Episode 70: Jane: Abortion Before Roe
[Theme music plays]
Nahanni: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. And where a strong, thoughtful, and diverse community of Jewish women—and their friends—find a home. If you enjoy being part of this podcast community, before we start this last episode of our fall season, we have two asks of you. Here's the first: please help us by sharing Can We Talk? with five new people. Send them links to your favorite episodes and encourage them to subscribe. If they like it, they can binge all 70 of our previous episodes. And second, please consider making a donation to the Jewish Women's Archive at jwa.org/donate. Your gift will help us continue to document and share stories of remarkable Jewish women. Now, on to the show.
TAPE: We will hear argument this morning in case 191392, Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization. General Stewart? Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court. Roe vs. Wade and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey haunt our country. They have no basis in the Constitution, they have no home in our history or traditions… (fade)
Nahanni: In Dobbs v Jackson, a case currently before the United States Supreme Court, a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion is on the line. If the court rules in Mississippi’s favor, that would effectively reverse the 1973 Roe v Wade decision, and leave abortion laws up to individual states, many of which are already chipping away at legal access to the procedure.
In this episode of Can We Talk?, we return to a time before Roe v Wade, when abortion was illegal. Underground networks of women, doctors, and clergy members around the country tried to fill the gap. In Chicago, one group of women saw the need and literally took matters into their own hands.
Jeanne: People were very upset. They'd say, you know, I have three children, I can't have another one, my husband is out of work. Or, I'm only 16 years old, I can't tell my mom, I don't know what I'm going to do. And it was often quite heartrending.
Nahanni: Jeanne Galatzer-Levy was a member of The Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. The group was better known as Jane. It all started when long-time activist Heather Booth was a student at University of Chicago. Heather had already been active in the civil rights movement for several years, and she got involved in reproductive rights almost by accident. In 1964, Heather volunteered in Mississippi, registering Black voters with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Summer project.
Heather: When I got back to my campus, a friend told me that his sister was pregnant and just not prepared to have a child was nearly suicidal. And could I do anything to help? And I hadn't really thought about the issue of abortion before. It was a much more innocent time and I was a somewhat innocent person. And I went to the Medical Committee for Human Rights as the one place I could imagine going to, to find a doctor to perform the procedure.
Nahanni: Doctors from the medical arm of the civil rights movement were used to caring for activists who were injured by police during demonstrations. But Heather was looking for medical care that was politicized on another front—a woman’s right to control her own body.
Heather: And I found someone, a remarkable doctor, T.R.M. Howard. He had been a bold civil rights leader in Mississippi and came to Chicago when his name appeared on a Klan death list.
We never met, but we talked by phone, and he agreed to do the procedure for my friend's sister. And that was successful. And I didn't really think much about it again until someone else called and word had spread and I made the arrangement again. And then someone else called and I decided I'd set up a system.
Nahanni: The system worked like this: Women would call Heather, usually terrified. She quickly realized that the best way to reassure them was to meet face to face, for what she called “counseling sessions.” She would explain to each woman what to expect from the procedure, how to take care of herself afterwards, and how to pay the abortionist. Heather negotiated the fee with the doctor.
Heather: Originally it was $500. We brought it down to 300, then 250. Then finally, he agreed to routinely do two for the price of one, and then even brought the price down if someone really didn't have the funding. Although he obviously wanted to make a good living, he also was in this because he cared and he saw it as a moral mission. And he saw it, probably, as an extension of the fight for civil rights.
And the procedures continued, and the number of people coming through continued, until there were so many, I couldn't really manage it on my own. I was in grad school. I also was working full time, and I was expecting at that point, and this is 1968. And I realized I needed to turn this over to other people.
[Soft music plays]
Jeanne: My name is Jeanne Galatzer-Levy. I was a member of the collective, um, the Abortion Counseling Service, which people know as Jane, for about two years.
Judith: My name is Judith Arcana and I am a Jane. And I joined the underground abortion service that is now called Jane in the fall of 1970.
Jeanne: I was looking for a way to be involved in politics. The feminist movement was a revelation to me. It really changed my life. It gave me a narrative that made my life make so much more sense. I mean, this was before Title IX. There were no athletics for women. There were all of these restrictions and limits on women, um, that were just part of the atmosphere. So feminism just made so much sense to me and I really wanted to be involved in…something.
Judith: I joined at the invitation of a woman who was a Jane already, whom I met, so to speak, on the phone in the summer of 1970, because I thought at that time that I needed an abortion. And she said, you should really have a pregnancy test. I did discover that though I was…I think of it as the latest period ever, I was not in fact pregnant that time. And so I called her back to say, hey, thanks very much for all of the information, the talk, I'm okay, don't need one, thank you. And she said, you know, we're going to be taking new people in the fall and I think that you might really be interested. And I thought, really? And then I thought, yeah, actually, I am interested.
Jeanne: A friend of mine said that she was working with a group that was organized around helping people get abortions. And she didn't give me any real details, but she said they were bringing more people into the group, and would I be interested in joining? And I was. So I went to the meeting. And we were told, you know, how this thing worked and that we would become counselors.
Medicine was so patriarchal. It was so common for doctors to say, well, you know, you don't want to tell the patient ’cause he'll just get upset. Especially women and children. You didn't tell them shit. You could tell the husbands things that you didn't tell them.
There were still doctors, or abortionists, who were blindfolding women. And you were meeting on a corner, and who were hitting on the women when they were doing the abortions. I mean, it was horrible, you know, quite aside from the fact that sometimes they were killing these women.
Nahanni: By contrast, Heather, Jeanne, and Judith say that the male abortionists who worked with Jane were professional and caring. But Jane was about to make another radical move.
Judith: We found out that our main guy, who was just a great abortionist—I mean, just like there are great dentists and great obstetricians and great, uh, neurologists, this guy was a great abortionist, highly skilled, very good to the women that he worked with—um, we found out it wasn't an MD. And so, I remember very clearly a big meeting at which there was much argument. I was on this team, so to speak, in the argument, that said, well, wait a minute. If he can do it, and he's not an MD, we can do it, because we're smart and we now know a lot about this and we just need the training.
So, uh, he did teach us, and then the ones that he taught, taught others. So pretty soon he was gone, and we were it!
[Soft music plays]
Jeanne: What we did, we had an answering machine that was very big and new then, it was reel-to-reel. I mean, it was this monstrous thing that somebody had the room for in their apartment. And that was Jane, that's who you called when you called Jane, that's what you got was this, and it was a recording and it asked you to give your name, a phone number, and the date of your last period.
People were very upset. They'd say, you know, I have three children, I can't have another one, my husband is out of work. Or I'm only 16 years old, I can't tell my mom, I don't know what I'm going to do. And it was often quite heartrending.
You'd go and you'd listen to the tape and you take down all this information. And we did, um, three-by-five cards with each of these things. At a meeting, we would pass around these cards and everybody would take a card. You know, first you'd go through and you'd find the card and it’s this nice 30-year-old woman, she lives near you, you know, and then the one that was the 15- year-old and who, you know, didn't want her mother to know, you know, that one would get passed around several times before somebody said, oh, okay, I'll take this one.
Judith: When we would call them back, that, too, could be fraught. Um, what if she wasn't alone in the room when she got the call? What if we called and she didn't answer, her mother did, or her husband did or her big sister? So it was a very delicate thing, the business of what they said and what we said on the phone.
Jeanne: You know, um, I was on the South Side, so a lot of my counselees were, um, African-American, and I sound white, you know, so often they would think, you know, there'd be this sort of suspicious… “Yeah?”. ’Cause you sound like you're a social worker who's coming in to make trouble. But people were really glad to hear from you once they figured out who you were.
Judith: So we, as the person on the phone who was going to make it possible for them to get this abortion, had to provide comfort, even in that strange exchange with the machine and then the actual telephones.
Jeanne: So it was very important to us that they understand exactly what the procedure was. And we described, you know, the uterus and what we would do exactly step by step, exactly what they could expect.
You know, what we wanted to do was make it as unscary as we could. We had to be, to some extent, anonymous. We were asking them to trust people they didn't know. We were asking them to go to a non-medical setting to do this medical procedure. It was not going to be in a hospital. It was not going to be in a clinic. We had none of those things that both legitimize and are reassuring. So we did… a lot of that was the idea that we could make people feel more comfortable, um, with us because we were being very straight with them.
And then we gave them… one of the women would schedule them, and she would give you a date that they would go and a time. And we would give them an address to go to. And the address was [laughs] “the front.” We had “the front” and “the place,” um, very imaginative names.
Judith: When she got there, she would find a Jane who was serving, like a stewardess, coffee, tea, whatever, you know, and, um, helping people be as comfortable as they could be in an extraordinary illegal situation.
Jeanne: A lot of people brought their children because they had no place else to bring them. So it was a little bit of a circus And often people didn't remember what was going to happen and just were nervous. And you’d sorta go through it again. Or you'd sit with somebody's sister and just, you know, reassure her that everything was going to be okay.
Um, and then the driver would pick up, you know, four or five people, women, and drive them to the place. And on the way, um, she would stop and she would ask for the money. We charged $100. We took anything. And we averaged about $50. We figured if we averaged about $50, we were okay—you know, we covered all of our costs. And we paid ourselves for working days, because we felt too many things in the world were run by women who didn't get paid, and that was wrong.
And people would hand you handfuls of quarters. Or they would say, I don't have anything, and you'd say, okay, and you’d take the money from the next person.
So then they got to the place and then they would sit, you know, it was an apartment. They would sit in the living room and wait. And the assistant would bring you in and she’d explain what was going to happen. And she would put in the speculum, give you the first shots of Lidocaine and start the dilation. And then the abortionists would come in and the assistant would go and usually sit by the woman's head and hold her hand if she wanted to. You got some very, very sore hands because people would squeeze really hard.
Judith: There were different kinds of abortions. The D & C, dilation and curettage, um—dilating the cervix and using a curette to scrape out the inside of the uterus—that was the basic. And then the long-terms, particularly people who were four and five months and some — rarely, but some—who were farther along would have an induced miscarriage, where the pregnancy would literally be interrupted. So you would break the amniotic sac, usually called the water bag, and press all the liquid out.
Jeanne: Once these women realized it was going to happen, or right afterward when it had happened and they weren't pregnant, it was often the first real decision about their lives that they had made. And it was so empowering and you could see them just glow with it. You know, I did this. I just knew I couldn't have a baby and now I'm not going to.
[Soft music plays]
Jeanne: We served everybody. You know, there were white women, Black women, everything, um, in between. And the age went from really 12, I think, was the youngest person, woman, to ever come through the service. And she came with her mother, she’d been raped. And it was horrible. We had a woman who came through when she was 50 and it was like, surprise! No, I can't do this! Are you crazy?!
Nahanni: In the late ’60s and early ’70s, several states passed laws loosening restrictions or even legalizing abortion.
Jeanne: And people with means could go and get an abortion. And so our demographics changed dramatically. Much more Black, and younger. Your 16-year-old cannot get on a plane. She's not going to explain to her mom, she's going to go on a plane and go have an abortion. She's just, you know, she's just trying to do it under the radar.
[Soft music plays]
Jeanne: I had just dropped out of college. I was really lonely and alone and not really connected, um, and this was exactly what I wanted. It was a chance to really connect with people who cared about what I cared about and, um, it was very exciting.
Judith: There were a higher percentage of Jews in the abortion service than in the population at large. At first, I don't think I sort of noticed. But then I got a big kick out of it. You know, I thought, well, look at this, here are these nice Jewish girls, as the saying goes, and what are we doing? Well, we're committing a crime in order to do what we think is good for women and girls. Why did we join an underground criminal abortion outfit? You know, what is that about?
The element of responsibility for the society, of taking on responsibilities beyond the basic—that's part of the deal for Jews. And I grew up knowing that. When I was very young and I thought, well, if I don't believe in God or any more then am I still a Jew? Well, the answer is yes. And the “yes” is about this stuff.
Judith: I did not mind that we were breaking the law because I knew the law was wrong. So, well, yeah…who cares about the law?
Jeanne: I was 20 years old and I did not worry my pretty little head for one moment. It never occurred to me, um, that it was dangerous. And I think it was because I was very young, um, and the young are invulnerable. The moment in my life where I discovered that actions have consequences was when we got busted.
Male voiceover: Chicago News Reader, May 4, 1972
Seven Chicago women were arrested Wednesday on charges of operating an illegal low-cost abortion clinic out of two South Side apartments.
Chicago police learned of the clinic from a woman whose sister reportedly was scheduled to have an abortion there Wednesday and did not want her to undergo the operation.
Investigator Theodore O’Conner of the Burnside Homicide Unit said a fully equipped operating room had been set up in an 11th-floor apartment at 7251 S. Shore Drive.
Police said that when they raided the apartment, they found three patients undergoing abortions and seven in the waiting room.
Jeanne: I was working at the front, and it was a very busy day. And I hear this knocking on the door. So I go to the door and I open it and there are the two tallest police men I've ever seen in my life. They were just enormous. I think it's a requirement in Chicago, if you make the homicide squad, that you'd be 6-foot-9 or something. And I looked at them and I turned around and I walked down the hall in front of them and I said, “These are the police. You do not have to tell them anything.” And they arrested me.
Judith: I was the driver that day. I didn't think I was being followed, but one of our guidelines was to always drive as if we were being followed. And so I was using small streets and turning here and there. I actually got tremendous satisfaction later in court, when I heard the police testifying and saying that they had trouble following me, that they lost me several times. Yes! I was good at that!
Jeanne: They arrested the people at the place. Um, and when they first knocked on the door and it was the police, um, the people who were in the bedrooms finishing the abortions barricaded the door so that they could finish, because otherwise the women would be in jeopardy.
So they finished the abortions. And then the police came in and then they arrested everybody.
Judith: They put me into a van, you know, a classic police van, and put on handcuffs. And then they attached my handcuffs to a hook, you know, inside the van. And it was cold in there. And they drove us to the women’s lockup. And we were separated after we were taken out of the van, and I was still handcuffed, which really hurts, by the way.
So there was this row of cells, two Janes, two Janes, two Janes, and then the seventh Jane, of what the media immediately called “The Abortion Seven,” to this day I don't even know where they stashed her.
Women are screaming, people are banging on the walls, which are metal…a tiny filthy little sink and toilet…
At some point, I guess it was like two, three in the morning, they came and got me and said that there were lawyers waiting to talk to me. And I thought it would be my husband, but he wasn't, he was home with the baby. And, um, it was his law partner and two other guys who I knew. Their plan was that I should go downstairs to the night court judge and they would explain that I was a nursing mother, which was true —in fact, in our cell, I was milking my breasts into that filthy little sink, um, because I had been without a baby for many hours and I was like a cow, I was really full of milk And they said, he'll let you out because you are a nursing mother.
And then they finally took me home and I went into the baby's room and he was fast asleep, just being an adorable sleeping baby.
[Soft music plays]
Jeanne: We were arrested in May, and through the summer, we interviewed attorneys, and we hired a lawyer who was great, Joanne Wolfson. And then we had the preliminary hearing. The state was not in any hurry. Their feeling was, everybody knew it was in the Supreme Court and that a decision was going to come down. So it came down in January, right? So all that fall, we just diddled around, you know, because it's very expensive to do a trial for the state as well as for you, um, and there was no reason to spend that money if the law was going to be vacated. And that's what happened.
TAPE: Good evening. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court today legalized abortions. The majority in cases from Texas and Georgia said that the decision to end a pregnancy during the first three months belongs to the woman and her doctor, not the government. Thus the anti-abortion laws of 46 states were rendered unconstitutional.
Jeanne: And then we had a big party and it was over. You know, we were doing 25 people a day, 4, 5 days a week. We were under enormous pressure. We were working really hard. And all of a sudden, it wasn't our responsibility anymore. Somebody else could do it. And we were really happy to let somebody else do it.
Judith: There were others who said, wait a minute, we do such good work. It's valuable. We feel really good about it. The women who come to us feel really good about it. We should keep doing it. But then the prevailing argument that made the decision was when abortion is legal, then we were practicing medicine without a license, because abortion had become medicine instead of felony homicide. So then even if you weren't charged with doing abortions, you would be charged with practicing medicine without a license.
[Soft music plays]
Nahanni: Today, nearly 50 years since abortion became legal in the United States, it is once again under threat.
Judith: I am, of course, someone who, um, has been expecting Roe to be overturned. I'm surprised it took as long as it's taking. I'll be totally stunned if they don't dump it. This particular Supreme Court is like the dream of the anti-abortion movement
Jeanne: As to whether there will be groups like Jane, there already are several groups who are doing things like making sure that, uh, women can get medical abortions, that these pills become available. This stuff is getting mailed out all over the place. Um, and that's going to be very big.
Judith: Every region will have people who are doing abortions underground. They already are, because even though Roe has not been overturned, there are so many places in this country where you cannot get an abortion.
[Soft music plays]
Jeanne: The most important thing, um, about Jane is that we had agency. You know, that ordinary women—’cause we were not special or medically trained— ordinary women did extraordinary things, and you can, too. People have to pick up the responsibility and do what's right. The story about Jane just proves that you can do really amazing things by simply deciding that it needs to be done and that you will do it.
[Jane song plays]
I woke up one bright morning
about the middle of May.
I had some kids and a good old man,
Things were going my way.
But I looked at my calendar and there I read my fate.
Five pounds here and a bigger brassiere
I was about seven weeks late!
643-3844 is a number you'll adore
The women in the service know what you’re calling for.
They’ll give you an abortion
No matter what the reason for.
And 643-3844 is a number you’ll adore.
Nahanni: From 1968 until abortion became legal in 1973, around 125 women worked for Jane, providing safe abortions to nearly 12,000 women.
Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Jen Richler produced this episode. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. Thanks to Noah Stoffman for voicing the 1972 newspaper clipping, and to my talented cousins Noa Daskal Samlan and Yoni Samlan for recording the Jane Song, which was written by Elizabeth Roberts after the group disbanded.
“Don’t you worry, don’t you fret”,
My friend said to me so plain.
“I’ll give you a telephone number
And you can tell it all to Jane.
A counsellor will call you
Just put your mind at rest
We’d like $100
But we’ll take your best.”
Nahanni: You can learn more about Jane online at the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union HerStory Project. And if you’d like to know more about Jewish women’s involvement in reproductive rights, check out our Online History Course at jwa.org/events.
If you love listening to Can We Talk? and want to make sure that the stories of remarkable Jewish women continue to be documented and shared, please remember the Jewish Women’s Archive when you make your year end donations. Go to jwa.org/donate to make your contributions, and thanks. Also, please share your favorite Can We Talk? episodes with your friends. If they’re never heard the podcast, they have 70 episodes to look forward to…
And this episode concludes our fall season. We'll be back with more in the spring. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time!