ColumnMany of us take Roe v. Wade for granted, but what will we do when it’s overturned?
That’s right, I said, “when Roe v. Wade is overturned,” not “if.” To many, such a reversal seems impossible, but an examination of the current anti-choice climate shows it’s not as far-fetched as we may think.
In many places in this country, abortion is essentially illegal. Eighty-seven percent of all U.S. counties have no identifiable abortion provider. In rural areas, that figure rises to 97 percent.
Inaccessible abortion isn’t safe or legal—and geography isn’t the only barrier. There are consent laws, waiting periods, counselling centers masquerading as health clinics, a lack of trained medical professionals, and a whole slew of anti-choice protesters blocking clinics and, in some cases, bombing them.
So, not to get all future dystopia on you, but with all of the efforts to dismantle Planned Parenthood—literally and politically—in the last three years alone, women like me have to consider the reality that Roe v. Wade might not be there for us in the future.
A few weeks ago, I met Judith Arcana and got a reality check about the shifts in our current cultural conversation around abortion. While I know pro-choice has been playing defense these last few years, talking with her about the history of the movement both inspired and scared the shit out of me.
Judith was a Jane. She was one of the seven women arrested in Chicago for providing illegal, safe, and in many cases, free abortion services to thousands of women from 1969 – 1973. Judith was involved from ‘70 – ‘72. When Roe passed in ‘73, the case was dropped and the records were expunged.
My own first abortion debate went something like this: I was with a friend at her kitchen counter coloring; we were 10-ish and had figured out what abortion was thanks to the movie Dirty Dancing. My mom explained to me what the whole “Penny situation” was and I explained it to my friend. She said something like, “So she killed her baby?” And I said, “No. She had an abortion.” That pretty much sums up my current feelings.
For me, illegal abortions were something that happened in movies. The same is not true for the women like Judith who, through Jane, helped more than 10,000 women get safe abortions.
Getting to talk to a real live Jane was a dork-out moment. I first learned about the movement back in college. As a teenager, I imagined a band of activists sticking it to the man. So, when my friend mentioned that his aunt had been a Jane, I was almost as excited as I would have been to score a phone call with Patrick Swayze back in ‘87.
But, when I spoke with her, I learned that Judith didn’t set out to be an activist. Like many of the women in what is referred to as “the service,” she encountered Jane when she thought she might need an abortion herself. “I found Jane because the service was an open secret. In those days people thought and behaved very differently. It was ordinary business for one woman to say to another, ‘Whoa, I need an abortion.’ I had a friend who was a medical student so I called him and he passed on a number.”
While she didn’t end up needing an abortion, she connected with her first Jane and joined the service. “It was a time of tremendous change. I always thought I would be married with three kids and teach high school—follow a script that a nice lady was supposed to follow. I remember very clearly the first women’s meeting I went to in 1969. There were about 20 of us and when we began to talk, the thought in my mind was, ‘I don’t have to be married.’ It never occurred to me that getting married wasn’t like breathing. Talk about liberating. By the end of the evening I said, ‘I don’t have to wear makeup.’ It got deeper and heavier as time went on, but the impulse is the same… all these things I had assumed as given—like having skin.”
But, during these last four decades, culture has shifted. In my early 20s, feeling pressured to marry a man and having kids was was unthinkable—as unthinkable as approaching someone I barely know to find out where to get an abortion. Today, conversations about abortion don’t happen casually. The anti-choice movement has put so much fear and misinformation in the world that we, the pro-choicers, are on the defensive—and that shift, says Judith, makes 2013 even more frightening than 1970.
That hadn’t occurred to me. When first I imagined the Janes, I didn’t picture the open conversations that Judith describes. I assumed all of the women involved felt that they were constantly in danger. But I got that wrong.
“While I was working in the abortion service, I wasn’t afraid. We didn’t think we’d get busted,” says Judith. “In terms of fear, being in jail was scary, but I had not carried, prior to that time, a fear. If I had a fear—and there was no anti-choice movement, which is very important—it was that I and the other Janes would not be as good as we needed to be. We had the lives of other women in our hands. If there was something to be concerned about, that would be it, in part because we were illegal and in part because that’s just the case. Licensed professionals would have had the same concerns about never hurting anyone. But I would have said, ‘This is what matters; this is the hard part; this is crucial; this is intimate.’ I think a lot of Janes would answer the question the same way.”
The landscape leaves today’s activists much more to fear because,“They aren’t dealing with the police, but with anti-choice activists who literally kill people; who throw bombs in clinics. It’s far more dangerous today,” said Judith.
In her zine, “Keesha and Joanie and JANE”, Judith images a post-Roe world. The “Roeverturn,” she calls it (which I love). In the story, a group of young women struggle with the idea of how to recreate a Jane-like movement. It’s not a guide or a how-to, but a take on what conversations might look like among a collective of women working to right injustice. It’s personal and political—and also a fun read.
“We have to think of new ways to think of these new times, and it has to be done. Some of it will be illegal. Some will be political. One of the Janes in the movie [the 1995 documentary, Jane: An Abortion Service] talks about the underground railroad and you know right away that there have always been frightening, nervous-making and terrifying things that needed to be done, and that women and men did them. More than half of the states are restricting Roe to irrelevance. But women can do what needs to be done.”
A recent Jezebel article details an anonymous author’s efforts to help U.S. women get abortions when they can’t find or afford legal access. It shows that we have already entered the world Judith has fictionalized. The comments section shows that lots and lots of women are thinking about the same things the Janes were thinking about: the safety of the women receiving help from this underground resource. And, reflecting Judith’s reminder that this is a whole new world, there are concerns for the author’s safety as well.
We must refuse to go back to the days when Jane was necessary; we have to say no to an internet-based version of the underground railroad. We have to fight back, county by county, before stories like the one in Jezebel become the norm.We have to regain all of the rights guaranteed to us by Roe v. Wade, the rights that are being stripped away piece by piece, the rights fought for by all the Janes who came before us.
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Image: Judith Arcana