Still Fight­ing, 43 Years Af­ter Roe v. Wade

Heather Booth launched an un­der­ground abor­tion net­work at 19. She was just start­ing.

Forward Magazine - - News - By Jesse Bern­stein

In Texas, it may soon be re­quired for women who have re­ceived an abor­tion to bury or cre­mate the fe­tal tis­sue.

In Mis­souri, Gov. Eric Gre­it­ens is seek­ing to over­turn a re­cently passed St. Louis or­di­nance that bans em­ploy­ers and land­lords from dis­crim­i­nat­ing against women who have had an abor­tion, used con­tra­cep­tives or are preg­nant.

And at the fed­eral level, the Se­nate is poised to pass leg­is­la­tion that could strip Planned Par­ent­hood of up to 40% of its fund­ing.

Since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade rul­ing es­tab­lished a con­sti­tu­tional right to abor­tion for women in 1973 the pro­ce­dure’s le­gal sta­tus has re­mained largely intact. But ac­cess to abor­tion ser­vices in large swaths of the coun­try has changed tremen­dously, es­pe­cially for low-in­come women, thanks to the co­or­di­nated ef­forts of in­di­vid­ual states, con­ser­va­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions and re­li­gious groups seek­ing to re­strict this pro­ce­dure. Re­cently, Neil Gor­such’s as­cen­sion to the Supreme Court has fu­eled the fears of re­pro­duc­tive rights ac­tivists of a re­turn to the days when preg­nant women seek­ing help were ut­terly alone.

Heather Booth, founder of the Jane Col­lec­tive — and to­day the sub­ject of “Chang­ing the World,” a widely praised doc­u­men­tary by film­maker Lilly Rivlin — re­mem­bers those days.

Booth (then Heather To­bis) was 19 years old when she got the call. A friend of hers, a grad stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Chicago, was preg­nant, the friend’s brother told Booth over the phone. She wasn’t ready for a child; she was scared, and pos­si­bly sui­ci­dal. Could Booth do any­thing to help?

Booth prob­a­bly got this call be­cause of the ac­tivism — and re­sul­tant con­nec­tions — for which she was al­ready known. Booth re­ferred the brother to some pro­gres­sive doc­tors that she knew, and even­tu­ally the friend was able to re­ceive a safe abor­tion ( per­formed by the civil rights leg­end Dr. T.R.M. Howard). She didn’t think much of it at the time.

“I didn’t think it was go­ing to lead to any­thing — I thought I was help­ing a friend,” Booth told me over the phone.

Then, a few months later, there was a sec­ond call from some­one else who ur­gently needed help get­ting an abor­tion. Still, Booth didn’t con­sider the episode to be es­pe­cially note­wor­thy. Then came a third call, and with that, a re­al­iza­tion. There was or­ga­niz­ing to be done.

At first Booth be­lieved she could set up a sys­tem of re­fer­rals and doc­tors on her own. “Oh, I’ll have a sys­tem, I’ll do it in my spare time,” she re­called think­ing. But as the enor­mity of the task at hand be­came ap­par­ent, Booth con­vened 10 or 12 women sym­pa­thetic to the cause.

The group set up a net­work of vol­un­teers who qui­etly spread news of their mis­sion by word of mouth. They would re­ceive women in an apart­ment for pre-op coun­sel­ing, con­nect women with doc­tors who would per­form abor­tions, and then send their pa­tients home with an­tibi­otics and fur­ther in­struc­tions.

They were stu­dents and housewives; black, white, Jewish, Latina; wealthy, mid­dle class, poor. If some­one couldn’t pay, the group would fig­ure out a way to help out.

They called them­selves the Jane Col­lec­tive, or just Jane, for short.

Booth spent her for­ma­tive years on the North Shore of Long Is­land, where her fam­ily be­longed to a Con­ser­va­tive sy­n­a­gogue in Sands Point. Though her mother’s fam­ily was Ha­sidic, they ac­cepted her Con­ser­va­tive fa­ther. in part, Booth thinks, be­cause he was a doc­tor.

She found great mean­ing in her Ju­daism, es­pe­cially as it re­lated to her po­lit­i­cal be­gin­nings. “I grew up be­liev­ing that so­cial jus­tice and Ju­daism were the same thing,” she said. “They were both cen­tral to each other — you couldn’t be one with­out the other.” Moses, she says, was some­what of a model or­ga­nizer in her eyes.

Booth says that she even wanted to be a rabbi at one point, be­fore she was told that there was no such thing as a fe­male rabbi. Nev­er­the­less, she sees her sense of so­cial con­scious­ness as some­thing that grew from her Ju­daism. It was the early 1960s and, among other things, her sy­n­a­gogue funded her to travel to Mis­sis­sippi to work on black voter reg­is­tra­tion with the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Co­or­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee. Booth was al­ways im­pressed that “Jews were so over­rep­re­sented in the civil rights move­ment.”

Be­fore Booth left for col­lege, there was one more ex­pe­ri­ence that mar­ried so­cial ac­tivism and Ju­daism for her: a visit to Yad Vashem, Is­rael’s na­tional Holo­caust mu­seum. When Booth trav­eled to the mu­seum in 1963, she “made a prom­ise... that in the

‘I didn’t think it was go­ing to lead to any­thing— I thought it was help­ing a friend,’ Booth said of the first abor­tion she helped ob­tain.

face of in­jus­tice I would strug­gle for jus­tice.”

The Jane Col­lec­tive, by some es­ti­mates, helped se­cure be­tween 11,000 and 13,000 abor­tions for women in need be­tween 1965 and 1973, when

Roe v. Wade ren­dered its mis­sion moot. Dur­ing those years, the women of Jane even taught them­selves how to per­form abor­tions safely. Ac­cord­ing to The New York Times, “One Chicago ob­ste­tri­cian, who had agreed to pro­vide fol­low-up vis­its to Jane pa­tients, at­tested that th­ese prac­ti­tion­ers had a safety rate roughly the same as that of the le­gal clin­ics then op­er­at­ing in New York.”

In all that time, there was just one po­lice raid on the group, and the three women ar­rested were all ex­on­er­ated by the Supreme Court rul­ing.

Though Booth left the group in 1968, she has spent the past 50 years or­ga­niz­ing around var­i­ous so­cial is­sues. In 1973, Booth won a set­tle­ment from her em­ployer, who had fired her for en­cour­ag­ing union ac­tiv­ity. With those funds, she founded the Midwest Academy, which to this day trains young ac­tivists from all over the coun­try to or­ga­nize.

Booth cau­tions against draw­ing too many par­al­lels be­tween the strug­gles of to­day’s re­pro­duc­tive rights ac­tivists and those of the days of Jane; in 1965, abor­tion, Booth says, “cer­tainly wasn’t a hot-but­ton is­sue like it is now…It hadn’t be­come a rallying cry for the far right wing.”

But of course, some things never change. For Booth, the Jane Col­lec­tive was less about whether one was “for” or “against” abor­tion and more “for women who face one of the most per­sonal de­ci­sions in their lives... when or whether to have a child.”

“That feel­ing,” she said, “is ex­actly the same. And the fear of hav­ing no al­ter­na­tives — the fear of al­most be­ing doomed in your life.” A thought popped into her head while she was telling me this:

“It’s like the song from ‘Les Mis.’ I was singing to my­self the song of... ‘so dif­fer­ent from the hell I’m liv­ing’ [she’s re­fer­ring to “I Dreamed a Dream”]. Here was a woman who had a bare ex­is­tence in a work­ing-class life, but had a child she wanted to care for, and be­cause she had to raise money for that child she was stig­ma­tized, fired, abused and re­ally tor­tured, to the point of death.”

“It’s not just enough to live a per­son­ally good life... you need to cre­ate a so­ci­ety in which peo­ple have air to breath, a de­cent liv­ing, health care, the right to de­cide when or whether to have a child.”

“It’s part of our obli­ga­tion to the next gen­er­a­tion that we en­gage to make this a bet­ter world.”


Life­long Com­mit­ment: (Top) Booth to­day cred­its Ju­daism, as cen­tral to her early po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism. (Above) Her sy­n­a­gogue funded her to go to Mis­sis­sippi in the 1960s to help regis­ter blacks to vote.

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