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Former Member Of 'Jane' Abortion Service Remembers Time Before Roe v. Wade

A sign is shown supporting Roe v. Wade at a rally, held by Planned Parenthood, commemorating the 45th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision at the Capitol Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Sacramento, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
A sign is shown supporting Roe v. Wade at a rally, held by Planned Parenthood, commemorating the 45th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision at the Capitol Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Sacramento, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

A number of states have passed laws this year restricting access to abortion, raising concerns among activists that the debate could reach the Supreme Court and possibly lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. 

This was the 1973 decision that legalized abortion across the country. Laura Kaplan remembers a time before abortion was legal. She was a member of the Chicago group, Jane, also know as  The Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, which provided abortions to women illegally. 

She tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that it’s “depressing” to watch states pass laws restricting the procedure. 

“I am 50 years older than I was back then, and to have to go through this all over again is very disconcerting and shows, I think, around the country a real lack of respect for women and the decisions women make,” Kaplan says. “And I’ve been thinking lately that some of this is really backlash also for the growing strength of women’s voices in our culture.”

Many critics of abortion say that the procedure shouldn’t be needed anymore because birth control is legal. But Kaplan says regardless of whether they are on birth control or not, women still have unwanted pregnancies. 

“I mean, I got involved in the group because a friend of mine’s IUD failed. These things happen,” she says. “The basis I go back to is do you respect women and the choices that women feel they have to make? And if you don’t respect women, then you can make any laws you want to, but it won’t stop people from doing what they feel they have to do.” 

Interview Highlights

On how the Jane group started and evolved 

“None of us were doctors, and every once in a while, a woman had an illegal abortion and she died from it. And we’d seen the pictures of the crumpled bodies in alleyways. So groups of women in various places decided well, they would figure out who were the good providers in their areas, the competent people because some of the abortion providers were very good. But there was no way for an average woman to know what you were going to encounter. Preparing women for the abortion, you know, in terms of what to expect, helping women come up with the money and then following up with the women afterwards. And that’s how we who were in the service, as we referred to it, that’s how we started. But we didn’t end that way.

“The original members of the group realized pretty quickly that if they were sending women off someplace and saying, you know, the best they could say is everybody’s come back alive, that that wasn’t doing much of a service. And so they determined pretty early on to try to get control of the abortion process, and they did find one doctor who said that he would work fairly closely with them, and at some point, he started training the first one and then a couple of the women in the group. So we wound up being a totally woman-run organization that provided counseling, supportive services and the abortions themselves. And we did [dilation and curettage] abortions and induced miscarriages.”

On the women who came to the group for help 

“Well first of all, I want to be very clear. We never asked any woman why she wanted an abortion. That was her business. But the women who came to us were from all walks of life, from all races, from all economic and class backgrounds. That’s changed because in 1970, New York legalized abortion and women could for around $300, including airfare, fly from Chicago to New York, get an abortion, get on a plane and fly back home the same day. So that really changed our demographics.

“There were very poor women who couldn’t even come up with that [money]. There were very young women. There were women in relationships that made it impossible for them to be gone even for a day — domestic violence situations — but we didn’t have that terminology back then. It was the most desperate were left in Chicago, and they had to be pretty desperate to turn to a group of women they didn’t know and were maybe very, very different from them.”

On what she would say to people today who are against abortions 

“Well, we’re not talking about children first of all. We’re talking about potential life. So that’s one thing. The other piece of it is whose moral sense is going to win the day? I think it just shows an utter disrespect for women, and women will do what they feel they have to do regardless of what the laws are. And so we will see once again wards and hospitals full of women suffering from consequences of illegal abortions or complications. But we and the other groups around the country, who at least we all started the same, but we were determined to help women navigate an unsavory and unknowable underground in order to be able to do what they felt they needed to do.”

On some African Americans who are against abortions and equate it to genocide 

“This is what some of the radical black voices were saying in the ’60s as well, and certainly, we can’t deny the kind of abuses that women of color faced, you know, sterilizations without their consent and all kinds of horrible things. Nonetheless in the later days, I would say [70% to 80%] of the women who came to us were women of color.”

On the moral framework used to discuss abortion in the U.S. 

“You can make any kind of moral bull****, I think, about abortion because everything changes when it’s your daughter or your wife. And people’s attitudes change. I mean, you should talk to people at abortion clinics about the numbers of protesters who sneak into the clinics to get abortions for themselves or their daughters or their friend because everything changes when you’re faced with this decision. It is a very, very moral issue. It’s just there’s different moralities. I believe that my position and the position of those of us who strongly support women being able to make decisions for themselves and how they will live their lives is a highly moral position.”

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.