This story was originally published on August 23, 2017.
“The fact is when abortion is illegal, it’s not medicine, it’s not healthcare; it’s felony homicide. That’s what we have to look forward to in the near future.” — Judith Arcana
From day one of the Trump presidency, the right to a safe and legal abortion has been under attack. It no longer seems irrational to believe that there might soon come a time when we will need to learn from the resourcefulness of prior generations that did not have access to legal abortion. Before the passing of Roe v. Wade, it is estimated that as many as 1.2 million illegal abortions were performed every year in the United States. These procedures were often extremely dangerous for the patient, and in addition to risking death or imprisonment to obtain an illegal abortion, it was not uncommon for women to be sexually assaulted by their abortionist.
The Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, which operated in Chicago from 1969 until 1973 and was later nicknamed “Jane” after its code name, is a prime example of the brilliant ingenuity of the past. Over the course of its brief history, the members of Jane performed over 11,000 illegal abortions. The women and girls who visited Jane were given information about the entire abortion process from start to finish and the agency to make their own decisions (sometimes the first adult decision of their lives). The Janes also treated them with kindness and empathy—occasionally holding patients’ hands during the procedures—and some had even been patients themselves.
I reached out to Judith Arcana, a writer and activist who was a member of Jane for two years, and Cait Johnston, a Planned Parenthood advocate and the star/creator of the upcoming film about the Jane Collective, Ask for Jane, to get their insights on the past and future of abortions.
What parallels do you see between the Jane era and now?
Cait Johnston: When abortion isn’t accessible and safe, it doesn’t ever mean that fewer of them happen; it just means that more women are dying from them. Women have used knitting needles, coat hangers, umbrella ribs, bicycle spokes, and poison. These things are still happening. Women are still dying, and that’s the most important reason to make [abortion] legal, safe, and regulated.
Judith Arcana: People believe that, “Hey, Roe hasn’t been overturned. Everything is pretty much okay! There’s just a few bad places.” But, of course, that’s not the case. The case is that more than 90 percent of the counties in this country do not have abortion healthcare available.
Are you confident that Roe v. Wade will be overturned?
Arcana: I don’t know that I would use the word confident. Confident is sort of too positive for what I think. But, I believe that that is going to happen, yes. This is one of the times I sure hope to be wrong. But also, it’s very important to me to make sure that people understand that even though Roe is “on the books” the majority of women and girls in this country do not have access to good abortion health care, right now. And that has been true for years.
How does class continue to play a role in who has abortion access?
Johnston: Money is a factor in terms of being able to travel to another state, having money for childcare, being able to afford to take time off of work to travel, because in some places you have to stay overnight. You’ll go to a clinic, and they’ll have to counsel you, give you an assessment, and make sure that this is really what you want to do. Then you have to [wait] 24 hours, and the next day you can go and, hopefully, get the procedure done. Which means women having to take time off of work, women having to travel, women having to find childcare, and that’s not something that everyone can afford to do.
I read one interview [about abortion accessibility in the ’60s] with a woman who said, “We knew that something had to be going on because all us poor people here would just have families with so many kids. You know, five and six and seven children. But those rich people up on the hill there, they’d only have one or two. Something had to be going on, so that they could be choosing the size of their family. Why can’t we do that?” And that’s still true.
What advice would you give those who live in areas where abortion is not easily accessible?
Arcana: If a woman lives where abortion is not available or she doesn’t have the money, she should contact her local/regional abortion fund. There’s the National Network of Abortion Funds, [which helps] women get money for the travel, the childcare, whatever they can’t get together themselves. Women all over the globe now have access to appropriate and healthy information on the internet. The folks that did Women on Waves, that wonderful documentary from the Netherlands, they’ve now become Women on Web, and they have information about medical abortion.
But for people who are not in the early weeks, it’s a far more complicated situation. They have to do some searching unfortunately. If you’re asking me if I think once Roe is overturned there will be an underground, of course there will. There already is everywhere on the globe, especially where abortion laws are the most strict.
Johnston: If you have funds that you can contribute, I would give them to those services that Judith mentioned that can help women who are in need. That’s a really actionable, direct thing that we can do to help other people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.