Mondays: Call Jane.



Freedom is complicated, isn’t it? A bit loaded at the back-end. Francis Scott Key owned slaves and opposed abolition when he wrote The Star Spangled Banner (…land of the free, home of the brave…). And then we made it our national anthem. They play it before every single one of my son’s Little League games. That’s messed up, right?


We are told our freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution and all of its weathered amendments. It begins “We the people…” But that was 1787, when white colonists owned slaves, those slaves were considered 3/5 of a person, and women had no rights at all whatsoever. Which “we the people” were they referring to?


Last May, Iowa’s governor mandated the Pledge of Allegiance be recited every morning at every school in Iowa. It was written in 1892 (*cough*women still considered property*cough*schools still legally segregated by race*cough*) by an ordained minister to be recited by millions of school children as part of a celebration of Christopher Columbus (the man who landed here by accident and then enslaved and slaughtered and cheated the native populations). Interestingly, the original version of the pledge did not include “…under God”. That was added in 1954 after a lobbying campaign by the Knights of Columbus – a Catholic fraternal organization – feeling threatened by “godless communism”.


What ideals, exactly, are we holding onto? We string the idea of “patriotism” to relics staked in brutal times… why? So we can always find our way back? We keep our memories short and our vision blurry. Patriotism needs an update.


Frustrated with this country and the back-pedal in women’s basic human rights, I went to the library this week. I found the book: Jane Against the World, by Karen Blumenthal, 342.73 in the teen non-fiction section.


In the bibliography, Blumenthal explains that initially, she was just going to write about the history of Roe v. Wade, but as she pulled back the layers, she realized it was a much bigger story “about women’s rights, reproductive rights, racial discrimination, medicine, and religion.”


I learned a lot, and it’s too much for a blogpost. Let's call this a really long book report in two parts.


I learned that throughout the 1800s, the fetus was not considered human until “the quickening” (when the woman could feel movement). Abortion before the quickening was legal. Abortion after the quickening was not – although, not by written statute. Those who opposed abortion typically did so because the underdeveloped abortive measures at the times (poisons) were dangerous to the woman ingesting them. Their concern was for the life of the woman.


In 1857, a young new doctor named Horatio Robinson Storer, started pushing a different idea. He said abortion was wrong not because of a danger to the mother, but because it was unnatural and immoral.


Coincidentally, around this time:


1 - Women were getting more vocal about the right to vote and to own property. They were considered the property of their husbands. A man could beat his wife without consequence. He could ask for a divorce (but she could not), and if granted, take custody of the children, because they belonged to him, too. Women were starting to call bullshit, and men like Storer weren’t having it.


2 – There was a large influx of immigrants.


Storer believed women existed for the sole purpose of being a wife and a mother. He wrote: “This, as we have seen, is the end for which they are physiologically constituted and for which they are destined by nature.” (Why Not? A Book for Every Woman; 1866.)


He also believed that if white Protestant American women had fewer children, immigrants would take over. He said the fate of the nation (White Protestant) depended on white baby-having.


Storer joined the American Medical Association (AMA) and started pushing his ideas. He was successful. Views turned, regulations narrowed, midwives and abortion providers were run out of business.


When Storer retired, Anthony Comstock arrived on the scene. Comstock was even more radical. He viewed ANYTHING at all related to sex as lewd. This included condoms, biologically informative diagrams and pamphlets, and birth control pills. He successfully lobbied for the Comstock Act of 1873, making it illegal to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious,” “immoral,” or “indecent” publications through the mail. It also prohibited anyone from selling, giving away, or possessing an obscene book, pamphlet, picture, drawing, or advertisement. The Comstock Act was not overturned until 1936.


In 1879, P.T. Barnum (circus man and state lawmaker) successfully initiated the Barnum Act, banning the use of birth control in Connecticut, completely. That wasn’t overturned until 1965 (via Griswold v. Connecticut).


Let's talk about Margaret Sanger.


Sanger was a nurse and midwife in New York City in the early 1900s. She treated women who had botched illegal abortions and self-inflicted attempts to miscarry. She defied the Comstocks and Barnums of the world and founded the American Birth Control League (now Planned Parenthood) and opened clinics in almost two dozen cities.


But Sanger was not without controversy. She was part of the eugenics movement – the belief that society could be improved with “better breeding”. Eugenics had been adopted by white supremacists, used to justify forced sterilization of people in institutions, and was even haled by Nazis. Although most accounts say this was not at all Sanger’s persuasion, she accepted partnership with racists groups in order to make birth control more accessible to women of all races.


The first National Conference of Black Power was held in 1967, and delegates voted to reject birth control programs, because they believed (understandably) the intent was to “exterminate” Black Americans. Female critics pointed out the organization was primarily male, and that most Black women wanted more control over their reproduction.


Race, power, human rights: These are the undercurrents, and they’re muddy.


What appears clear is that abortions have been happening in great numbers whether they are legal or not for well over a century. And even when they were technically legal, there were often times so many restrictions, hidden expenses, and hoops, that women and girls sought illegal abortions anyway. For example, many hospitals formed “therapeutic committees” to decide whether or not to grant a woman’s request for an abortion.


Alan Guttmacher, an obstetrician and advocate for women’s health and abortion reform (who later became the president of Planned Parenthood in 1962), noted in 1942 that often times these hospital committees (primarily white male doctors) would grant the abortion but then force the woman to be sterilized (especially if she was poor). Other women who were granted abortions by committee saw their life insurance canceled, their health insurance costs raised, or their driver’s licenses revoked.


More recently, girls under 18 in some states have to get written consent from a parent OR get a judicial bypass by going to the court and pleading her case to a judge. Appointments take time (Consider the impact of time on fetal development.) and can be canceled. The judge can deny her request for any reason (like that she seems too immature to understand abortion…but not too immature to become a mother).


In the mid-1960s, women by the thousands were seeking treatment to heal from botched illegal abortions and attempts to self-inflict a miscarriage. It was estimated that 500-1,000 women died each year from 1950-1960s from complications from the same. Advocates saw this not only as matter of human rights but as a medical issue. They viewed helping mothers access safe abortions as the morally right thing to do. “Whisper networks” grew.


One such network was the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion formed in 1967. Twenty-one Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis became increasingly alarmed at the number of women who came to them for help needing to end their pregnancies or get treatment for failed attempts. They organized, researched providers to make sure they were safe, and they connected women with reproductive help. By the late 1960s clergy in 20 states had referral services for safe (albeit illegal) abortions.


It wasn’t necessarily a departure at the time. The United Methodist’s general conference and the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the US adopted resolutions saying that abortion should be a decision between a woman and her doctor. The Swedish Lutheran State Church had previously reasoned that the realized human value of the mother should get priority over the potential human value of the fetus.


Starkly contrasted: In 1966, Catholic organizations laid the groundwork for Right to Life Leagues. In 1967, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the US Catholic Conference’s Family Life Bureau launched nationwide campaigns to teach that abortion was a moral evil and a threat to human dignity. They urged states to form their own Right to Life committees.


In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued a formal declaration (Humanae Vitae) saying that: “each and every marital act [of sexual intercourse] must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” No birth control except rhythm method and abstinence. No abortions ever at all for any reason. And no sterilization ever for anyone male or female. This, I read, remains the official stance.


Catholicism was not – and is not – the only spiritual practice in America, and is not the only authority on when life begins and what has value. Nevertheless... Catholic organizations gained power and money. In 1971, Nixon’s advisors told him that opposing abortion would be a way to pull the support of conservative Catholics away from Democrats and into the Republican party. He tightened restrictions on military bases and vowed to put conservative judges into the Supreme Court. It is said that in truth, Nixon didn’t have strong feelings about abortion one way or another. He just adopted policies to gain votes.


Sounds familiar.


Another “whisper network” popped up in Chicago.


In the early 70s, a group of women networked with illegal abortion providers to help pregnant women access abortion. Formally, they were called the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. Informally, they were called “Jane”.


Like the clergy referral services, Jane volunteers researched providers, weeding out dangerous and unsanitary back-alley butchers and nefarious predators. And when the network grew too small to handle the high demand, and the prices for services grew too great for poor women to afford, they received training from one of the providers to perform the procedures themselves.


Jane performed up to 30 abortions, 3 days per week out of “the front” and “the place” – living rooms of apartments. Women looking for abortions were told to “call Jane”.


And it appears we have returned exactly to here, 50 years in reverse. Calling Jane.



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