Clandestine abortion help network finds light 50 years later

Heather Booth, pioneer of the “Jane” network, on May 27, 2022 in Washington (Stefani Reynolds / AFP)

Heather Booth is studying in Chicago in 1965 when a friend calls her asking for help. His pregnant sister, he says, is not ready to become a mother and is in a “nearly suicidal” state.

Thanks to her contacts in this big city in the north of the United States, Heather Booth manages to find a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion – a “good deed” that she did not think she would have to repeat.

“But the news must have spread,” she recalled half a century later, now 76, from her Washington home.

From this “good deed” was born an underground network called “Jane”, the name of which the members refer to each other, which helps thousands of women to put an end to unwanted pregnancies, in a safe way and without moral judgment, until to perform 11,000 abortions themselves.

On January 23, 1973, when the Supreme Court issued its “Roe v. Wade” decision guaranteeing a constitutional right to abortion, seven members of “Jane” were awaiting trial.

One of them, Martha Scott, looks defiant as she reminisces at 80 — and with that ruling set to be overturned by the high court soon — her decision to break the law.

“We were doing this illegal thing because it was important to do it, because it couldn’t be done legally,” she explains in a video call from Chicago.

“We were just neighborhood ladies,” she says, but “bad laws force you to act a little risky sometimes.”

Weld, hanger and fall down the stairs

These two women, who appear in an upcoming HBO documentary, have bad memories of the period before Roe.

Network Pioneer Heather Booth
Heather Booth, pioneer of the “Jane” network, on May 27, 2022 in Washington (Stefani Reynolds / AFP)

Some women wishing to have an abortion “swallowed soda, some used coat hangers”, recalls Heather Booth.

Others “injured themselves, threw themselves down the stairs or from the top of a roof because they were not ready” to have a child.

Deprived of legal alternatives, women then call on outlaw practitioners who are more concerned with the profits made than with the health of their patients.

More and more women are reaching out to Heather Booth, who in turn has to ask for help with the influx of requests.

To remain discreet, these activists ask pregnant women to leave a message for “Jane”. The network was born.

They end up discovering that the doctor they use for pregnancy terminations is not approved.

Some activists, outraged, left the network. Others, explains Martha Scott, deduce that if a man without medical training could perform abortions, then so can they.

“Furious”

In May 1972, the police raided an apartment used by the network.

“They kept asking ‘Where’s the doctor?+, ‘Where’s the guy doing the abortions?+’,” says Martha Scott, who was in one of the rooms that had been turned into an operating room.

Handout provided by HBO showing, from left, police mugshots of Sheila Smith, Martha Scott, Diane Stevens and Judith Arcana
Handout provided by HBO showing, from left, police mugshots of Sheila Smith, Martha Scott, Diane Stevens and Judith Arcana (-/HBO/AFP)

She and six other activists are embarked and imprisoned for the night, before being released pending their trial, which was finally canceled after the Supreme Court’s decision.

The “Jane” network, which has become useless, also disappears.

But half a century later, their mission could come into its own, as the High Court considers, according to a leaked document, to overturn Roe v. Wade.

If the news made her “furious”, Martha Scott explains that she was “not surprised”. The octogenarian expected it, after the appointment of three judges by Donald Trump, who gave a resolutely conservative orientation to the Supreme Court.

If this decision is confirmed, states would be free to ban abortion, and both Heather Booth and Martha Scott believe that a new generation of activists will have to take up the torch.

“We have to use all the tools we have,” says Heather Booth.

No less than 26 conservative states, mostly in the center and south of the country, are ready to ban abortion altogether as soon as the Supreme Court knocks down the last dike.

But the others, “islands in the storm” according to Heather Booth, should continue to ensure this right, even reinforce it like Illinois or California.

And drugs now make it possible to abort in a safe way and, even if they would then be prohibited in these States, could be sent there by post.

The two activists from the “Jane” network therefore hope that the United States will not have to return to the dark period of abortions performed in unsanitary alleys.

“Abortions won’t stop,” says Heather Booth, citing data that one in four American women will have an abortion in her lifetime.

“It’s not uncommon, and it should be safe to do.”

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