a Clandestine Abortion Service by Ruth
Surgal and the CWLU Herstory Committee
What was Jane?
Jane was the abortion counseling service affiliated with the CWLU. Before abortion was legalized in 1973, Jane members, none of whom were physicians, performed over 11,000 illegal abortions. Their philosophy was that women had the right to safe humane abortions and that if that wasn’t legally possible , than it was up to the womens liberation movement to take up the slack.
Jane took its medical and social responsibilities seriously. so careful training and a humane relationship with their clientele were an important part of the Jane experience. Known officially as the Abortion Counseling Service of Womens Liberation, "Jane" was the name people would ask for when they first made contact. Ruth Surgal and Jody Parsons were the main leaders of Jane throughout most of its existence
Soon after her first puzzled encounter with feminist ideas, Ruth Surgal had one of those Ah or Click experiences, when suddenly, womens liberation made perfect sense. Many women had such experiences in the 1960s and 1970s. For Ruth it was listening to a 1969 radio interview with Marlene Dixon, a University of Chicago professor who had been fired because of her outspoken support of the womens liberation movement.
Active in the anti-war movement, Surgal felt the need to do something different.
Jane began as a referral service, but for Surgal and the others, dealing with the actual male abortionists was a very frustrating experience. There were blindfolds, high prices, secret motel rooms and the nagging feeling that women needed to be in control over the process. Finally the Service settled on one abortionist who seemed more flexible than the rest. Claiming to be a physician, he became known as Mike. Although no one questioned his technical expertise as an abortionist, it was eventually learned that Mike really wasnt a doctor.
When Surgal and Jody Parsons first negotiated with him:
According to Ruth, Mike was a very complicated person:
While working for Jane, Mike taught people his abortion techniques. As people learned what he knew, the blindfolds began coming off and the prices dropped. The people he trained, trained others, so that after his departure, Jane became an all-woman service.
Janes medical techniques were very good, but Jane always felt that technical knowledge wasnt enough. The women seeking the abortions needed to feel that they were part of the process. Although the modern term empowerment has become something of a threadbare politicians cliche, Jane actually took the idea seriously.
Counselors and intake personnel learned to listen to Janes clients carefully, as what was NOT said was often as important as what WAS said. Women were encouraged to talk about themselves and their lives. People talked about womens liberation, about how women were expected to be sexy and desirable, but then were punished for becoming pregnant. Women were encouraged to talk about their personal experiences with children, pregnancy and abortion. Jane wanted to demystify the abortion experience so that people could make intelligent decisions about what to do.
Jane was a diverse group of people and styles varied:
Jane tried to find places for volunteers based on their skills and abilities. Surgal herself did not feel confident enough to perform the actual abortion procedure:
Surgal decided that her talents would better serve the group as "Big Jane", the term that was used to describe the person who actually assigned abortion counselors, scheduled abortions and was the members main source of information. She explains:
Decision making within Jane could be difficult. Conditions were stressful because of the life and death nature of the work they were doing, the necessity for secrecy and the knowledge that they had to focus on the work because so many desperate women depended on them. People had a tendency to suppress open disagreement to keep the group united and task oriented. Naturally, this created its own problems, but when 7 Jane members were unexpectedly arrested and the very existence of the group was threatened, people continued performing abortions, even as disagreements about strategy intensified.
Surgal especially remembers one struggle:
Jane soon figured out the arrests were not part of an overall plan to shut down the Abortion Counseling Service, but rather the actions of an individual police commander. Ironically, some of Janes clients came from police families and the overall attitude of the usually repressive and controlling Mayor Richard J. Daley city administration was to unofficially ignore Janes activities.
Not long after the Roe vrs. Wade decision legalized abortion in January of 1973, the case against the Abortion 7 was quietly dropped. Some Jane members wanted to go on, believing that legalization did not address the issues of cost and the quality of care. Others were burned out, or feared that because abortion was now legally profitable, the medical establishment would have them prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license.
Ruth Surgal hoped that Janes extensive experience in performing abortions would become a model:
Jane closed its doors in the spring of 1973. The Abortion Counseling Service existed in tumultuous times and no one who went through Jane was unaffected by the intensity of the experience.
It would be all too easy to romanticize Jane, and make its members larger than life. Ruth Surgal cautions against "overvalueing" the Jane experience because,"It makes it outside of normal experience, and it isnt outside of normal experience."
Jane members decided they had a job to do and they did it. When the job was over, Jane members moved on with their diverse lives.
Today Ruth Surgal is still involved with social work and is an accomplished potter. The hands that she feared were not steady enough to perform actual abortions, today shape clay into exquisitely subtle forms.
She is an active member of the Herstory Website Project and patiently continues to give interviews about her participation in Jane, explaining how she feels about it now:
from Jane: An Abortion Service a video by Nell Lundy and Kate Kirtz