Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service

Now fourteen years old, The Story of Jane, The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service begins this way:

“During the four years before the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion, thousands of women called Jane. Jane was the contact name for a group in Chicago officially known as The Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. Every week desperate women of every class, race and ethnicity telephoned Jane. They were women whose husbands or boy friends forbade them to use contraceptives; women who had conceived on every method of contraception; women who had not used contraceptives. They were older women who thought they were no longer fertile; young girls who did not understand their reproductive physiology. They were women who could not care for a child and women who did not want a child. Some women agonized over the decision, while others had no doubts. Each one was making the best decision about motherhood that she could make at the time.”

My copy of “Jane,” by Laura Kaplan, is a quality paperback published in 1995 by the University of Chicago Press, which will hopefully overlook this, and any other, uses or misuses I might make of Jane’s contents.

There are any number of stimulating ideas here, beginning with the notion that there actually was an “Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation.” The phrase has echoes of the Underground Railroad. Of freedom from oppression. Of escape from servitude. Of struggle for human rights and human potential. Of all the uprisings and rebellions and revolutions that human beings must stage in order to get anywhere.

But we are never done. Never done with hoping for better or more, never done with throwing off chains, battering against limits. It’s no surprise, then, that the battle for reproductive rights didn’t end with Roe v. Wade, it moved on, morphing and flowing and raging across the plains of a seemingly endless frontier. Change only a few words in Jane’s opening paragraph and an exciting testimony to feminist struggle for reproductive rights could be a passable reproduction of a pro-life manifesto. And so it goes.

And while it goes, it seems increasingly clear that pro-life activists (to use their term for themselves) fight a fatally flawed war. Their unsuccessful effort to eliminate abortion has certainly reduced abortion availability and abortions, generally. Perhaps not surprisingly, their moral crusade ends up restricting the right to perform abortion to a few doctors, permitting those doctors to set their own, high rates for abortion services.

But in a kind of collateral damage inflicted by pro-life warriors, the near-monopolistic market for abortion services creates profit opportunity for abortion providers. This profit potential guarantees that there will always be clinic operators and doctors who see a commercial opportunity in providing abortion services to the general public. It guarantees that there will always be clinic operators and doctors who privately and quietly provide abortion services at higher prices to well-to-do women. It guarantees that pharmaceutical companies will see plenty of additional profit opportunity in efforts to develop “magic bullets” that will provide safe and hassle-free abortions. And it guarantees that unscrupulous and inadequately trained abortion providers will materialize to perform abortions at exceedingly high prices in places where they are illegal or otherwise difficult to obtain.

But if we want to reduce the number of abortions, reduce government’s role in supporting abortion, and reduce the economic and social cost of abortion, we should end monopolistic control of the existing "right" to perform abortions. We can’t do that by banning abortion. Nor can we do it by further criminalizing abortion providers. But we can begin to do it by teaching abortion techniques to nurses and nurse practitioners as we do with doctors.

Jane did it, teaching abortion techniques, as well as other skills, to women who were not medical professionals at a time when having an abortion was a punishable offense.

“The workers explained to each woman having an abortion that the group trained people the way anyone learns, by practice. Before an apprentice learned something new, she asked the woman having the abortion for permission…Including the woman having the abortion in the actual process added to the political dimension of their work. Not only were they demystifying medical practice for themselves but [also] for every woman who came to them (pg. 128).”

Today, it ought to be a simple task to train already prepared nurses and others to provide abortion services in the interests of improving and expanding medical care and reducing abortion and abortion trauma. And there are far more nurses and far more nursing schools than there are doctors and medical schools. Teaching abortion techniques to nurses and nurse practitioners would require no more than what Jane accomplished outside institutional settings and outside the law.

The obvious payoff would be in increased availability of medically safe abortions. Abortion would become much cheaper. But there is no reason to believe that abortion would become even more frequent.

If pregnant women seeking to terminate a pregnancy didn't have to travel for hundreds of miles to get access to abortion services, parental notification laws would become less onerous. Locally available and safe abortions would mean that young women, living in difficult circumstances, without reasonable parental support and without the resources to travel, would still have time to consider all reasonable alternatives to abortion, including having a child and putting it up for adoption.

Jane's story is a reminder that "we are the ones we've been waiting for." The practical impact of Jane's work, the empowerment that was one of the rewards of being part of Jane, and the organizing skills and political sophistication that members of Jane acquired seem inexhaustible and most available to those who work in direct ways for social change. Jane's history also makes clear why reproductive rights are inseparable from women's rights. And since only a very few people in power gain anything by standing in the way of the empowerment of others, Jane's story also makes clear why men ought to be placing a priority on reproductive rights, too. And in our time, those rights continue to depend significantly on access to safe, affordable abortions.

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