‘You have to stand up to illegitimate authority’: what veteran abortion activists can teach us in the Trump era

Laura Barton
‘You have to stand up to illegitimate authority’: what veteran abortion activists can teach us in the Trump era. The pioneers who struggled for legalisation in the 60s are seeing the same battles being fought all over again

The telephone sat in the dormitory hallway, and when it rang it might have been for any of the residents – young women in their teens and early 20s, all students at the University of Chicago. Calls came from family and friends and boyfriends, from colleagues and classmates and clubs. But sometimes the voice at the end of the line would ask for “Jane”.

This was 1965, and in Chicago the social justice movement was gathering pace – a new era that encompassed civil rights, student rights, women’s rights and resistance to the war in Vietnam. Among those involved was Heather Booth, a 19-year-old social sciences student from New York. Booth had spent the summer of 1964 in Mississippi, volunteering as part of the Freedom Summer project, an attempt to register as many African American voters as possible. It was an experience that had galvanised her and taught some valuable lessons: “One is that if you organise, even in what seem like the most hopeless circumstances, you can change the world,” she says. “Number two: sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority.”

Back in Chicago, her reputation as an underground organiser now well-rooted, she was approached by a friend with a quite different problem: his sister was pregnant, not ready to have a child and nearly suicidal. She wanted an abortion, which was then illegal across the US. Booth was startled. “I hadn’t ever thought of the issue before,” she recalls. “But I said I’d try to find a doctor for her.”

Booth approached the medical committee for the civil rights movement and identified Dr TRM Howard as potentially sympathetic. A former civil rights leader from Mississippi, he had relocated to Chicago after his name appeared on a Ku Klux Klan death list. They talked over the phone. “I found out the terms and made an arrangement, and didn’t really think much more about it,” she remembers. “But then word must have spread, and a little while later someone else called, and then a little while later someone else. And I realised there was a far greater need than I had appreciated.”

More than 200 Republicans are saying they want the Supreme Court to revisit and potentially overturn Roe v Wade

For three years, Booth ran a one-woman illegal abortion service – first from her university dormitory, and then from her Chicago apartment. Keen to keep the process as anonymous as possible, she told prospective callers to ask for Jane, choosing the moniker simply because “it was a very common name, nondescript”, she says. “And then the name stuck.”

Pregnancy in the 1960s brought a number of limitations and complications for women’s lives. “At the time that Jane started, you still could be fired from some jobs if you were pregnant,” Booth explains. “There were jobs that wouldn’t hire you if you had children. There certainly were families that would throw out their kids if they were pregnant and not married.” Many resorted to extreme measures, paying for backstreet abortions, or attempting to perform the procedure themselves “using coat hangers or lye [sodium hydroxide] or throwing themselves off a building or ‘falling’ downstairs”, Booth says. “Because they couldn’t imagine going on, even if it meant risking their life.”

As her service grew, Booth’s ambition was for something different. “I decided that we needed to create a system,” she says. “A women’s culture, reflecting what the women needed, and said that they wanted.” She came to an agreement with Dr Howard, negotiating his fee from $500 for a single procedure to two or three abortions for the same price. She also introduced a counselling element, talking to the women beforehand about what they might expect, and afterwards to see how their experience had been. Booth herself had received no sex education, and had no experience of pregnancy or abortion; in the late 60s, women across America were increasingly coming to know and understand their own bodies.

If she was concerned about the illegality of what she was doing, or by the rapidly growing number of women, Booth tried not to let it be a deterrent. “Life at that moment was filled with so many engagements and movement activities, and so many unexpected things. It was as if democracy and society was becoming more alive in many different arenas. I probably was also somewhat scared and frightened. But in so much of what I’ve ever done in my life, I was sort of scared and frightened – at the start at least. And I think it’s true for many people, especially young women, who wonder, ‘Will I know enough? Will I be good enough? Can I do just what’s needed?’”

By 1968, the need had grown unmanageable. By then working, studying, newly married and expecting her first child, Booth elected to transfer “Jane” to a group of volunteers she knew from her political work. She coached them in her counselling methods before handing over her contacts.

Jane changed substantially from this point. Howard was no longer involved, replaced by another practitioner named Mike, and the clientele had begun to shift, too. As abortion became legal in Colorado, New York and Hawaii, the wealthier, white college students who had been the mainstay of Booth’s service began to travel for their procedures. In Chicago, Jane increasingly catered to poorer, predominantly African American communities on the west and south sides of the city.

“Word of us spread throughout the city,” recalls Laura Kaplan, who joined the group at this time, and later authored The Story Of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service. “Because once we took over, we lowered the price to $100, or what you could afford, and we never turned anybody away.” The group kept no records, no paper trail of names or numbers, but Kaplan estimates that over the course of four years, Jane performed 11,000 procedures, averaging payment of around $40 to $50 per abortion.

The organisation became more efficient: with a large network of volunteers, they were able to set up a hotline, putting up posters in dorm rooms and phone booths that read “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane” and the phone number 643-3844. They procured an answering machine “the size of a suitcase, reel-to-reel” and set it up in the home of a volunteer. They established a “front house”, which served as a reception for clients who would then be driven to a different apartment for the abortion.

What happened next seems radical now, but for the women of Jane it felt more like an evolution. “Over time, several things happened and coincided,” Booth explains. “Number one: so many women were coming through, Mike couldn’t really handle it all himself. Number two: the women were watching the procedures being done, and they saw how it could be done. Number three: Mike was willing to teach them how to assist or even do the procedures. And four: Mike told the women that he wasn’t actually a doctor.” Mike, it transpired, had simply learned how to perform abortions from a doctor who worked for the Mob. By 1971, the doctor model had been abandoned and the women of Jane had begun to perform the abortions themselves. It was cheaper and allowed the experience to be more woman-focused.

Being in Jane changed my life completely. We were like a feminist Wakanda, separate from the real world

But in early May 1972, the sister-in-law of a woman who had come to Jane for an abortion reported the group to the local police, and they were duly raided. Officers followed the driver taking women from the front house to an apartment in a high rise in the Chicago neighbourhood of South Shore. “And they got off the elevator, homicide squad guys, giant men in trench coats and shiny shoes,” Kaplan says, “looking for ‘the man and the money’. And there was no man, and there was not much money, either.”

The group scrambled to bail out the seven members who were arrested, and to cater to the 300 women still waiting for abortions. They contacted clinics in New York and Washington, which agreed to perform the procedures for free, with Jane covering the women’s transport.

The following January, with the ruling of Roe v Wade and the legalisation of abortion across the US, the charges against the women of Jane were quietly dropped. “It was about three months later that we decided to disband,” recalls Kaplan. “Quite frankly, we were burned out and we were lucky – we hadn’t killed anybody, so let’s get out while the going is good.”

Kaplan is 69 now and still politically active. At her home in upstate New York, where vegetables push through the winter ground and her dog, Gilda, snores by the fire, she talks about her current causes – immigration and the local library among them. It was her involvement with Jane that set her on this path. “It changed my life completely,” she says. “I had always seen myself as a political person, but the thing about being in Jane, for all of us, is that we really learned we were competent people. We created the world we wanted to live in. And it was separate from the real world. We were like a feminist Wakanda.”

Booth, too, has pursued a life of political organising. At 74, she has had a career encompassing the role of strategic adviser on a national campaign for immigration reform, the campaign to pass Barack Obama’s first budget, and director of the NAACP National Voter Fund, which in 2000 helped increase African American voter turnout by more than a million. Today, she is fighting to lower prescription drug prices, going up against the big pharmaceutical companies. Her role in every instance, she says, has been “supporting others who were in the leadership, helping them find their voice, their confidence, to stand up, speak up”. Now, with a presidential election just months away and the recent erosions of US abortion law, women who are fighting battles that Booth hoped had been won in the 60s are asking for her help again.

***

In 2019, seven US states took action to effectively ban abortion, and others severely reduced access. In Alabama, where 93% of counties have no abortion clinics, the governor signed a law that meant practitioners could face life imprisonment. Six US states have only one abortion clinic, and 27 cities and much of the country’s rural areas qualify as “abortion deserts” where women would need to travel more than 100 miles to reach a clinic.

Texas is one of these deserts. Across west Texas and the Panhandle, home to over a million people, the nearest clinic is now 250 miles away. In 2013, the state introduced House Bill 2, resulting in the closure of more than half of its abortion clinics – before the key provisions were struck down by the Supreme Court three years later. Today the state – the second largest by both geography and population – has just 22 abortion clinics for 29 million people.

Find yourself unable or unwilling to continue with a pregnancy in Texas today and your options are limited. Even if you can find a way to make a 500‑mile round trip and take time off work or school , a 2017 law bans private insurance companies from covering the cost of an abortion. State law also requires that before a termination a woman must undergo a transvaginal ultrasound, then 24 hours must elapse before her procedure. Both should be performed by the same physician. Anti-abortion campaigners maintain that this brings it into line with regulations governing other surgeries.

Initiatives such as Plan C, which helps women buy medication online safely for a self-managed termination, bring their own risks (infection, an incomplete abortion). And that option is unavailable to the many women who do not possess a credit card, or who cannot securely receive a parcel through the mail. A 2015 study found that some 100,000 women in the state had, in a variety of ways, at one time tried to induce an abortion.

On a warm Sunday afternoon in San Antonio, five of the members of the Lilith Fund gather around a table outside a branch of Starbucks. That morning, they held a fundraising event at the home of a local supporter – discussing their work in reproductive healthcare over coffee and baked goods. The event was busier than they had expected – 35 people in all, though in recent times they have noticed a steady increase in supporter numbers. “Unfortunately, it does sometimes take horrible things happening in our political climate,” says Amanda Beatriz Williams, the group’s executive director. “People say, ‘What can we do?’ And luckily we have a lot of answers.”

The Lilith Fund is the oldest abortion fund in Texas, serving the state’s central and southern regions. Founded in 2001 by a group of Austin-based activists, it was initially funded by a series of garage sales that raised $10,000 to open a hotline. Now it is funded through a combination of grants and donations, and was able to assist 26% of the 6,050 women who called the hotline in 2018. Women call only once their abortion appointment has been made; and it is often the clinic that encourages a woman to call once they know the cost.

Protesters harass women going to the clinic, throwing out statements like, ‘You won’t be able to parent later in life’

“They leave a voicemail,” explains Shae Ward, the hotline coordinator. “And if we’re able to fund them, we’ll call them back that same day.” The daily budget is $2,500. The average caller is 13-14 weeks pregnant. A second trimester abortion costs $800-1,200. “And so I have to determine who we can fund, and who unfortunately we’re not able to.” They weigh up factors such as domestic violence or homelessness, alongside gestation and appointment date. “If your procedure is the next day, we’re gonna try and get you in,” Ward says.

The fund operates a voucher system, redeemable at the clinic, but they have become accustomed to that fact that only a fraction will redeem the vouchers. “It’s for a number of reasons,” explains Williams. ”We can only afford to cover partial costs – so they’re often left to come up with the rest. And some are able to, and some aren’t. Or they couldn’t get to the clinic, or whatever barriers they couldn’t overcome.”

It is a heavy responsibility. There is the pressure of deciding women’s fates, the need to fundraise, and the constant heel-nip of new anti-abortion legislation. In some east Texas cities, they tell me, the fund has been called a “criminal organisation”. The volunteers rely heavily on one another for emotional support.

But they remain hopeful. All are under 40, and see reason for optimism in the younger generation’s support for reproductive rights. “Something I’ve noticed a lot in this past decade is people sharing their abortion stories,” says Williams. She has come to see storytelling as a fierce strategy in the fight; the more women share their personal experiences of termination, the more she feels people will connect on a human level.

Williams herself had an abortion at 19, and it was part of what motivated her to work in reproductive healthcare, though it took nearly seven years of working in the movement before she felt confident enough to share her experience. “I actually shared my story for the first time publicly on the steps of the Supreme Court during one of the big rallies in 2016,” she says, recalling the successful campaign to overturn House Bill 2. “There is a YouTube of it. I was full of tears. It was hard for me, but what really changed my life was the outpouring of support I got.”

She keeps a photo on her desk from that day, which shows her on the courtroom steps, wiping away her tears. “And there’s a bunch of people behind me, and… ” her voice catches, “it’s just the literal image of people behind me that’s everything. And of course the Supreme Court is behind me, too. And we won.”

***

The City Hall stands in downtown McAllen, a community of some 142,000 at the point where Texas butts up against the Mexican border. On a hot midweek afternoon the street is quiet; cars slide by slowly, and sunlight blinks off shop windows displaying tuxedos and fancy dresses and party paraphernalia. Until 1993, the same spot was occupied by the city hospital, where in 1977 a young woman named Rosie Jimenez died following complications from a backstreet abortion – the first woman to die after the introduction of the Hyde amendment, which barred the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. Today, McAllen is home to the only remaining abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley – a low, unassuming building almost opposite City Hall. A few mornings each week, protesters stand outside its doors, waving banners and shouting at the medical staff and women arriving for their appointments. “They harass women going there, throwing out statements like, ‘Abortion gives breast cancer,’” says Iris Reyes, community organiser for the local branch of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “Or, ‘Your womb will become used to you having an abortion so you won’t be able to parent later in life.’”

The Latina Institute plays a crucial role here, turning up in schools and homes and community centres to discuss smear tests, mammograms and abortions, lobbying to improve the lives of women in the valley. The average annual household income here is about $40,000, though some work for just $2 an hour, and many, particularly female domestic workers, fall victim to wage theft. It is strongly religious, mainly Spanish-speaking, and many of the residents do not have US citizenship papers.

All of this creates a unique set of barriers to women who find themselves pregnant in difficult circumstances. A clinic abortion costs about $500. While documented women might be able to head over the border for the cheaper option of buying abortion pills in Mexico, this is not a risk the undocumented can take. Beyond McAllen, the nearest clinic is in San Antonio, four hours’ drive and an immigration checkpoint away. Little wonder that some women seek abortion pills available under the counter at some of the region’s flea markets, unregulated and unmanaged. The clinic is only licensed to perform abortions up to 16 weeks, which is too late for some. There is no public transport and many women cannot easily get to a pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test. “By the time [some] women go to the abortion clinic, they’re often past 20 weeks,” explains Samantha Herrera, a translator who works with the Latina Institute. For undocumented women, there are other deterrents: immigration force vans often park up outside the clinic, and a new law requires women to show ID before they can access abortion

There is another, more sinister obstacle nearby, too. Just a block from the abortion clinic stands the McAllen Pregnancy Center – a similar low-level, anonymous building. Herrera tells me it is in fact a “false clinic” staffed by anti-abortion campaigners, who will from time to time walk up the street to the real clinic wearing “white coats as if they were doctors, showing up in scrubs, pretending to be medical people. But they’re just regular volunteers with no medical background.” Their purpose is to convince women to go to the McAllen Pregnancy Center. “They will say things like, ‘This isn’t where you made your appointment, it’s over here, we’ll walk you over…’” Inside they will perform a false ultrasound “that shows they are more advanced in their pregnancy” and therefore unable to have an abortion.

We can’t continue to live with our arms folded. We mobilise. We educate ourselves. We fight for our lives

This is one of a number of Crisis Pregnancy Centers across the US – buildings that mimic medical clinics, and are designed to attract women seeking low-cost abortions. Their funding comes in part from the millions of federal dollars directed into abstinence-only sex-education programmes. In July 2017, President Trump halted funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention programme, and allocated $3m to CPCs.

CPCs are not illegal, though their status is complicated, and many argue that they are unethical. As they are not medical practices and do not charge for services, they are not subject to regulation. Legal action taken against CPCs has largely focused on false advertising practices.

For the staff and volunteers at the Latina Institute, meanwhile, the work is relentless: the previous day they provided training at a community centre; this evening they will hold a meeting in Alamo; they have a presence at every rally, on religious radio stations, on television, and often head to Austin to lobby the state government. “Our organisation is not only pro-choice,” says associate director Lucy Ceballos Félix, “we’re pro-women.” Their aim is to increase the number of clinics in Texas, but more urgently simply to keep this one open. “If the clinic closes here, there is no access,” says Herrera. “Women cannot go south to Mexico and they can’t go north. And then there’s nothing left but home remedies, and they end up in hospital.”

Around the table, the three women look exasperated. On her laptop, Ceballos Félix scrolls through a list of proposed Texas legislation that would further impede abortion access, reading out the names of the bills and explaining each one in increasingly rapid Spanish. She pauses and exhales. “I’m very passionate about this,” she says. “We can’t continue to live just with our arms folded. We mobilise. We educate ourselves. We fight for our rights.”

***

Last year, Heather Booth headed from her home in Washington to Georgia to tell, once again, the story of Jane. It was a disheartening moment, to consider that more than 50 years after she began her underground abortion service in Chicago, America might once again be returning to a more repressive time. Many fights are having to be refought. “There are more than 200 members of Senate and Congress, Republicans, who’ve just signed a statement saying they want the Supreme Court to revisit and potentially overturn Roe v Wade,” she says. That means vigilance and action from everyone, in and outside the government, who wants to defend it.

Booth talks about the restrictions to abortion access, and the cuts to funding for Planned Parenthood – brought about because the organisation continues to provide information about abortion. “It’s limiting reproductive health in the US,” she says. “And pregnancy-related deaths increase when reproductive health is restricted.” Increasingly she is asked to give talks, to lend her support to campaigning groups, to stand up, speak up once again. “It is a very intense, almost knife-edge moment,” she says. “So many things are at stake.”

Laura Barton presents the Archive on 4 documentary Call Jane At 643 3844 on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 18 January at 8pm.

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