The “Janes,” Heather Booth, and Underground Abortions

New Orleans    I’ve known Heather Booth for a long time, probably forty years, as a respected colleague within the allied trades of our work. I first knew her as the director and one of the founders of the Midwest Academy, which was, and still is, a Chicago-based training center for organizers. Later in Washington she managed voter registration and engagement programs and was an excellent partner on our joint efforts, and continued to be a voice and advisor with considered and valued opinions. Prior to meeting her, I admired the fact that she had spent time as an organizer in the South during the civil rights movement.

In many ways I now feel I only knew the half of it as I read a snippet of the oral history of the “Janes” in the recent issue of Harper’s Magazine and Heather’s history in founding this pivotal service for women in the fraught times before the Roe decision made the right-to-choose a foundational principle of our time and legalized women’s access to abortion, which is threatened so acutely now. My admiration for her work now knows no bounds.

The story is straightforward though, despite the courage and conviction it evidenced. Heather tells of being a college student in 1965 at the University of Chicago. A friend’s sister found herself pregnant, desperate, and without options. When her friend asked her for help, she reached out for the Medical Committee for Human Rights who then in turn put her in touch with a Dr. T.RM. Howard, and her sister’s friend’s problem was solved. Next thing she knew “word must have spread.” One called and then another, and Heather realized this was a real situation crying for a solution. She arranged a system with Dr. Howard. She was living in a dormitory and all of this was illegal then, so she would tell people to “ask for Jane.” And, so it continued for another three years until 1968. Heather threw out a rope looking for help when she attended various political meetings asking if any women wanted to help provide counseling for other women, and thereby recruited a team of “new” Janes to take her place.

This went through a number of iterations with various folks handling women looking for help and forced to follow the surreptitious route necessary to receive it successfully. People would donate their homes for the procedures. Women would meet other women off-site, make them comfortable, and bring them into the homes. These were feisty sisters, more formally known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation or Janes, as everyone called them. Doctors would refer people to them and the Janes would call the doctor and say, hey, this is Jane, help us, but few did. Eventually, they were raided in one of the homes and seven were arrested. No one was willing to testify against them. Eventually the Supreme Court decision in 1973 made the matter moot and the Janes shut down, but by that time they had facilitated about 11,000 abortions.

I’m proud of Heather, but there may need to be many more Heathers who are willing to become Janes and fire up this underground railroad to provide this service and meet this life changing need, so this story is one worth learning and learning well.

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