“I can’t describe how scary it was.”

OG History is a Teen Vogue series where we unearth history not told through a white, cisheteropatriarchal lens.

In the 1950s and 1960s, major city hospitals in the United States admitted as many as 20 to 30 women a day for complications from illegal or self-induced abortions. Wealthy women could potentially fly to a country where abortion was legal, but poor and young women were faced with unimaginable fear, desperation, and judgment. Doctors would tell young women things like “You tramps like to break the rules, but when you get caught you all come crawling for help in the same way.” If a woman was able to find an abortion provider, the abortion was likely to be expensive, unsterile, and sometimes even done with the patient blindfolded.

The reality of life before the legalization of abortion is what makes the story of Jane so legendary. Jane was a group of extraordinary women who, as member Judith Arcana states, were “afforded the ability to do righteous work in the world and have that work be useful.” From 1968 to 1973 they helped a estimated 11,000 women receive safe abortions back when the procedure was illegal and often deadly, with the death rate for women of color receiving abortions significantly higher than that of white women.

“Jane” started with 19-year-old Heather Booth and a University of Chicago dorm phone. In 1965, Heather had helped a friend’s sister find a safe doctor to perform an abortion. Like with a viral word-of-mouth tweet, word spread that Heather was someone who knew an abortion doctor, and a few weeks later, someone else asked her for help. “I was living in a dormitory,” Heather explained in the documentary Jane: An Abortion Service, “so I told people to call and ask for Jane.”

Teen Vogue spoke to a woman who experienced a life-threatening pregnancy when abortion was illegal. We will call her Ann to preserve her anonymity. “I was 19 years old,” Ann says, “and completely desperate. It’s hard for people to image how horrible it was then and how desperate we were.” She explained the complications of her pregnancy, and the lack of access to appropriate, life-saving medical care. “The placenta was probably detached from my uterus; I just kept bleeding and bleeding. I would go to the emergency room, where every time they’d pack me with lamb’s wool and put me in the abortion ward. They should have given me an abortion to save my life, but they wouldn’t. Then one day I saw in the student newspaper a newspaper: ‘Pregnant, need help? Call Jane.'”

“If it hadn’t been for Jane, I would have died,” she says.

By 1968, Heather was receiving so many phone calls she realized that organization was needed, so she formed a group. In the early years of Jane, the women counseled, raised funds, screened underground abortion providers, and helped procure abortions for women who needed them in Chicago. The abortions were safe, but not always ideal.

“It was terrifying,” Ann says. “I had to stand on a corner, wearing a red sweater so they’d know who I was. It takes a huge leap of faith to trust that you can get a medical procedure outside a medical office. I can’t describe how scary it was. A Jane picked me up in a car and blindfolded me. I was taken to what seemed like a motel room. The doctor made fun of me. There was no anesthetic; it really hurt. I remained blindfolded for the whole abortion.”

In 1971, the Janes learned to do the abortions themselves. They were able to lower costs, and provide compassionate care for the women who saw them. It is estimated that they helped more than 11,000 women get abortions.

The verdict of Roe v. Wade was handed down by the Supreme Court in January 22, 1973, and with the legalization of abortion, Jane folded, despite fears that the ruling did not sufficiently place women’s health in the hands of women themselves. Some members of Jane went on to open Feminist Women’s Health Clinics. Other above-ground services were organized over the years, like the National Network of Abortion Funds founded in 1993, and women-of-color-led organizations that focused on reproductive rights; racial justice; cultural, and community, survival; and a whole-life approach to reproductive freedom, as detailed in the 2004 book, Undivided Rights. These national groups include the Black Women’s Health Imperativefounded in 1983, the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center founded in 1988, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health founded in 1994.

Despite legalization of abortion, and the end of Jane, underground abortions remained. Teen Vogue spoke to a woman we will call Carley about her involvement from 2000 to 2004 in a women’s health collective that learned to perform menstrual extractions.

“I was in a small women’s health group that started as a group of five friends opening up to each other about abortions we’d had. None of us had ever really talked about our experiences. I had read about menstrual extraction — a home health care technique used to empty the uterus of a late period. It used basically a canning jar, a tight rubber lid, a brake bleeder kit, and a particular kind of cannula [a sterile, stiff but flexible plastic tube with holes on either side],” she says.

“We wanted to learn to do it, but didn’t know how we ever would, so we mostly studied, gave workshops on consent, wrote zines about women’s health. We connected with other groups across the country doing similar work, and then someone met a midwife who had been doing menstrual extraction since 1965. She taught us the basics in one day. We met another group of young women who had been doing menstrual extraction on the West Coast of the U.S. from 1994 to 1998, and they added another day of training and gave us some supplies. We practiced on ourselves, and then started providing very early-term abortions to friends.”

From 2000 to 2004, the cost of abortions rose due to TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws which forced abortion clinics to modify their buildings to comply with hospital structural standards (like really wide corridors) rather than outpatient standards, despite the fact that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures in the country. In Carley’s town, the doctor who performed abortions twice a week at the clinic volunteered all her time, but the cost was still prohibitively expensive. Carley’s group performed 12 abortions to friends who were able to undergo the procedure their own home, with their partner as a support if they chose. “We encouraged the women to find their own way to honor the pregnancy loss,” Carley says. “I think this is one of the benefits of having an abortion with a group of friends rather than at the doctor’s. Most women we worked with, even if they were very certain of their choice, had a lot of feelings accompanying the decision — and we provided space to be present with those feelings.”

Currently, a new underground and above-ground initiative is emerging: Plan C. The Plan C campaign is dedicated to making mifepristone and misoprostol available to women. These are the drugs in medication abortion that U.S. law requires a doctor to prescribe despite the fact that women in Mexico are able to purchase them over the counter. According to plancpill.org, the initiative is guided by the belief in a world “in which the ability to end an early pregnancy is in the hands of the person who needs it most.” By turning the tables on abortion being a choice between a woman and her doctor, and demanding instead that women have a right to make their own bodily decisions, the Plan C movement joins Jane in the belief that some laws are unjust and need to be confronted and resisted. In the 1960s, other people outside the Women’s Liberation Movement, which Jane was a part of, were trying to change abortion laws. Legal scholars, the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws were working within the system to challenge the constitutionality of antiabortion laws. It wasn’t, however, until the Women’s Liberation Movement began demanding that women be heard, marching, demonstrating, disrupting legislative hearings, and performing abortions themselves, that abortion rights gains were made.

There is no single way to fight for rights to abortion and reproductive freedom — activists rely on a diversity of tactics. Direct support, like volunteering as a clinic escort or defender, or organizing with the clinic to develop an abortion doula service are two possibilities. Following in the footsteps of Women’s Liberation, people could form a face-to-face group of friends and like-minded people to engage in deep learning and conversation; films like The Abortion DiariesI Had an Abortion, and Jane: An Abortion Service are good conversation starters, as is the upcoming book Comics for Choice.

When we asked Ann what she had to say to today’s youth about Jane and the current state of abortion, she stressed that it was essential that we don’t go back to the way things were — and that we can’t, because today’s political climate is even worse in many ways than it was pre–Roe v. Wade. Jane was Chicago’s best-kept open secret. Today’s climate is in many ways more hostile. Already in 2017, 168 antiabortion bills have been introduced to state and federal legislators, including Oklahoma House Bill 1441, which would force a woman who wants an abortion to get the consent of the person who impregnated her. Violence and threats of violence against abortion providers are not uncommon.

How far to the right does the pendulum need to swing? Will it take the reversal of Roe v. Wadeand hundreds of women dying from illegal abortions for enough people to mobilize, strategize, and fight for our rights to abortion and reproductive freedom? While some may choose to work underground, and push the movement forward by reclaiming our own ability to perform abortions or demanding over-the-counter access to medical abortion, it is important that we all stay informed and join with national and independent abortion providers and activists. It is a historic moment, with more support for abortion rights than ever, but still lacking the kind of multi-tactical mass movement we need to swing the pendulum back in the direction of autonomy. Join the fight in whatever way you can.

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