The following is an excerpt from Karen Blumenthal’s forthcoming book, “Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights.” The book, out Feb. 25 from Roaring Brook Press, looks at the history of the fight for reproductive rights in the United States.
Martha Scott and Jeanne Galatzer-Levy didn’t set out to become illegal abortion providers.
They were just women who thought other women should have control over whether and when they had a child.
That was a revolutionary idea. For much of the world’s history, girls and women had little access to reliable birth control and few safe or legal choices to address an unintended pregnancy. It was almost as true in the United States in the 1960s as it was in ancient Greece and Rome.
Until 1965, almost half the states still had laws on their books restricting the sale of birth control, and for some years after that, many doctors flat-out refused to provide it to unmarried females because they didn’t believe they should have sex. In addition, for much of the twentieth century, abortion, or intentionally terminating a pregnancy, was illegal in every state unless the life of the woman was in danger. Despite that, hundreds of thousands of women — perhaps as many as a million a year — sought the illegal procedure.
In the 1960s, that began to change. Lawyers began to question why women who were victims of rape or incest, or who faced serious health issues, were forced to either continue a pregnancy or endure an illegal abortion. Doctors were troubled by the increasing number of women who arrived at emergency rooms injured by or dying from backroom abortions. Attitudes about premarital sex shifted at the same time that women began to demand rights that had been denied to them. In a gathering wave, women and men, ministers and rabbis, society ladies and feminists began to insist that women be able to control whether and when they bear children.
It was an uphill battle. Medical schools had drummed into generations of doctors that abortion was both illegal and wrong, except in very specific circumstances. The powerful Catholic Church was firm in its opposition to both medical birth control and abortion, even if a woman was raped or her long-term health might suffer from a pregnancy. For everyone involved, this was a deeply personal and moral issue with little middle ground.
In the early 1970s, Scott and Galatzer-Levy (then Galatzer) joined a group of Chicago women who supported women’s reproductive rights and went further than most.
Initially, the group had referred pregnant callers to reliable, though illegal, abortion doctors. But the cost was high — at least $500 a procedure, or $3,600 or more in today’s dollars — and some of the providers were rude or abusive to their patients.
For a time, the group hired its own abortion provider. But he wasn’t a medical doctor, and after some months, he wanted to relocate. Rather than find a replacement, he began to teach a handful of the women volunteers, including Scott, how to perform safe abortions themselves. By modern standards, that was a shocking choice. But it also hearkened back to the thousands of years that women quietly and often secretly helped each other with contraception and abortion.
Pregnant women seeking an abortion in the Chicago area learned about the service from small advertisements, doctors, and friends, who suggested they “call Jane.” One group member would return the messages and others would help women through the process.
Officially, the Chicago women called themselves the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, or “the service” for short. But everyone else called them “Jane.”
For women like Sunny Chapman, who was nineteen, pregnant, and terrified, Jane was a lifesaver. “I would rather die than have a baby,” she said years later. Panicked, she had tried to end the pregnancy by jumping off a friend’s garage roof and taking scalding baths. She made herself sick with quinine but didn’t miscarry.
She was referred to an abortion provider, but his $600 fee was “a fortune — beyond belief,” equal to more than seven months of rent. “I couldn’t imagine getting that much money together,” she said. Finally, Jane was able to help her for what she could afford.
Some volunteers, like Galatzer-Levy, learned to be assistants, prepping women for their abortions.
On appointment day, pregnant women, their friends, their partners, and sometimes their kids would go to an apartment called “the Front” to wait. A Jane driver would pick up the women and take them to another apartment, “the Place,” where the abortions were performed. With Jane members doing the work, the price fell to $100, or about $650 today. But Jane accepted whatever the women could afford to pay.
The calls increased. Married women, single women, teens, and mothers wanted help. Jane members were performing up to thirty abortions a day, three days a week. Thousands of women came through the service.
Then, on May 3, 1972, Chicago homicide detectives knocked on the door.
The police questioned those at the Front and the Place. They seized Jane’s equipment. Everyone in both apartments, children included, was rounded up.
In one wagon heading to the police station, three Jane members ripped the day’s schedule into tiny pieces. In another, one of the Jane workers pulled about thirty index cards from her purse.
She and other Jane members quietly tore off the corners with their clients’ names and contact details. Then, they ate the scraps to protect their clients’ privacy.
Seven Jane women, from Galatzer-Levy, a twenty-one-year-old former student, to Scott, a thirty-year-old mother of four, were arrested and charged with serious crimes. They each faced the possibility of many years in prison.
But there was a small glimmer of hope. A lawsuit called Roe v. Wade, which challenged the Texas law prohibiting abortion, was pending before the all-male U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s ruling — which would become perhaps the most famous legal decision in American history — would determine their fate and that of millions of women across America.
How the Jane abortion service got its start
By the time Roe v. Wade was filed in Dallas in 1970, the women running the Jane abortion service in Chicago were arranging about two dozen abortions a week.
The Jane service had started with Heather Booth’s personal referrals from her University of Chicago dorm room in the mid-1960s. But after Booth married and then had her first child in 1968, she recruited other women to continue her work.
Two leaders emerged. Ruth Surgal was a social worker who had been active in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Jody Howard Parsons had a frustrating personal experience. She was diagnosed with a cancer called Hodgkin’s lymphoma in her twenties, while she was pregnant with her second child. She waited until after the child was born to start extensive radiation and chemotherapy treatment. She also begged her doctor to tie her tubes. He initially refused, prescribing varying strengths of birth control pills.
When she became distraught over the possibility of becoming pregnant again, he agreed to her request to be sterilized. But during the procedure, he discovered she was eight weeks pregnant. Despite her cancer, a hospital committee turned down her request for an abortion, saying her life wasn’t in imminent danger. She had to threaten suicide to two psychiatrists to finally get a legal abortion. The experience angered and embittered her, and drove her to help other women who wanted an abortion.
The new leaders quickly ran into challenges. Their short list of local abortion doctors charged $500 and up, way more than many women could afford. Some of them had dubious practices. One was often drunk and demanded sexual favors from women. Another charged white women twice the price he charged black women. Yet another sent an associate to meet the patient, blindfolding her so she wouldn’t know where she was going. Eventually, the two women convinced a few providers to do some free or reduced-price abortions in exchange for a steady stream of clients who paid full price.
Women needing abortions would call a hotline and leave a message. A volunteer known as “call-back Jane” would phone them back to get basic information, recording on an index card their age and how far along their pregnancy was.
Then, “Big Jane” would assign the woman to a volunteer counselor, who would meet with the client to explain the risks, the cramping and pain she might feel, and whether an abortion was really what she wanted.
Jane members also shared copies of a radical new guide to women’s health, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Created by a small group of women in Boston, calling themselves the Boston Women’s Health Collective, the guide was often the first time women learned about female anatomy, menstruation, masturbation, birth control, and abortion.
By 1970, Parsons and Surgal were mostly working with one abortion provider, Mike, who was doing up to fifteen abortions a day on Fridays and Saturdays. By promising Mike regular business, Jane’s leaders were able to gradually reduce the price for abortions in the first ten weeks or so of pregnancy to $350, with some free procedures included.
Jane members bought their equipment at medical supply stores. A friendly pharmacist provided them with numbing medicine, antibiotics, and a drug called Ergotrate to reduce bleeding.
Initially, Mike worked in clients’ homes or motel rooms. But after an angry husband chased him through a motel lobby shouting “baby killer,” Jane members offered their apartments instead.
That allowed volunteers who were willing to be present to help prepare instruments and hold the hands of patients.
Jane’s business changed dramatically when abortion became legal in New York State on July 1, 1970, just two weeks after the Dallas ruling in Roe v. Wade. Within months, anyone who could cobble together about $400 (or about $2,600 today) could fly to New York and pay for a legal abortion. Before long, New York was inundated with pregnant women seeking procedures. More than one hundred thousand abortions were performed there in the first nine months after the law was repealed, about half of those on women who came from out of state.
Over the next few months, Jane’s clients changed from many who could afford to pay to mostly poor and mostly African American women who couldn’t get to New York. To serve them, the group pressured Mike to reduce the price further.