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Ruth SurgalOrganizing a Clandestine Abortion Service by Ruth Surgal and the CWLU Herstory Committee

(Editors Note: This article was developed from a 1999 interview conducted by Becky Kluchin. The picture of Ruth is from the 1995 video Jane: An Abortion Service. This memoir is also available in our regular Memoirs and Bios section.)

"Now originally, way back in the beginning, I really thought feminism was stupid. It’s really embarrassing to think about it. But, I was at a Women for Peace meeting and some women came to talk about the women’s movement and feminism. I just thought they were you know, having trouble in their marriages... none of it made any sense to me"- Ruth Surgal, 1999.

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 women’s 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 Women’s 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

Ruth Surgal

Soon after her first puzzled encounter with feminist ideas, Ruth Surgal had one of those “Ah” or “Click” experiences, when suddenly, women’s liberation made perfect sense. Many women had such experiences in the 1960’s and 1970’s. 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 women’s liberation movement.

Active in the anti-war movement, Surgal felt the need to do something different.

I was looking for something to do because I was not willing to get arrested in the anti-war movement. It wasn’t I that didn’t care about it, but for whatever reason it wasn’t my personal fight. And I knew that the women’s movement was my personal fight and that I would be willing to go to the wall for it, or whatever, get arrested—not that I did, but......I went to this house and there were different activities, you know, different things that were being organized.

There was the Women’s Union, there probably was daycare, there might have been some sports, a newsletter, and an abortion counseling service. And since I was a social worker, and I knew crisis intervention, that was of course what I would do. So it didn’t come out of a particular interest in abortion. It came out of my work experience.

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 wasn’t a doctor.

When Surgal and Jody Parsons first negotiated with him:

We both went down to talk to him, because he wouldn’t talk to both of us at the same time because three made a conspiracy. So first I went to talk to him, and I—whatever we talked about, and then Jody went to talk to him and she got him to come down in money and she was much tougher then I was. But they got to be really, really close friends and they were friends for years afterwards.

According to Ruth, Mike was a very complicated person:

He was a con man. I mean he truly, truly, truly was a con man. Back in the days of the counseling service I thought he was the sexiest man I ever met. It was like I could hardly stand it, I thought he was—it was just impossible. You know, that’s how I felt. I just thought the sexiest person. He was just exuding it ... He was this very odd combination, and I think he had just never met anybody quite like Jody certainly, there just aren’t many people quite like Jody, and like the group as a whole.

He grew up in a very tough neighborhood where most of his friends were in prison or dead. So, his expectation was that you had to take care of yourself because if you didn’t someone would knock you out, and you had to watch your back all the time.

But he thought I was a traitor so to speak, a stool pigeon because I was the person who insisted that we had to let everybody know that he wasn’t a real doctor. And he was furious and he yelled and screamed and was just beside himself and I felt bad. Then he went back to California and called me long distance and apologized. He was very sorry. He was a very complicated person. Very complicated.

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.

Jane’s medical techniques were very good, but Jane always felt that technical knowledge wasn’t 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 politician’s cliche, Jane actually took the idea seriously.

Counselors and intake personnel learned to listen to Jane’s 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 women’s 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.

Surgal explains:

It was one of the things we talked about a lot that we were not doing something TO this woman, we were doing something WITH this woman and she was as much a part of it, and part of the process as we were. So that we would talk about how we relied on them if we got busted. You know we would explain that they were not doing anything illegal. We were doing something illegal. But we need their help, and you know don’t talk about it, and we have to be quiet, and it might be a terrible way to do things but this is what we have to do. And people were pretty good.

Jane was a diverse group of people and styles varied:

Some people were much more political and could get really good political discussions going. Others would just kinda sit, and there’d be friendly conversations. You know it just really depended on who it was. I mean people were helpful to each other by and large. Not necessarily in really big ways. One person would have an abortion and then the next person would, just like when you go to the dentist,[and say things like] oh you know it wasn’t that bad . People were pretty good. But not always. ... I think because we set it up in such a comfortable way, and we tried so hard to be respectful.

I think that that kind of attitude of respect and egalitarian or equality or whatever the word is, helps people be together, and bonds people. You know, I think mostly people recognized real support, you know, and the kind of warmth and acceptance, whatever it is that comes from that sorta approach and a way of—I suppose people have different styles, I made myself so present, that was my way of doing it, that I, you know, to make people comfortable I ‘d make myself present in a, at least this is what I think I did, in a way that was strong and vulnerable at the same time.

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:

I think in the beginning I was curious about the process. But because I am so strongly a helping person there was somebody who’s hand had to be held and there I was to do it.....

Then actually helping a little bit, or actually trying to do abortions, I really had a lot of trouble with that. I could do the first part. I could dilate the cervix, I could give the shot, but I couldn’t do that abortion. I could do it now. But I couldn’t do it then. And now I could do it because I trust my hands. And then I didn’t. And I trust them now because of doing pottery. Like I couldn’t make pie crusts before and now I can.

I was afraid I would hurt somebody. If I couldn’t see what my hands were doing, how did I know? As long as I could see what I was doing I was Ok, but once I had to go inside and I couldn’t see anymore, I had no confidence that I would do it right.

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:


I took the job of Big Jane, that was the only other seriously powerful position. And I did it. And now, I was fortunate, or I should say the group was fortunate. There was a person who was doing Big Jane and she was not doing a very good job, and she was very good at doing abortions. So I said all right we’re switching, I’m going do this and you’re going do that, and I could do that because I had the power in the group to do it. Although everybody was angry, but they wouldn’t tell me about it because I had the power and I could do it. You know how that goes.

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:

I remember there was this one woman who was fierce, and extremely powerful. She just wasn’t in the leadership group. I don’t remember what we had this fight about, but it was certainly during the arrest. She and I had a terrible argument right about something we were going to do. But I won. And I knew I would because I can be so fierce when I have to be. And so I out fierced her.

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 Jane’s 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 Jane’s 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 Jane’s extensive experience in performing abortions would become a model:

I was naïve, I thought we had learned in the counseling service how to deliver services in a very respectful way that made it so much easier on everybody, and particularly for the woman. We could go out into the world and the medical world would take it and everybody would then practice medicine differently. Well, you know, of course wasn’t going to happen. I mean even in abortion clinics it didn’t happen, so, I was naïve.

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.

For the people who I know, it was the single most intense period of our life and when it stopped there was something missing. And you couldn’t find anything to do that carried quite that energy for a long time. I mean, how often to get a chance to actually do something that’s not enormously complicated and is truly helpful, you know., You can be helpful in lots of ways, but this was really helpful because without us they would’ve been in serious trouble. These were people who couldn’t afford to go to all the regular places, you know, for abortion. Or the places they went to they would get hurt. So what we did was really important. Doesn’t happen very often in a lifetime. Or hardly at all, you know that one gets a chance to do that.

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 isn’t 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:

It’s only afterwards that you think about it. You know, thinking about it now I think about that, how lucky I was to have had that experience. But at the time it was just something you did, because you wanted to. It wasn’t a big deal. It didn’t feel like, oh I’m doing this really important thing. It didn’t feel like that at all. It just was another job to do. Afterwards it felt important.... you know, and even though it was just this little tiny world important, still it had this number of women and it was a helpful thing to do.

Woman symbol


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