Since the publication of The Story of Jane
more than twenty years ago, I have often been asked to speak to students. After hearing the story of what we did and how we did it, the students sometimes ask me what kind of activism to pursue. These young people want to know: Should they work to elect sympathetic representatives to state and federal government? Should they organize and get involved in mass protests, like the Women’s Marches? Should they raise money for organizations they support or lobby their legislature? Or, like those of us in Jane, should they figure out ways to provide the services that those in power have denied to women? My response is always the same: it’s not an either/or situation. All methods of confronting injustice are important. The trick is to figure out which ones resonate with the situation we face and match our strengths. Above all, we need to be open to opportunities that present themselves: to say yes. That was how I, a young woman in my early twenties, found my way to Jane. It was sheer luck and openness. The challenge for each of us is to find the path that engages us, that makes us feel alive, and then dive in.
My primary motivation for writing The Story of Jane
was that the Abortion Counseling Service, a.k.a. Jane, was an important piece of the history of the women’s movement that was not well known. At the time I started researching the book, there had been little written about Jane. Most of us who were in the group rarely, if ever, talked about it. More than fifteen years had passed since Jane folded and already it was questionable what details any of us still remembered. The more time that passed, the more difficult it would be to reconstruct our history. It was time to tell this story.
I felt that it was critical that someone who was a member of the service, which is how we internally referred to the group, write our story. My fear was that an outsider would paint us as superheroes or Amazon warriors, as extraordinary. This is the opposite of the truth and certainly the wrong message to send to a younger generation. We were ordinary women, housewives, students and young radicals. I hoped, and I continue to hope, that everyone who reads this history will see herself in us and think: that could be me.
And there was another reason I wanted to write this history. Since our story is about how a group of diverse women, many with little or no political experience, and none with any medical skills, came together and pooled their talents to do something extraordinary— a political adventure story— I thought that Jane’s history could serve as an exciting vehicle to explore what community organizing is and how it functions as a tool for change.
Those of us who were in the service learned many important lessons. But perhaps the most important was this: if we believe that something needs to be done, working together, we can find solutions and maybe, in the process, wind up doing things we never dreamed of. This I believe is the metalesson of Jane and one I wanted to share. This lesson applies to any social problem— it’s not specific to abortion. I wanted young people to view our story as a concrete example of what they, too, might accomplish. It was for these reasons I decided to write the book. I wasn’t thinking that I was offering a road map for abortion activism or offering Jane as a model to be replicated.
It is my contention that laws change when large portions of the society violate those laws. This was certainly the case before Roe v. Wade. Prominent people were speaking out. Fifty- three well- known women signed an open letter to Ms. magazine titled “We Have Had Abortions.” The clergy also played a critical role. Not only were the networks of Clergy Consultation Services on Abortion vocal in their support of abortion reform, but they publicly proclaimed that they were helping women obtain illegal abortions. No society can continue to maintain the rule of law when so many of its members are publicly violating it. When Roe v. Wade was decided, we in the service breathed a sigh of relief. But we also suspected that it was not going to be the panacea we hoped for.
While I was working on the book, the abortion landscape shifted dramatically. With the Supreme Court decisions in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services in 1989 and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, the Court made clear its intention to limit Roe. Of course, the shift had started in 1976 when Congress first passed the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal Medicaid dollars from funding poor women’s abortions. Before Roe, all women were in the same boat: no matter her circumstances, abortion was illegal. The passage of the Hyde Amendment was and continues to be a wedge driven between women. Now, if you are urban and have financial means, abortion is a possibility, but if you are poor or rural, it’s as if Roe never happened.
Grassroots abortion funds organized to help people find and pay for abortions. These funds now exist all over the country. But the funds do much more than that. They provide those seeking abortions with information, support and validation for their decisions. They let people know that they are not alone. Some abortion funds arrange transportation to an abortion provider, a place to stay, help with childcare and help securing hard- to- get second- trimester abortions. In addition, some funds do policy work to fight funding limitations, including Hyde. The National Network of Abortion Funds (one of my favorite organizations) is a membership home for funds around the country.
When Jane began in 1969, long before we had any idea that we would actually be performing abortions ourselves, we raised money for abortions, provided information and described the procedure with as much detail as we could, since none of us had seen one yet. We sussed out illegal providers so we could refer women to the most competent, reliable practitioners. We started out doing, in fact, exactly what present- day abortion funds do.
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me when, a few years after my book came out, I met two staff women with the California Access Project, and they told me they had named their computers Big Jane and Little Jane. Big Jane and Little Jane were the names we had given to our two administrative positions: Big Jane scheduled our work days, and Little Jane called back the hundred or more people who contacted us each week seeking abortions. These California women understood the lineage we shared.
In the decades since Roe, the abortion landscape in the United States has continued to harden. Some states have passed draconian measures with ridiculous justifications, whose intent is to make abortions inaccessible to most people who need them and, with the requirements of waiting periods, transvaginal ultrasounds and funerals for aborted fetuses, to punish women who seek abortions. But something else changed in recent decades as well. With the introduction of medical abortions, the technology for performing an abortion is now noninvasive and can be in the hands of women around the world who need it.
About ten years ago I was contacted by a South American woman. Not only had she read my book, but she was part of a national network in her home country, where abortion was illegal (it was legalized there in 2020), that obtained mi soprostol, the drug used for self- abortions, counseled people seeking abortions and provided support. They gave detailed information on how and when to take the pills, what to expect, what to watch out for and when to seek medical help. When I later sat on a conference panel with another woman from this group, she cited Jane as an inspiration.
In 2015, I was fortunate to meet the two women who started the Doula Project here in the United States, which has grown into a national network of full- spectrum doulas who provide services for the range of reproductive possibilities, including abortion. We presented a workshop together at the annual Reproductive Freedom Conference of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program (now renamed Collective Power for Reproductive Justice) at Hampshire College. What they related to most from Jane’s story is not so much what we did but how we did it. Because none of us were medical professionals, we weren’t limited by the medical model. We based our practice on how we wanted to be treated, what worked for the women we saw and what they needed. We didn’t separate ourselves from the women who came through the service, and as a result, quite a few women who had abortions with Jane later joined the group. What they needed and what we wanted was to be fully informed, to be respected and supported in our decisions. And, most importantly, we treated those thousands of women as actors, as partners in their own care, not passive recipients.
More than fifty years after the service, a.k.a. Jane, folded, its echoes continue to reverberate. In 2010, the Sunday New York Times Magazine ran an article about young abortion providers. One doctor, when asked by the article’s author why she decided to become an abortion provider, said that a medical school professor had given her a copy of The Story of Jane. Certainly, this was not an influence that we in Jane ever thought we would have. To inspire a young doctor who then goes on to affect the lives of countless women— no one could ask for more.
Jane is not an anomaly. It is part of a rich radical tradition— one none of us knew about at the time— that posits that individuals, working together, can create the means of their own liberation. By that I mean that it is possible, in some circumstances, to envision a world we wish existed and, by our actions, bring that world to life. When we see ourselves as actors, rather than reactors, all kinds of possibilities are open to us. Instead of vainly banging on the doors of existing power, individuals empower themselves to, as it were, make their own doors, which is essentially what Jane did. Like so many other women’s liberation groups around the country, we began as a referral and counseling service. We didn’t start out thinking we’d learn to do abortions ourselves; we grew into it as, what seemed to us at the time, the only viable solution. And it was this leap forward that made us truly transgressive.
This preface was originally written in 2018. In the intervening years, three Catholic countries—Ireland, Argentina, and Mexico—have legalized abortion. But here in the United States, on June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Regardless of the cruel restrictions some states choose to impose, one thing is certain: we will not go back. All over the country people are acting to ensure that everyone is able to make their own decisions about their pregnancies, organizing boldly and sometimes quietly, just as we did pre-Roe. Jane serves as a touchstone for what ordinary people, working together, can accomplish. As we turn our outrage into action, the important thing is to say yes, to start with what you can do right now, and to let people’s needs guide you.
Copyright © 2022 by Laura Kaplan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.