Organizing a Clandestine Abortion
Service by Ruth Surgal and the
CWLU Herstory Committee
(Editors Note: Ruth Surgal was a leader of Jane, the Abortion
Counseling Service affiliated with the CWLU. This article
was developed from a 1999 interview conducted by Becky Kluchin.
The picture of Ruth is from the 1995 video Jane: An Abortion
Ruth Surgal passed away August 29, 2004. She had just
returned from the Midwest Veteran Feminists of America
Conference held at UIC that weekend. Her friends and colleagues
join the members of her family in mourning the death of
this remarkable woman.
"Now originally, way back in the beginning, I really
thought feminism was stupid. Its really embarrassing
to think about it. But, I was at a Women for Peace meeting
and some women came to talk about the womens 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 10,000 illegal
abortions. Their philosophy was that women had the right
to safe humane abortions and that if that wasnt possible
legally, than it was up to the womens liberation movement
to take up the slack.
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.
in the anti-war movement, Surgal felt the need to do something
was looking for something to do because I was not willing
to get arrested in the anti-war movement. It wasnt
I didnt care about it, but for whatever reason it
wasnt my personal fight. And I knew that the womens
movement was my personal fight and that I would be willing
to go to the wall for it, or whatever, get arrestednot
that I did, but......I went to this house and there were
different activities, you know, different things that were
was the Womens 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 whatit didnt come out of a particular
interest in abortion. It came out of my work experience.
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.
Surgal and Jody Parsons first negotiated with him:
both went down to talk to him, because he wouldnt
talk to both of us at the same time because three made
a conspiracy. So first I went to talk to him, and Iwhatever
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.
to Ruth, Mike was a very complicated person:
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 wasit was just impossible.
You know, thats 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 arent many
people quite like Jody, and like the group as a whole.
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 didnt
someone would knock you out, and you had to watch your
back all the time.
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 wasnt 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.
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
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 cliché,
Jane actually took the idea seriously.
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.
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 dont 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
was a diverse group of people and styles varied:
people were much more political and could get really good
political discussions going. Others would just kinda sit,
and thered 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 wasnt
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.
think 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 ofI 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
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:
think in the beginning I was curious about the process.
But because I am so strongly a helping person there was
somebody whos hand had to be held and there I was
to do it.....
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 couldnt do that abortion.
I could do it now. But I couldnt do it then. And
now I could do it because I trust my hands. And then I
didnt. And I trust them now because of doing pottery.
Like I couldnt make pie crusts before and now I
was afraid I would hurt somebody. If I couldnt 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 couldnt see anymore, I had no confidence
that I would do it right.
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.
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 were switching, Im going do this
and youre 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 wouldnt tell me about it because
I had the power and I could do it. You know how that goes.
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.
especially remembers one struggle:
remember there was this one woman who was fierce, and
extremely powerful. She just wasnt in the leadership
group. I dont 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.
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.
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.
Surgal hoped that Janes extensive experience in performing
abortions would become a model:
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 wasnt
going to happen. I mean even in abortion clinics it didnt
happen, so, I was naïve.
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.
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 couldnt 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 thats
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 wouldve been in
serious trouble. These were people who couldnt 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. Doesnt happen very
often in a lifetime. Or hardly at all, you know that one
gets a chance to do that.
would be all too easy to romanticize Jane, and make its
members larger than life. Ruth Surgal cautions against "overvaluing"
the Jane experience because,"It makes it outside of
normal experience, and it isnt outside of normal experience."
members decided they had a job to do and they did it. When
the job was over, Jane members moved on with their diverse
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.
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:
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 wasnt a big deal.
It didnt feel like, oh Im doing this really
important thing. It didnt 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.