In 1968 a group of women in the Chicago area came together with one purpose in mind: provide a particular aspect of healthcare that was not easily accessible or socially approved. Yes, we’re talking about abortion, but we’re not referring to abortion in the same light as we see it today. Known as the Jane Collective, this community saw themselves as the only available allies of women who had nowhere else to turn to for support or understanding.
A lot has changed since the collective disbanded shortly after the Roe V Wade decision resulted in the legalization of abortion. Yet, there seems to be something in the air, since there are currently three film projects being made about this group. One is an independent film set to be released in 2018. Amazon studios is also in the process of bringing to life a story based on the book by Laura Kaplan, who was a member of Jane. And now there’s news that in 2018 production will begin for a big Hollywood feature starring Elisabeth Moss from The Handmaid’s Tale.
But who were the women behind Jane? And why is their story so crucial in our current landscape, where most of us have access to birth control? Well, as previously said, Jane was born in Chicago, from a word-of-mouth community of women who would help procure underground abortions for other women. Back then, it wasn’t just expensive to find a physician who’d do the procedure, it also implied getting on the wrong side of the law, as well as several other risks. In her book, The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service, Laura Kaplan expands on the different obstacles faced by women who required a pregnancy termination.
“Illegal abortionists charged exorbitant rates, demanded sexual favors in return, degraded, injured and even killed women. It was an outrage that a woman who did not want to have a child was economically, psychically, and emotionally exploited and forced to risk her life.”
Still from Ask for Jane (2018)
We might hear the story of Jane with our contemporary context. Yet, one thing most of us don’t consider is the fact that several of the women who required these services were either married, had more children, or actually knew they would not be able to survive a pregnancy for medical reasons. While currently even in the most restrictive of laws, the ability for a woman to get an abortion if her life is at risk is available and legal, back then even with sufficient medical proof, there was a chance that her request would still be denied. Women had to defend their case to a board of doctors, made up of men, and still be faced with the likely possibility that they would be told that there was not enough evidence to prove they couldn’t carry to term.
There’s also another factor we haven’t taken into consideration. Until 1972, unmarried people in the United States had no access to contraception. Any woman who only had access to public forms of healthcare had to prove her marital status in order to acquire the earliest forms of birth control. Those who were able to pay for a private medical care could hope they had an understanding physician who would give them the prescription, otherwise they were on their own.
Because of these and several other factors, such as the fact that minority women where twice as likely to die due to botched abortions or complications, in 1967 several women created what would be called the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. Many of these women would be found through word-of-mouth as people who could help someone in need get to a doctor who’d perform the procedure. Eventually the collective, made up of mostly homemakers and students, became more organized and had an entire underground network of doctors, counselors, and volunteers.
According to Rainey Horwitz from Arizona State University’s Embryo Project,
“While some had formal medical training, members discovered that many of them were not professionally trained in medicine and because of that, activist members of the Jane Collective began educating themselves on how to perform abortions.”
It’s estimated that the collective carried out somewhere between 11 and 12 thousand abortions between 1968 and 1973. In fact, that final year one of the locations was raided and several members arrested. Lucky for them the ruling that legalized abortion came during that year while they were out on bail.
The pamphlets handed out by Jane included both their core beliefs and mission as an organization. There are a few points that I find extremely relevant to this day when supposedly most women have some sort of contraception available to them. One being:
“Only a woman who is pregnant can determine whether she has enough resources — economic, physical and emotional — at a given time to bear and rear a child.”
There is still an overall failure when it comes to being compassionate and understanding towards someone who is experienced an unplanned pregnancy. Instead of focusing on what they did wrong or what they should’ve done to prevent the situation, there should be a care and focus to integrative sexual health education as well as healthcare programs that cover all sectors of the population.
Yet, it’s 2017 and we are facing several situations where insurance companies will no longer cover birth control or pregnancy termination. Women are being questioned again regarding their reasoning or motives for their need of sexual healthcare. “They should’ve known better.” “They should’ve taken precautions.” “They should face the consequences of their actions.” These are just some of the many things that women are told when they’re facing one of the hardest decisions they’ll ever make. While the current landscape looks dire, we can never forget how, when things were a lot worse back in the late sixties, a group of women came together to help other women. So, there’s three movies about the collective coming out. Perhaps each one will be about a different aspect or client of the collective. Maybe we can all learn something from this community of solidarity and support.
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