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Hyde Park Voices

Remarkable Story

by Jane (June 1973) Parts 1 2 3 4 5 6

Part I

A few weeks ago, reaction set in when the Illinois Senate passed a bill that would restrict all abortions to licensed doctors working in licensed medical facilities. Proponents of the bill cite the results of Friendship Clinic on the far Southside—two deaths in two months—as support for their position.

At the same time, licensed medical facilities and doctors are failing to respond to the demand for abortions (Cook County Hospital does only 18 per week and few hospitals do more), forcing women back to black-market abortions and putting dangerous strain on facilities such as Friendship Clinic.

Doctors here have not published their abortion statistics, but more than likely they are no better than those of Friendship Clinic.

In four years of extensive dealing with licensed gynecologists and hospital obstetric wards, we found that many are archaic in their medical treatments and downright disgusting in their attitudes towards women, abortion and childbearing.

If anything, the law and the medical system should encourage the opening of clinics and the training of female paramedics to meet the crying needs of women in our society.

We were members of a Chicago women’s organization that proved by four years experience that included performing more than 12,000 illegal abortions that abortions can be performed safely, humanely and very inexpensively by nonprofessional paramedics working under often primitive conditions.

In spite of the fact that the women who came through our abortion service were largely women who had nowhere else to go—too far pregnant, too poor, too young, too oppressed, too sick, too alone; and in spite of having to work under incredible stress, with inadequate facilities and no cloak of legitimacy to protect us, our medical results over four years compare favorably with the results of licensed medical facilities in New York and California.

Our group had its foundations in women’s liberation. Our view was that all women are equals and peers; there was no hierarchical “Professional” relationship between counselor and patient—nor among counselors regardless of their responsibilities. We worked with, not on, the pregnant women who came through the service.

Counselor, patient or paramedic—we were all partners in the crime of demanding the freedom to control our own bodies and our own childbearing.

During the four years the service was functioning, we dealt repeatedly with the police and with the Mafia, we discovered highly respected doctors secretly on the take, we clashed with gun-wielding extortionists and with butcher abortionists.

But we also discovered warmth, humanity and assistance in the most unexpected places.

We learned to buy medical instruments and drugs in the black market; and we also learned that drugs were often unnecessary—mutual understanding, compassion and trust between the patient and the service were more effective pain preventers.

We all—patients and counselors— learned about how our own bodies work. We learned how the bureaucratic and money-oriented medical system, in partnership with the law, works to control the bodies and neglect the needs of women.

We believed in life and we dealt with death—and with all manner of religious and political rhetoric in-between.

Is a fetus a person? Is abortion murder? If so, when does it become murder? Two days? Six months?

We heard the views of Catholic priests and right-to-lifers, and the calculating statistics of population fanatics. Black revolutionaries accused us of genocide, while weary black women pleaded for ‘‘no more kids!’’

We could never resolve the contradictions, but we held fast to the political principle that freedom of choice for the living woman was our first priority.

During the first 18 months, the responsibilities of the women in the service evolved from counseling and referring, then to medically assisting established abortionists and finally to doing the entire procedure. During that time, the average charge dropped from more than $400 to less than $100.

We learned to give shots, to take blood pressure, to take and read pap smears for cancer. We performed abortions on pregnant 11-year-olds and on pregnant 50-year-olds.

We learned to do a D and C—standard dilation-and-curettage—and to use a vacuum aspirator for the operation.

We learned to induce a miscarriage for women 15 weeks or more pregnant. When we learned that hospitals would turn away a woman in induced labor—or turn her over to the police—we set up our own midwife service, so that women who were induced wouldn’t have the additional hassle of hospitals and police.

We learned from similar experiences in our political pasts, from books and doctors and drug circulars, from the Clergy Consultation Service, which had been doing counseling and making abortion referrals for several months, and from identifying and understanding feelings in our own bodies and then trying to relate them to another woman’s problems and feelings.

We learned a great deal from a male abortionist with whom we had a very close, painfully contradictory relationship that evolved over several years.

And we learned by trial and error— plunging in with brazen daring when there seemed to be no other alternatives for our sisters or ourselves.

Experience taught us that good counseling, not medical mechanics, was by far the most important aspect of the service.

Whether a woman was to have an abortion in a hotel room or in a clinic, whether it was to be done by a man or woman, whether it was to be done direct or by induced miscarriage, the whole experience would be infinitely better if she was prepared for it—intellectually, physically and emotionally-and if she knew she could depend upon her counselor for understanding and support.

On the other hand, careful counseling served as a screening process to protect the service. Individual counseling could pick up the unreconcilable doubts and guilt, the religious conflicts, the boyfriend or parents who were forcing the issue—all of which led to both physical and emotional problems afterwards

The object of counseling was to make abortion available, but never to promote abortion; to provide the woman with an alternative, and then to give her support, whatever her choice.

The abortion counseling service was organized in 1969 by a small group of women who had been active in local radical politics and wanted to work In the then infant women’s liberation movement.

At first we had doubts about abortion as a women’s organizing issue—too unpopular, too illegal, too dangerous and too politically ambiguous.

But several women who had been doing informal abortion counseling and referral for several years convinced us of the political value and the practical need for an organized underground abortion service.

We spent two months meeting and talking. Four years ago, the climate surrounding abortion was very different than today. We wanted to understand our own feelings about it before we began counseling other women.

Several of us had abortions, several of us had children, one of us had been trying for years to become pregnant, several intended to remain childless.

We discussed our views on marriage, on family, on freedom of choice. We tried to build a political theory that would tie the issue of abortion solidly to the issues of women’s liberation.

Women in our society were caught in a three-way trap; social pressures to be glamorous and available, moral and economic stigmas against unwanted pregnancies and "illegimate" children, and legal and religious taboos against abortion.

Our political goal became to provide a positive alternative-and in the process to organize women to fight for their own rights.

We discussed the compromises and tensions that would be involved in working with established illegal abortionists, most of whom were male, and all of whom were in It for the money. These mysterious and anonymous men came well referred, and they all claimed to be a doctors, but we had doubts.


The medical profession portrayed them as incompetent butchers who punctured uteruses, caused hemorrhages and infections, and then left their poor victims emotional wrecks after taking their life savings.

We had no experience to separate myth from fact.

We discussed at length how we would deal with various medical problems should they occur (oh, our innocence!), and whether we believed enough in our undertaking to accept responsibility for drastic consequences—such as death of a patient or jail for ourselves.

We set out an outline for counseling and practiced with each other. We composed a four-page flyer to be used as a counseling aid and a way of advertising the service.

The brochure briefly covered the political purposes of the service, the reasons why illegality made abortion so expensive, and a physical description of abortion and possible side-effects. It closed with a few punchy paragraphs on a woman’s right to determine her own childbearing.

The brochure became a classic piece that, with minor changes, remained relevant throughout the years.

Word of mouth was to be the medium for advertising the service. We announced its existence at select meetings and we distributed the brochure to sisters in the movement.

The quick response was testimony to the need.

The exorbitant cost of abortion presented the toughest problems. Going rates were well upwards of $500, and that was for a cloak-and-dagger style abortion— women being picked up and dropped off at street corners with no advance counseling and no follow-up.

Could we morally collect $500 from a sister-in-need and then pass it on to the man? Did we become partners to the economic crime or were we making it easier for the woman by providing connections, counseling and security?

Somehow the service would have to bring the price down in order to help women without money.

At one point a friend of the group suggested that we could drop prices by learning to do the abortions ourselves. We were shocked at the suggestion. We were too brainwashed by the medical mystique to have any conception of the paramedic.

We decided to get started in the existing market, and to deal with dropping the price when the opportunity d arose. In addition, we would ask for contributions of $25 from every woman who could pay in full , and try to build up an abortion loan fund.

The goal of making abortions available to all women, regardless of ability to pay, was to consume enormous amounts of energy and cause major headaches over the years.

It also proved a major impetus for change and progress in the activities and politics of the service.

And it was a major factor in choosing which abortionists we could begin to work with—and continue to work with over the years.

“Jane” was the pseudonym we chose to represent the service. A phone was opened in her name and an answering service secured, later replaced by a tape recorder. Jane kept all records and served as control/central.

For four years, Jane kept the same phone number—643-3844. At first she received only eight to ten calls a week. A year later she was receiving well more than 100 calls a week.

All phoned in messages were returned the same day: “Hello, Marcia? This Jane from women’s liberation returning your call. We can’t talk freely over the phone, but I want you to know that we can help you.”

Then Jane would refer the name to a counselor, who would meet personally with the woman and talk with her at length about available alternatives.

The counselor would also help the woman arrange finances and, whenever possible, collect a $25 donation for the service loan fund. The counseling session was also a screening process for detecting conflicts and potential legal threats.

If the woman chose the alternative of abortion, the counselor would turn the information over to another counselor who was handling doctor contacts for the week. She, in turn, would make specific arrangements with the abortionist.

The abortionists all insisted at first on dealing independently with the woman, as far as setting a meeting place and collecting money. They didn’t trust us and we didn’t trust them.

But such factors became negotiating issues in deciding which of them we would work with.

When a woman is looking for an illegal abortionist, she doesn’t just check the Yellow Pages under A.

Our original contacts with abortionists came by word of mouth. One was recommended by Clergy Consultation, two had been used by the women who did pre-service counseling, several were recommended by other women who had used them—and some contacted us soliciting our business.

They each wanted the most possible money, the greatest possible anonymity and the fewest possible problems. They each also wanted the greatest possible freedom of action and the most possible freedom from responsibility. They all preferred to be called “doctor.”

Aside from these standard features, are they each had their good points and their bad points. From our vantage point, it was a matter of choosing the combination of least evils. One price of our purpose was to tie ourselves and other women who put their trust in us to these strange bedfellows whose purpose was so different from ours.

One of the things we soon learned was that the syndicate had recently become aware of the profits in black market abortions, and had obtained a piece of the action.

Most of the abortionists that we dealt with paid hundreds of dollars each week for police protection. Those who didn’t pay ended up spending even more to buy their way out of an abortion conviction by greasing the criminal justice system.

We made it clear from the outset that - that we would never pay money directly to the outfit and, to the extent that we had a choice, would not work with abortionists who did. We decided that, after certain health and safety factors were guaranteed, we would opt for the situation that gave us the most control.

It was a hard choice.

Take Doctor Number 1: He works in a nearby suburb in a nice, clean hi-rise apartment. He charges $500 per case, but will take $400 per case if we guarantee a certain number of cases each week. Women who have gone to him say he’s pleasant enough, his medical reputation as an abortionist is good, and he works with a woman assistant.

However, he will only take cases 10 weeks and under. In addition, since he only works in one place, he has to conceal its whereabouts from the patients. This means women will be picked up at a bus-stop and driven in a roundabout -fashion to the building. Black and Spanish women are especially conspicuous in this neighborhood.

But most important. we can never contact him in person. All our contact with him has to be through a middle-woman, and then only on the phone. This meant we had no place to call to check on a particular patient or to get help with a problem. It also meant there was no way of negotiating directly in regard to money in special cases. It meant that control was low and learning possibilities were few.

We did not totally reject Doctor 1. We described the situation and made it available for women who preferred that alternative. We had few complaints and few problems, but then few women went there.

Doctor Number 2 works out of his West Side medical offices. He must pay police protection, because his name is right on the door. Medical conditions seem good, but he has several times become drunk in front of patients and reportedly made sexual favors a condition of the abortion.

"Here’s my offer" says Doctor Number 3. "We’ll keep the price at $500, but if a woman really can’t afford to pay, we’ll do her for free."

“Come down to $400 base, and we’ll skip the free ones,” we countered.

“That wouldn’t be fair. An abortion is worth $500 and I deserve it. But how does this sound: We’ll keep the price at $500, do an occasional free one, and if you have a special deal on a special case, we’ll make an exception. But we want to be able to charge more for the ones that are 12 weeks or more.”

Doctor Number 3 will do abortions direct up to 13 weeks, and will induce miscarriage in long-term pregnancies. He would prefer to go to a woman’s house to perform the abortion, but also works in motel rooms. He says that motel rooms are a clean, safe place to work, and it is better for a woman to have her own room where she can rest than for her to have to get up and out right away. It sounds reasonable. He also works with a woman.

We have reservations about the medical competence of Doctor 3, because we have heard that a D&C can’t be done after 10 weeks, and because we know nothing about induced miscarriages.

He says that know-how is the key, and he would be happy to explain the procedure to us or answer any questions we have. But he’ll only talk to one person at a time. Three makes a conspiracy. He warns us that we should never talk to the police.

Doctor 3 seems a little slick and overbearing, but more flexible than the others, and more willing to seek mutually satisfactory ground. More of him later.

Doctor Number 4 was foreign-born and educated, and claimed he had a unique European technique that was painless and much safer. He came highly recommended by a local physician’s receptionist, who said she had used him twice. He agreed to do abortions up to 12 weeks for only $150 a piece.

At this point, on the one-month anniversary of the opening of the service, there were a number of women waiting who couldn’t scrape together the money. The loan fund was empty. And two women were eager to give this new doctor a try, even though he was an unknown.

The first case turned out fine. The second, a young black woman, wound up in the hospital with a lacerated cervix, and her black revolutionary parents and friends wanted the blood of the Nazi who did it.

The police were interrogating the woman and her family, and the infant service was already in trouble. It was saved partly by the intervention of a young black civil rights worker who kept the peace for a week and convinced the parents not to talk, but it was mainly saved by the woman’s full recovery.

It was with Doctor Number 3, however, that we ultimately established our closest relationship. While we were involved in thousands of abortions with him, we all learned basic medical skills of assisting.

A number of us also learned to perform abortions.

When women in the service became able to provide all services from counseling to midwifing induced abortions, we reached a new stage of autonomy and a new level of politics. Our first move was to drop the price, and the bottom fell out of the abortion black market.

But learning and becoming self- sufficient was not an overnight process. While the abortionist was still taking responsibility for medical procedures, we were learning other skills: how to deal with doctors and hospitals, how to talk to the police, how to buy drugs and instruments, how to counsel more effectively, how to recruit and train new counselors, and how to maintain democracy, efficiency and sisterhood among a group of women who worked together under incredible stresses.

To Part II

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