Underground Before Roe—and Why Now Is Different

 

 

 

 

Which of these examples is current, and which is fifty years old?

 

  1. An elaborate system of callbacks and blindfolded trips
  2. Overseas abortifacients sold to American women
  3. Women without medical degrees training to perform abortions
  4. Homemade extraction devices using Mason jars and aquarium tubing
  5. Women drinking bleach or turpentine
  6. Criminal charges of murder, feticide, and abuse of a corpse
  7. A bulletproofed van with an exam table inside

 

All but No. 1 are current.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortions were hard to find or afford for many women, and the chance of losing abortion rights has loomed for decades. The most obvious difference between now and the years before Roe v. Wade, though, escaped me until I spoke with Heather Booth, a social justice activist who initiated the Jane Collective.

Booth was nineteen years old, a student at the University of Chicago, in 1965. A male friend was worried about his sister, who was in grad school, pregnant, and desperate, nearly suicidal. Booth, already active in the civil rights movement, found Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader who had moved to Chicago from Mississippi when his name appeared on a Klan death list. Now an accomplished psychologist, the sister has never brought up what happened—or what it led to.

More young woman came to Booth in “trouble,” as it was accurately termed. Without help, she knew, they would take action on their own and might end up septic, damaged, dead, or in debt to the Mafia. (“When something is this widely sought, illegal entities will crop up who do not have the best interests of the people involved.”)

Because she was living in the University of Chicago dorm, and “three people talking about abortion was a conspiracy to commit a felony,” Booth told people to simply “ask for Jane.” She was scared, just as she had been the year before, when she was arrested demonstrating for voter registration. But she had joined “a tradition of doing things even when we are afraid, because it’s to support other people.”

Her ad-hoc referral service grew into a full-fledged organization, the Jane Collective, that was stunningly effective. In four years, the Jane Collective provided more than 10,000 abortions, and not a single woman is known to have died. When Booth lost touch with Howard, doctors recommended a man named Mike. She assumed that he, too, was a physician. When he quit, the Janes found out he was not even a physician—and he had been charging as much as $1,000 per procedure. They decided that if he could provide safe, caring abortions, they could too—and without a profit motive. They sought training, dropped the cost to $100, and discounted it further if that was a hardship.

“We listened,” Booth says simply. “Women said, ‘Who will take care of my kids?’ so we started providing child care.” No one was required to explain their reasons; no one was judged. Counseling was offered ahead of time, medical histories were taken, and a counselor was there to hold the woman’s hand during the procedure.

When she could no longer handle the volume herself, Booth recruited other women, and they devised safeguards were worthy of the French Resistance. A woman called an answering machine, gave the date of her last period, received a callback, and was directed to an apartment, “The Front.” Her family, spouse, or friend could wait there; she would be taken, sometimes blindfolded, to a second apartment called “The Place.” The collective switched apartment locations regularly. The collective was not raided until 1972, when seven of the women were arrested. In the police van, they ripped their patients’ names and addresses off index cards and swallowed them. Charges against The Jane Seven were dropped in January 1973, when the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion.

Now that decision has been overturned.

The world is different now. Digital surveillance will make it harder to work around the law, I say. But easier to find providers, Booth points out. The site INeedanA.com, for example, is named so that women cannot be tracked looking up the word “abortion.” But how to find that site? Once again, word of mouth will be crucial. Once again, women without money and resources will suffer the most.

“This is what I don’t get,” I blurt. “A distinct number of Roe v. Wade opponents also want a White America, with stay-at-home mothers, no more contraceptives, and fewer rights for anyone of color. To put it bluntly, why would White nationalists want more babies of color to be born?”

That is the biggest difference of all, Booth says, between then and now. Politicization. “When I started this in 1965, abortion was illegal, but it wasn’t a political issue. You didn’t even discuss it. The issues were the war in Vietnam, poverty, civil rights.” Today, abortion has been so sharply politicized, many would say it is the issue.

“This is a reflection of a partisan political alliance,” she says crisply, “between the right-wing MAGA faction of the Republican party and parts of some evangelical churches. That deal was made with Paul Weyrich,” who fused politics and evangelical Christianity into the “moral majority” back in 1979. A galvanizing religious issue instantly became a political issue, rather than remaining a faith choice and a matter of individual conscience.

The other factor, Booth says, is that “there are people who are pro reproductive freedom, but they don’t want taxes. So they hold their noses and support a Donald Trump. You see very wealthy donors who even have policies in their own firms for reproductive freedom, yet they will support a MAGA faction because their interest is in not paying taxes and in undermining the government.”

So have politics brought us right back to the conditions that first motivated her in 1965?

“It may not repeat itself,” she says, “but it will rhyme.”

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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