midwest Academy, a training center for grassroots organizing.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This post originally appeared on her Substack.