The Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (1968-1973) is usually called JANE now, and all of us who worked in that pre-Roe underground are also called Janes.

Though Bob Dylan is an unlikely ally, his line "... to live outside the law, you must be honest ...." always reminds me of the underground abortion work we did.  It makes me think about what law is, and what honesty is ---- and the difference between law and justice.

The work of the Service has appeared often in my writing, teaching, and performance over the years. Being a Jane has been big education, and I’m grateful; it's been so valuable I want to pass it on.  First I created a tiny, pocket-size chapbook, written in many voices — some are echoes, some inventions; it’s called SHE SAID. Then I wrote a collection of poems called What if your mother, a book deeply informed by Jane-consciousness.

More recently, I've written fiction that's rooted in that history; several stories have been published in journals: there are two in Serving House Journal (“Knocking” and “Answering the Question”). Two others are also online - "Hello. This is Jane." is in the Turkish magazine THE HUMAN and "Denah and the Strawberry, Talking" is in The Literary Nest.  One's been published as a zine, and another as a chapbook (it won a prose fiction prize). Two more are in the seriously funky/seriously serious zine Chasing the Night (#3/Fall 2016, and #4/December 2018). Now it’s looking like there’s going to be a book with all the stories in it.  We'll see.   

Check out The Abortion Diary (conversation was pretty wide-ranging, including my own abortion, and Melissa Madera did a great editing job).  Another good use of interviews + research is by journalist Rachel Wilson. Not only did Rachel interview some Janes to write an article, she collaborated with cartoonist Ally Shwed to make it into a comic that's now in COMICS FOR CHOICE.  Another useful, thoughtful writer is Jacklynn Blanchard, who did a long interview with actor/producer Cait Cortelyou and me about the value of underground history in 21st century USA; one section of our long 3-way conversation is at BITCH Media.  In 2018, an interview by Rebecca Jacobson was part of the "Oregon Women" issue of Portland Monthly, and a 3-Jane podcast was created by Hannah Thi Minh Nguyen, who contributed her work to Stanford University's Survival Project.  In the first half of 2019, no doubt because of the rapidly increasing terribleness around motherhoood and abortion decisions in the USA, there were many interviews and articles about JANE. The excellent women of Call Your Girlfriend put their abortion-related interviews on this site; and there’s a transcription of a phone interview done by Anna North at this one.

Here's a short essay about abortion + a couple blogs at WORDS OF CHOICE (the website/theater created and maintained by Cindy Cooper, whose work for abortion access and reproductive justice is way-more-than-exceptionally valuable): see 2-3-08 and 3-31-08.  More than a dozen years later, neither essay is out of date, though I wish they were. 

Here's something I think about often:   We need to pay attention to how this country’s changed attitudes and laws have become profoundly dangerous for women, girls — and trans people with uteruses — along with abortion providers.  We need to think about the safety and security of those who uphold abortion rights and work to provide abortion access, now, when abortion is practically illegal and certainly inaccessible in much of the USA, and when the right-wing-dominated Supreme Court overturns the 1973 Roe decision. 

Those who decide to go underground to provide abortion services and related healthcare in the current emotional and political climate surrounding female sexuality and child-bearing choices (a climate promoting ignorance, shaming, violence) must set aside nostalgia and maybe even idealism if they look to the pre-Roe Chicago model. 

Useful as that model is, and effective as it was, now everyone has to think about this:  The work of the abortion service called JANE was an open secret in Chicago – much like other, related, resources during the illegal years (eg, Ruth Barnett’s clinic in Portland, Oregon). Police officers brought wives, daughters and lovers to JANE. Medical students, nurses, doctors and clergy sent women and girls to JANE. College students in the Great Lakes region posted notes on campus bulletin boards with JANE’s phone number. Janes rarely experienced deep fear for the safety, health or freedom of the people we worked with, or for ourselves. We did not experience the vicious harassment and violence (including assassination/murder) that clinic staff routinely deal with now, in the context of a national consciousness that's been deliberately created over nearly five decades by the powerful anti-abortion movement.

Given this change – along with extensive technological advances in surveillance and tracking methods – models and methods must go beyond JANE. No one can do the necessary organizing online; we know more than enough about how vulnerable our online presence is. Resources and information are available online, however; checking their origins and veracity will be crucial. Other useful history includes the Underground Railroad and related action during the pre-Civil War anti-slavery movement, the Warsaw Ghetto and European partisans during WWII, some of the strategies of the US Civil Rights movement, and resistance/communication systems devised by people in prisons, concentration camps, and countries under military rule. As characters in my JANE stories sometimes say, it’s different now.

 

We want better reasons for having children than not knowing how to prevent them.
— Dora Russell

We all that know popular culture, certainly including movies, is both a cause and an effect of our thinking and behavior.  From the middle of the 20th century until quite recently, only a handful of good fiction films that focused thoughtfully and usefully on abortion were shown in the USA: The Cider House RulesCitizen RuthVera Drake (from the UK), If These Walls Could Talk I, and Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (from Romania). Then, in 2014, we got the smart, funny Obvious Child, and in 2015, Lily Tomlin's Grandma played all over the USA while Dangerous Remedy popped up on YouTube (that one's Australian; they put it on national tv - dare we hope for such enlightenment in the USA?).  Those movies, and whatever else might come from abortion-positive filmmakers, might help balance anti-abortion US films about pregnancy. Here’s a list of some others (and a few related resources) that include the complexity of motherhood decisions, even if only briefly - take a look.

I'd been imagining films that're actually about the abortion service - Janes in the movies - and despite the US film industry's history of cowardice, it's looking like that might actually be happening. ASK FOR JANE, a feature-length indie fiction film based on the abortion service, has been playing at film festivals since 2018, and opened at theaters in May of 2019 (here’s an audio interview with the producer/star, Cait Cortelyou, the executive producer, Caroline Hirsch, and me, acting as a consultant). Two other feature length fiction films may be in the works, as is, I’ve heard, a fiction short — and there’s a feature-length documentary coming up as well.

It goes without saying – though you’ll notice I’m saying it – that you should read, too. You could start with these five books (luckily, there are lots more, some no doubt being written as I type); they’re available in libraries and bookstores, and online.

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty
— Dorothy Roberts
Doctors of Conscience: The Struggle to Provide Abortion Before and After Roe v. Wade
— Carole Joffe
Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice
— Willie Parker
The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law
— Rickie Solinger
Handbook For A Post-Roe America
— Robin Marty


Additional JANE Resources

  • “The Greatest Abortion Story Ever Told,” article (probably with byline “Jane”) in Hyde Park Voices, ca. 1970

  • “Abortion: A Decade of Debate,” op-ed by Judith Arcana in the Chicago Sun-Times, January 23, 1983

  • Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, cwluherstory.org

  • The Story of Jane, book by Laura Kaplan, various editions

  • Jane: An Abortion Service, 1995, 58 minute video documentary by Nell Lundy and Kate Kirtz available from Women Make Movies

  • Jane: Abortion and the Underground, play by Paula Kamen, 1999, info at paulakamen.com

  • Words of Choice, theater created by Cindy Cooper, at www.wordsofchoice.org

  • Jane: Documents from Chicago’s clandestine abortion service, 1968-1973; various authors in a zine first published by Firestarter Press in 2004; the most recent edition is being printed/published by Eberhardt Press/Radix Media

  • What if your mother, book (poems and monologues) by Judith Arcana, Chicory Blue Press 2005

  • Keesha and Joanie and JANE, fiction zine by Judith Arcana, Eberhardt Press 2013

  • Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture, fiction chapbook by Judith Arcana, Minerva Rising Press (Prose Fiction Prize Winner) 2015

  • “Abortion Is A Motherhood Issue” (revised), essay by Judith Arcana in Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives (4th edition); McGraw-Hill, 2006; ed. by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey [early version in Mother Journeys, ed. Reddy, Roth and Sheldon]

  • Listen to an hour-long show about the abortion service, done by the CircleARadio collective on KBOO,
    Portland's independent community radio station.