It began, fittingly, with a phone call. Heather Booth, a student activist at the University of Chicago, was called by a friend whose sister was desperate for an abortion. She managed to find a doctor to perform one. Then, slowly, she began to receive more and more calls. It became apparent to her that abortions were not rare occurrences—Booth began to realize that they were a common need and their illegality was life-threatening. Moreover, they left women vulnerable to incompetent practitioners who would often prey on them sexually, financially, and, in some cases, fatally. Booth organized a group of women to take over the work she had begun; they started answering the calls and referring women to abortionists they knew to have a good track record.
In cutting out the illegal abortionists they had previously relied on, the Janes were able to lower the price of abortions to just $100. However, not wanting to replicate the imbalance of capitalism within their collective, they never turned away women who could pay nothing at all: "We figured if we averaged $50, we could make our expenses," Galatzer-Levy says. Financial contributions were seen as another way in which women could become active participants in the choice they were making, as any payment made aided other women to access their reproductive rights. Recognizing that America runs on women's unpaid labor, and with a constantly increasing number of phone calls, Jane decided to pay their own members, as well—their work was valuable.Given the relatively low cost of a Jane abortion, the group's waiting rooms became a rare point of diversity in the otherwise white, middle-class landscape of women's liberation. This is perhaps unsurprising, since, as Galatzer-Levy puts it, "any woman can become pregnant who doesn't really want to be." And, while Jane's membership largely reflected the whiteness of consciousness raising groups and union activists, they constantly tried to diversify in order to better cater to the wide demographic coming to them. Poor African-American and Latina women's reproductive rights were especially endangered during that time period, as they faced the added threat of routine forced sterilization.
Any woman can become pregnant who doesn't really want to be.
In her paper "African-American Women and Abortion" Loretta J. Ross elaborates how Black women were divested of their reproductive control on more fronts than their white counterparts: "White conservatives saw family planning as an assault on traditional values of motherhood, while some Blacks saw it as a race- and class-directed eugenics program. That such disparate forces aligned themselves against African-American women demonstrated that both white bigots and Black sexists could find common cause in the assertion of male authority over women's decisions regarding reproduction." The legacy of such pressure still informs how Black women are targeted by anti-abortion groups today.There were only a few women of color in Jane's membership at any one time, and Lois Smith was one; in interview with Ross, she remembers: "…we could never develop a critical mass. […] But we didn't look on it as a Black or white women's issue; women needed termination of pregnancies, and there was a unity created by women who were desperate." The sentiment is echoed by Galatzer-Levy: "Everybody was a woman and that gave us a hell of a lot of common ground! It was certainly a basic tenet of the women I worked with in Jane that there was just an enormous respect for everyone."The group's homogeneity, though undesired, may have in fact contributed to their success. In her sociological study of Jane, Pauline Bart concluded that the group's similarities were "a blessing in disguise since it provided social cohesion." She also observes that Jane's dedication to the work came above all else, however fraught their internal relationships became. Sharing political and philosophical beliefs was unimportant as well: "We didn't feel like there was any ideological purity test that had to be passed; it was a very practical-oriented thing," Galatzer-Levy says. "We always felt that if we sat down and hashed out why we had chosen to do this, we would probably fall apart!"
Both Arcana and Galatzer-Levy cite, as an example of this "good stuff," the work of Dutch doctor and activist Rebecca Gomperts. She has started two separate organizations, Women on Web and Women on Waves, both of which help women access medication abortion in countries in which it's illegal. To Arcana and Galatzer-Levy, this suggests that providing "unlawful" abortions can, in some ways, be easier now: "It doesn't require your presence in the room… But of course it's very limited to very early term abortions and then past that, I don't know."Although abortion is now a constitutional right in the United States, the culture surrounding abortion has changed indelibly in the forty years since Roe v. Wade—a ruling that "was not exactly a bargain to begin with," as Arcana puts it. "A lot of people do not realize that Roe was not actually about women being able to determine what they needed or wanted to do; it was about doctors being able to make the decision," Arcana observes. While what Jane did in the seventies was both illegal and clandestine, their work was tolerated—appreciated, even—by the society in which they operated; it was not uncommon, for example, for police officers' wives or mistresses to seek help from the service.
In many states it's as difficult now to get an abortion as it was before Roe v. Wade.