Special Feature
Return to main Jane Articles Page

Hyde Park Voices
Remarkable Story

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

Part VI

We performed our first complete abortion!
The changes that resulted from our being able to do them, independent of ‘Dr.” C, our male abortionist, were sweeping:

  • Internally, for better or worse, we had a sudden abundance of money for running the service.
  • Operationally, we had to find our own sources for drugs and supplies.
  • Legally. we became full-fledged abortionists in the eyes of the law. We could no longer hide behind the label of “counselor” or expect “Dr,’ C to act as a buffer, with his know-how and ready cash for dealing with a bust.
  • Personally, we had to cope with a range of problems, including anxiety and guilt, strains on family and friendship, and social disapproval.
  • And morally, we had to be ready to accept the full consequences of our activities, even if they brought illness, personal tragedy or death.

Also, we were to become fully aware of our peculiar relationship to the law and the police.

For some counselors the issue of death arose only once—early in our third year when a woman who came through the service died.

For others, death was a moral issue encountered each time we performed an abortion.

From the beginning, we discussed the moral implications of abortion from all angles. We listened to right-to-lifers, Catholic clergy. population-control freaks and women’s liberationists.

We heard legislators and lobbyists and political commentators arguing fine points of “fetal viability.” When does a fetus become a person? When it can survive outside the womb (after six months)? When it begins to move (after four months)? Or from the moment of conception?

Many opponents of abortion called it “murder.”

We argued the logical counter-arguments: if a fetus is a person, then why aren’t abortionists and women who have abortions charged with murder?

Or if the fetus has the rights of a person, then does the woman who carries it become subject to its rights? What happens when the rights of the woman and those of the fetus come into conflict?

All philosophical and legalistic positions lost relevance when we began viewing and doing abortions.

It’s true that none of us could relate to a five-week embryo as a person. But for some of us, the first time we saw a recognizable fetal part—a tiny hand or leg—we knew that we were grappling with matters of life and death, and no philosophical arguments could alter that belief.

Others of us were morally undisturbed by a D&C, but had trouble dealing with the complete and perfect fetus passed during an induced miscarriage.

Often, if the cord hadn’t been cut when it induced, the fetus would move its limbs for a short time after the miscarriage. Was this not life?

Still other counselors refused to be moved by any feelings about the fetus. A newborn baby might be a precious human being, but a fetus was nothing more than a potential—one that could be stopped without qualms.

We found that patients shared the same range of views about their own abortions. Some women were totally unmoved by their abortion except as it affected their own physical and financial well-being.

Others suffered intense conflict— especially in the earlier days of the service when abortion was still socially taboo— but they felt that abortion was their only possible alternative. They were ready to face the emotional and religious consequences of their act.

These women often referred to the fetus as the “baby,” both in counseling sessions and during the abortion.

Regardless our range of views on the life or death of the fetus. all counselors shared a common conviction: that the life and freedom of choice of the woman took priority, and the job of the service was to keep those choices open.

When we joined the service, we accepted that position. The moral and emotional conflicts that we hashed out at meetings served to remind us of the gravity of our actions, and to make us more sympathetic with the conflicts of the women we counseled.

Early in the second year of the service, “Dr.” C and his nurse dissolved their partnership.

By the time it came, the split was welcome from all sides. The nurse had never been sympathetic to women’s liberation and did not relate well to the patients, especially the growing numbers of young, black and poor. She was more comfortable with the old ways—meeting on street corners and motel abortions.

Women from the service had gradually been taking over her functions. By the time she left, she was doing little besides obtaining medications, taking money and just being there.

She had been obtaining the drugs from a doctor friend, but told us that he was balking at the growing demand.

In fact, several times in her last months of work the supply of drugs had run short and counselors had to run from place to place in the middle of the day begging individual prescriptions from sympathetic doctors.

The extra cost, risk and inconvenience of scrambling for drugs this way was intolerable. After several such experiences, we decided to get the drugs ourselves rather than complaining again to the nurse and “Dr” C.

“Dr.” C was doing about 40 abortions a week with our help at this time, and we were doing another 10 a week independently.

Each patient received a shot of ergotrate and eight c.c.’s of xylocaine during the abortion, as well as a box of 12 ergotrate and 12 tetracycline tablets to take after the abortion. We also used pitocin for induced miscarriages and penicillin for secondary infections.

We needed at least 50 ampules of ergotrate, 10 bottles of xylocaine, 100 disposable syringes and 600 tablets each of tetracycline and ergotrate every week.

We also needed more sets of instruments and a source for replacing worn and damaged instruments.

How does a lay person obtain that volume of drugs, especially ergotrate, in a society where abortion is illegal? How does she obtain a dilator or forceps or a set of curettes? Not from the corner Walgreens.

We talked with the few doctors who knew of our activities, and found them sympathetic, but not very helpful. One could give us a week’s supply of tetracycline and another could provide a few syringes and an occasional bottle of xylocaine.

But we would have to look elsewhere to meet our major needs. A pharmacist in a local movement-type clinic smuggled out two 1000-tab bottles of ergotrate and tetracycline for us—at substantial personal risk—and we had a 10-day leeway to find a steady source for drugs.

We discussed—and quickly discarded— the established black-market avenues for buying illegal drugs. We couldn’t jeopardize the service with street deals, and any such deal would be prohibitively expensive. Besides, ergotrate was not a stock black-market item.

We sent for catalogs from large drug distributors and found we would have to have a physician’s name and narcotics registration number to buy drugs this way.

We also discovered through the catalogs the outrageous difference in cost between generic and name-brand drugs For example, 1,000 capsules of generic 250 mg. tetracycline cost $13.95. Achromycin, the brand name for the same drug put out by Lederle Company, cost $126 per thousand.

In other words, a physician who prescribes a specific brand name of tetracycline forces a patient to pay nine times as much to fight an infection.

Dr. "C", who was as concerned about the drug crisis as we were, came up with easy answers, in his own inimitable style:

“It’s simple,” he said. “Just walk into a medical supply house like you know what you’re doing and make an order. If you act sure of yourself. .. and pay cash - . . they won’t question you. By the way, you should wear a medical coat.”

The next day a counselor clad in blue jeans and a collegiate jacket (we decided the medical coat was not our style) walked into a large medical supply house and asked to talk to a salesman.

“Hi I’m Dr Benson. I’m a second year resident In gynecology at Cook County, and I’d like to pick up a few things you can bill me, or if you’d prefer, I’ll pay cash.”

She walked out 10 minutes late with a complete set of curettes, a sponge forceps, two boxes of gauze squares, and a dilator on order—as well as a promise to come back and buy more because the service was so good compared to the supply house down the way.

At another supply house, we realized that we could even buy instruments under the name “Dr Quackenbush” as long as we paid cash.

But neither supply house stocked the kinds of drugs we wanted. Both advised “ Dr Benson” to order directly from a distributor. We got the same response elsewhere.

Then an angel appeared.

A local gynecologist who had sent us some particularly difficult cases told us he knew of a large druggist who might be able to help us.

“This guy is always ready to make some extra money, and he’s a decent person as well,” the gynecologist said. “I told him you ran a women’s clinic with an M.D. on the staff.”

When we met the druggist, we decided to level with him. After all, he had a right to be informed of the risks he was taking.

The man turned out to be sympathetic, understanding and helpful as well. In fact, he was downright fascinated when we described our activities and the volume of drugs we used.

We worked out the details at a business relationship that was to be thoroughly positive (for more than two years).

He requested only reasonable precautions: that he deal with only one or two women from the service and that his name not be revealed to the service at large; that we never transact business over the phone; that we remove all labels as soon as we got the drugs home, and that we promise, even if arrested, never to give his name.

It’s questionable whether he made much money from supplying us with drugs, relative to the inconvenience and risk. He bought drugs at distributor prices and sold them to us at low wholesale. We dealt only in cash.

The first time we drove home from his store with a trunk full of contraband drugs and syringes, our paranoid eyes saw police on every corner.

Much later, we learned that there were indeed police watching our every move, but for a combination of practical political and humanitarian motives they had decided not to arrest us at this time

An illegal underground organization continually has to deal with the prospect of a bust. The first concern is how to avoid one, and the second is how to act if one happens—what to say and do, who to protect, how to spread the rap or limit it,

When we organized the service our strategy in case of an arrest was to make it a major political event.

An arrest of one would be an arrest of all. It would test the law and, more important. It would provide an issue around which many women could join in political opposition to the sexist system.

To this end, we collected in the first year thousands of complicity statements—admissions by people of participation in and support of our illegal activities.

But during the first year, our policy regarding an arrest changed steadily and significantly along with a change in the nature of the service and the type of women it served.

As we did more and more abortions at lower and lower prices, we had more poor, young, black and long-term patients. For these women, the only alternatives were to have the baby or to try to self-abort with chemicals, catheters and coathangers.

Gradually, the importance of the alternative service Jane provided became even more important than the political statement we might make if we were arrested. At the same time, other companion groups in the women’s movement began to organize on the strictly political front for a change in the laws and the attitudes towards abortion.

So Jane—the code name for the abortion service—moved out of the political arena to concentrate on improving and expanding the underground service. More and more, our position became that our first responsibility in case of an arrest was to protect the service and keep it functioning.

In fact, we were not arrested until the third year of the service... and then it was more a renegade action on the part of a few policemen than the well-planned political arrest we had been led to expect.

But continuing police harassment and threats of a bust which didn’t materialize became a difficult and nerve racking problem in itself.

The police continually reminded us of their presence—sometimes subtly, sometimes directly. From the beginning they watched us, followed us, tapped our phones, called and questioned us, and harassed ex-patients for information, often with threats of arrest and imprisonment.

Sometimes patrol can would drive past the work place every few minutes during the day. Occasionally, they were parked in front when the driver arrived with a group of patients, and she would drive on to a nearby telephone to alert us, while reminding the patients how to act in case of arrest.

Then the paramedic crew would speedily finish the abortion at hand, pack up the instruments and leave by back doors to continue the. days work at an emergency place.

Individual counselors on the street or at stores would sometimes he greeted by police by name or else simply with ‘Hi, Jane.”

Several times counselors met patients at restaurants to counsel them only to have two plainclothes policemen walk in and sit down at the nearest table.

Other times, police would appear at a counselor’s house late at night or early in the morning, asking questions about a former or a prospective patient. They often had affidavits extracted from women who had gone to the hospital for a miscarriage, and had been forced to answer questions while in labor.

They were always around and yet they didn’t close in. We pondered this, and kept our guard up.

Certain evasive actions became second nature—use the phone as seldom as possible, and never mention specifics over the phone, such as names, addresses, dates or the word “abortion.”

Unfortunately, our main means of communication with patients and with each other was by phone. Often Jane or a counselor would have to go to a public telephone with thirty or forty dimes and spend several hours contacting people.

Sometimes, especially when setting up times and places to work, counselors would have to prearrange in person times when they could talk to each other, both over public phones.

We rehearsed with each other how we would act in case of a bust, and we counseled patients on how to act if the police stopped them, and warned them not to tell even friends or family specifics about their abortion plans.

One of our closest calls occurred when a prospective patient casually mentioned to a co-worker that she planned to have an abortion the following Monday. The co-worker, a devout Catholic, called the local suburban police.

When the woman left for her abortion. the police picked her up less than five minutes from her house. They searched her car and found the address of the day’s work place in her purse.

They told her that if she did not accompany them to the work place, they would take her to the station and book her.

While the women could not evade or dissuade the police, she had enough presence of mind to ask the police if she should stop at home with them and make sure the baby sitter had arrived.

But instead, she gave them the address of a neighbor, and when they arrived, she whispered to the neighbor: "They’re police. Call Jane!"

The neighbor rushed to the woman’s house and, by chance found the phone number of the counselor on tine kitchen table. She called it - and said "Do something quick. The police are coming!"

The counselor did not know the work place. For security reasons, only Jane and the people who were working on a given day had the addresses. She received only a recorded message when she called Jane. It might be an hour till Jane picked up the tape, and by then, it would be all over.

So she began calling other counselors she thought might know. A frantic telephone chain started, and finally one counselor who load been tentatively scheduled to work that day remembered several possible places that had been considered.

She took a guess at the most likely one and ran over on foot to find business as usual—the paramedics working that day had no notion that trouble was close.

The paramedic crew folded up work and were out of the place in five minutes and the counselor stayed behind to wait for the woman. If no one answered when she and her companions arrived, they might break down the doors, search the place and find incriminating evidence.

Less than five minutes later, a suburban police car pulled up down the block, accompanied by a Chicago patrol car and a paddy wagon.

The doorbell ring and the woman came in accompanied by a young man in plainclothes who said he was her boyfriend The woman was visibly nervous, but that wasn’t unusual for patients who were coming for abortions.

The counselor said, “I’m glad you brought your boyfriend along. It’s good to have a friend with you when you come for a counseling session”

Then she launched into a long and tedious discussion of various places the woman might go to obtain a legal abortion—Washington DC, London, Japan and Mexico City.

After a hour-half of this dissertation. the man said abruptly, “Come on, let’s go.” And the counselor watched out the front window as the couple walked out, talked briefly with the waiting police and left.

In the meantime, the work of the day was proceeding with only slight delay at another emergency work place.

The woman’s counselor arranged for her to get a legal abortion In Washington DC.

After this experience, we set up the “front” system, in which patients were given only the address of a counselor’s house to assemble before they were driven by another counselor to the work place. The front system had many advantages aside from security. It provided a place for last-minute counseling and a place for a friend or family member to stay while the woman was having an abortion.

It was a last stop where a woman could change her mind if she was in doubt, or could build confidence and camaraderie from talking with other waiting patients.

Counselors working at the front started group discussions on women’s issues and sometimes set up follow-up meetings for women who expressed interest in the movement.

Often patients and companions became deeply absorbed in publications given out at the front, such as “Our Bodies, Ourselves” or “The Birth Control Handbook.”

But the main advantage of the front was that it was one more barrier between the police and the abortionists.

One year went by... and then another. It was a continuing and baffling mystery to us that we were not arrested. Were we politically too hot? Did the legal system appreciate the service as a safety valve that was meeting needs the society was not ready to handle legitimately? Or was it because we wouldn’t make payoffs?

While we went on worrying but working, other Chicago abortionists were regularly feeling to the hand of the law. The story would make page one, the state’s attorney would collect his credits, the defendants would make their payoffs, the case would stop short of trial and the would soon be back at work.

The periods when harassment was heaviest added horrendous strains to our already super-stress work. It seemed like most of our energy went into avoiding being busted.

But the periods that were relatively free from police harassment were times that the service grew and improved in medical care, efficiency, scope of activities and political organizing.

For example, in one such period, we bought a professional teaching microscope and learned to take and read pap smears for early cancer detection From then on, we provided free pap smears for each woman who came through the service.

In another police-free period, we began organizing “self-help” clinics, in which a small group of women meet to learn how to insert their own speculum, examine themselves with a mirror, and do pelvic exams on each other.

The goal of the self-help clinic was to help women become familiar with their own and each other’s bodies, in large part so they would not be so helpless in dealing with the male-dominated medical profession.

Then, after a few months without arrest threats, we would become so absorbed in the expanding activities of the service that we became careless in protecting the service from the law.

We would think of ourselves as quasi-legitimate, almost immune from arrest. In revolutionary terms, we became “undisciplined.”

We would use the phone too freely, be seen in the same working places too often, fail in counseling to stress the mutually illegal action of the service and the patient.

Then . . inevitably . . . reality would suddenly descend. lt. might be an angry boyfriend who called the police because his girl friend split with him after he paid the tab. Or a woman who went to the hospital with a miscarriage and gave in to pressure to talk.

Then, early one morning, a counselor would answer her door to find two plainclothesmen standing there ... and the whole cycle would begin again.


We do not have the next part as the Hyde Park Voices ceased publication. Please read Laura Kaplan's The Story of Jane to find out more about this remarkable group of people.

Woman symbol


Special Feature