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Underground abortion group in spotlight, 50 years on

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PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 31: Rafael Nadal of Spain in action against Novak Djokovic (not seen) of Serbia in the men’s quarterfinal match during French Open tennis tournament at Roland ​Garros Stadium in Paris, France on May 31, 2022. (Mustafa Yalçın - Anadolu Agency)
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Jun 06, 2022 - 03:58 AM

WASHINGTON — Heather Booth was a student in Chicago in 1965 when she received a call from a friend in need. His sister, he said, was pregnant but not ready to have a child. She was “nearly suicidal.”

Drawing on her contacts in the city, Booth helped the young woman find a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion — in what she believed would be a one-off “act of goodwill.”

“But word must have spread,” the 76-year-old said in an interview from her home in Washington, more than half a century later.

That one act would grow into an underground network of women called “Jane,” whose members helped end thousands of unwanted pregnancies, safely and without stigma — eventually performing 11,000 abortions themselves.

By January 22, 1973 — when the US Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision created a nationwide right to abortion — seven “Jane” members were awaiting trial.

One of them was Martha Scott, who at the age of 80 — and with the court now expected to repeal that right — looks back defiantly on her decision to break the law many years ago.

“I felt very strongly… that we are doing this illegal thing because it is important to do, because it can’t be done legally,” Scott said in a video interview from her home in Chicago.

“We were just ladies down the street,” she said, but “bad laws require you to choose to act in ways that may be a little risky.”

‘Caring community’ 

Booth and Scott, whose journey with the “Janes” is spotlighted in an upcoming HBO documentary, have stark memories of the time before Roe — when desperate women would harm themselves attempting to end their pregnancies.

“Some were taking lye (a caustic ingredient in soap), some were using a coat hanger,” said Booth. “Some were doing damage to themselves, throwing themselves down stairs or off a rooftop.”

Without alternatives, women sought out abortions from illegal providers, many of whom were motivated by profit or unscrupulous in other ways, with little concern for women’s health.

Eleanor Oliver, another former member of the network, said when she sought an illegal abortion in Washington, she was told the doctor might want her to be “a little cozier and friendlier than just a patient.”

Fortunately, said the now-84-year-old Oliver, “he was very businesslike, very official.”

As word got out that Booth could help women get a safe abortion, more and more began contacting her — and she recruited others to help.

To be discreet, they told callers to leave a message for “Jane” — and the group, established as a “caring community,” was born.

After some time, the group discovered their abortionist was not a licensed doctor — a shock that led some members to leave.

But others, said Scott, realized that if a man without professional training could learn how to safely perform abortions, so could they.

‘Furious’ 

In May 1972, the police barged into the apartment where the “Jane” collective was operating.

“They kept saying ‘So where’s the doctor?’…’‘Where’s the guy who’s doing abortions?'” recalled Scott, who was in one of the bedrooms-turned-surgeries.

“Well, of course, it wasn’t any guy who was doing abortions… we were doing abortions.”

She and six others were rounded up and taken to jail, where they spent the night — before being released pending trial.

In the wake of Roe v. Wade, the charges against the “Janes” were dropped, and the group disbanded.

Half a century later, though, their work appears relevant all over again, after a leak revealed that the Supreme Court is seriously considering a full reversal of Roe.

Scott was “furious, just furious” at the news — but “not surprised” either, in light of former president Donald Trump’s nomination of three anti-abortion conservative justices, tilting the bench decisively to the right.

If the nationwide right to abortion is struck down — leaving states free to enact “dangerous” restrictions — Scott expects a new generation of activists will need to step up.

“What we need to do is use every tool at our disposal,” echoed Booth.

While conservative-led states are expected to drastically curb abortion rights if given free rein, it would remain legal in many other states — “islands in the storm,” as Booth calls them.

Some, like Illinois, have already moved to loosen their abortion restrictions in anticipation of the Supreme Court decision.

The poorest women — less able to travel out of state — will be the hardest-hit, as seen in Texas where abortions after six weeks have already been effectively banned.

But new medication can safely induce abortions up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy and — though it would still be illegal — can easily be sent through the mail.

And so, Scott and Booth hold out hope that the United States will not be going back to the dark days of back-alley abortions.

“The abortions won’t stop,” Booth said, citing data that shows one in four American women will terminate a pregnancy at some point in their lifetime.

“It’s not rare, and it needs to be safe.”

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