What If There Are No Damsels In Distress? JANE: A Paradigm for the Future
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, abortion was an unregulated procedure in the United States. Starting in 1821, all fifty states passed restrictive abortion statutes, which with few exceptions, criminalized the provision of an abortion unless necessary to preserve the life of the mother. These laws were passed at the behest of the American Medical Association, which characterized abortion as unsafe and thus sought to outlaw its provisions by midwives. The public remained almost silent on the issue for over a century. In the early 1960s, however, Sherri Finkbine's public struggle with her hospital to obtain an abortion after it was scientifically proven that thalidomide caused birth defects put abortion on the national landscape and on the political agenda. For a decade, reform and repeal organizations were established to change the restrictive laws that were putting women in the back alley and in danger of their lives.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, fourteen states reformed their restrictive abortion statutes to allow for therapeutic abortions when pregnancy threatened the life of the woman, while four states repealed their abortion laws, allowing abortion on request during the first twenty weeks of pregnancy. In the Midwest, despite a large repeal movement, no restrictive abortion law was taken out of the statute books. Illinois passed its first restrictive abortion law in 1827 and by 1867 the state had criminalized all abortions, except those performed to preserve the life of the woman. This law remained intact until 1973, despite the fact that more than twenty thousand women were brought into a single hospital over a five-year period suffering from the effects of a botched illegal abortion. Before the legalization of abortion women were forced to take matters into their own hands to deal with unwanted pregnancies. Those who could afford to left the country to obtain an abortion, while others poisoned themselves or ventured into the back alley. Those doctors and non-medical practitioners working in the back alley exploited the desperate need of women for their services and charged as much as $1000 for the simple procedure.
JANE, officially known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women's Liberation, was established in Chicago in 1969 to provide counseling and referral services to women searching for an illegal abortion. Between the years of 1969 and 1973, JANE provided over 11,000 women with safe and affordable illegal abortions. Motivated by the belief that no woman should be forced to bear an unwanted child, JANE's mission was to help every woman confronted with an unwanted pregnancy to get an abortion. The story of JANE is remarkable. The women of JANE not only met their goal of never turning a desperate woman away, but they also empowered women in the process. Whereas therapeutic abortions and back alley abortions had been degrading experiences for those women forced to seek them, JANE strove to make the woman an independent actor in the process. JANE provided individual counseling throughout the entire procedure, and in the last year of its operation, the women of JANE actually performed the abortions themselves. Those who were lucky enough to pass through JANE's doors in the days of illegal abortions recall their experiences as the best medical treatment of their lives.
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