On January 22, the National Organization of Women held a candlelit vigil outside the U.S. Supreme Court in order to “commemorate the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.” The press release quoted NOW president Terry O’Neill as saying, “NOW affirms that women’s access to the full range of reproductive health services – including safe, legal and affordable abortion care and birth control – is integral to women’s ability to participate equally in our society.”
As to what exactly they sought to communicate or accomplish with this action remains unclear to me. It had no element of celebration, nor of protest, and their rhetoric seems almost deliberately vapid. But there is something indicative, if also sad and frustrating, about that ambiguity. At a time when public support for Roe is at 63 percent in America and yet abortion rights continue to be lost, it has become clear that the religious right is better resourced, better connected, and perhaps even better organized than the women’s movement. It has also become clear that Roe never guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion, but merely decriminalized it. There is still a serious need for federal legislation protecting reproductive rights; a need, in other words, for a conversation about active resistance, as opposed to “commemoration.” Many feminists are fostering that discourse, and some of them quite effectively, but what I want to do here is simply to take stock of the setbacks of the past four decades.
I read an essay recently called “Just Call Jane,” which was written by a former member of the Jane Collective for illegal abortion services. Jane operated in Chicago from 1969 to 1973, and by the time they shut down their operation they had performed an estimated 11,000 illegal abortions.
When they started out, an abortion arranged through Jane cost $600. It was conducted in hotel rooms by a masked male surgeon, and on women who were forced to be blindfolded. Many women could not afford it, but had little choice. In every way, it was an uncomfortable arrangement for a highly necessary service.
After a while, some of the women in Jane began to assist with the procedure by supporting the patient, holding her hand, cleaning the equipment, and prepping the room. As they did so they realized that a conventional D&C is not a tremendously complicated operation. “They thought, ‘This doesn’t look so difficult. We can learn to do this and charge a whole lot less too’,” writes the anonymous author.
Within a few months the procedure cost only $100 or pay what you can. (The average was around $40.) It was conducted in the women’s own homes or in the collective’s own space, and it was performed by other women who were explaining the steps of the procedure to their clients throughout, and offering them food, drugs, and counselling. There was no man, and no blindfolds. “By taking the abortion tools—curettes, forceps, dilators—in our own hands, we had effectively demystified medical practice,” writes the author. “The need for our service, which grew rapidly as word spread, pushed us to be as competent as possible. A woman came to us with a problem—she was pregnant and didn’t want to be—and, when she left, that problem was solved. That daily experience of success gave us a feeling of incredible power and satisfaction.”
That essay was published in 1990, which in retrospect looks like a bona fide golden age of reproductive freedom in America. Since then the number of abortion clinics throughout the country has declined by at least fifty percent, and some estimates range up to 70 percent. (According to the anti-choice group Operation Rescue, since 1991 the number of abortion clinics in the country has dropped from 2,176 to less than 660.) The total number of legal abortions performed over the same time period has dropped by about 25 percent.
The 1976 Hyde Amendment restricting federal funding for abortions was the first major setback, but the tide really turned in 1989, with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which upheld a law passed by the state of Missouri stipulating that “life begins at conception” and prohibiting the use of any state employee or facility in the provision of an abortion. Virtually every state subsequently followed Missouri’s example, and today the only states to finance abortions are Hawaii, Maryland, New York, and Washington. (All other states require a court order, or will only provide funding in cases of life endangerment, incest or rape.) As a result of all this, growing numbers of women are increasingly being shut out from the procedure, and are forced to either bear the child or induce miscarriage within the isolation of their own homes.
Things are rapidly getting worse. According to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, a record 93 state-level legislations restricting abortion were passed in 2011, followed by 43 in 2012. (In prior years, the average was somewhere around 20, which, of course, is still bad.) In the past year alone, Virginia passed legislation mandating any woman who wishes to have an abortion to be physically penetrated by an ultrasound probe so that she can listen to the fetus’s heartbeat. Legislation tabled in the past few months in Ohio and Wyoming seeks to ban the abortion of any fetus with a detectable heartbeat, which can occur as early as six weeks into the pregnancy. Oklaholma passed legislation stipulating that “the unborn child at every stage of development (has) all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this state.” Last week, Arkansas banned all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In Mississippi, only two months after a referendum to grant the rights of personhood to a fetus was voted down, the state’s only abortion clinic – the Jackson Women’s Health Organization – was informed that the government intends to revoke its operating license. “If we never overturn Roe v. Wade, that’s okay,” said Operation Rescue President Troy Newman recently. “As long as I can close every abortion clinic and stop every abortion, we win.” There is no longer any question that these people are in fact winning, and that they need to be stopped.
What strikes me about the history of the Jane Collective is not only the audacity and the dedication of the women who ran it, but also the fact that abortion clinics throughout the U.S. today face the exact same problems Jane faced. They receive no public funding, and they can be shut down by the cops at almost any time. Sometimes women were referred to the service by a doctor, or even by a cop. “It was, in fact, the best known secret in Chicago,” writes the anonymous author. There was an unspoken détente between Jane and some sectors of the medical and legal establishments, but the service ultimately inhabited a space of extreme precarity. The circumstance of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization today is no different.
For more on the Jane Collective:
“Jane.” “Just Call ‘Jane’,” in From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming a Movement. ed. Marlene Gerber Fried (Boston: South End Press, 1990.) 93-100
Laura Kaplan, The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service (New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.)