July 3, 1990. Three hundred local doctors today declared that they will defy the Illinois legislature and perform illegal abortions on demand. The legislature recently banned most abortions, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, the historic 1973 decision that legalized the procedure.
“The state can choose to jail us,” said Ron Sable, Cook County Hospital physician and longtime social activist. State’s Attorney Cecil Partee had no comment.
Calling themselves Doctors of Conscience, the physicians released a statement that said, “The right to a safe abortion goes beyond law. It is the natural right of a woman to control her own body. As physicians bound by oath to treat the sick and maintain the health of our patients, we must carry out our mandate to provide this basic service to women under stress. Our oath as doctors would be meaningless were we to obey this unconscionable law.”
Sable said, “We have not taken this action lightly, but we believe the situation calls for the most drastic action.” A group of nurse practitioners also signed the doctors’ statement.
Allied clergy, led by Rabbi Gary Gerson of Oak Park Temple, issued a statement of their own. It said, “The clergy have been at the forefront since the 60s in the struggle to obtain women’s right to choose abortion and in actually assisting women in need. We fully support and encourage these brave doctors who are putting their lives on the line to provide this very basic right of women.
“The moral choice to seek or not to seek an abortion is in the realm of a woman’s own decision making, to be guided by her persuasion or her morality and not to be dictated by government, whether it be the courts or the legislature. This matter concerns religious liberty as much as any other. We will assist the doctors in any way we can.”
Most religious denominations were present among the 200 clergy who signed the statement, including several Roman Catholic nuns and priests.
Edward “Ted” Stein, a local civil rights lawyer, also spoke today in support of the doctors. “A group of lawyers,” Stein said, “has organized to defend doctors and others who help women control their own bodies. They have a constitutional right to privacy that has been denied them and we will donate our time to defend those who protect those rights. We are mainly concerned with the poor and working women who will not be able to travel to some distant place to get legal abortions and who must rely on these doctors to break the law to provide them with abortions.”
Former minister Don Shaw, a founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League and of the now defunct Chicago Clergy Consultation Service, which was made up of clergy and lay people who assisted women in getting abortions pre-Roe, also issued a statement: “A group of concerned men and women will actively support in whatever way we can the actions announced today by these professional people.”
July 4, 1990. Joseph Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, responded today to the doctors and their allies who promise to defy the new state law banning abortions.
Scheidler, the leader of Chicago’s antiabortion movement, said, “We’ve got an army. We know all the doctors. We know where they do abortions and who does it. It’s going to be very difficult to break the law flagrantly. We will report them. We’ll make sure,” Scheidler continued. “We’ll send in coverts to indicate that they want an abortion and we’ll be able to know who and where they are. We’re going to be real serious about this. The thing that has to be understood is that we consider abortion to be absolutely murder. If we knew that someone was routinely killing little three-year-olds whenever they got the chance, were going to flout the law and kill three-year-olds, we’d report them.
“We’ve had 16 years to organize and there’s a certain sophistication that comes with doing nothing but prolife work in which you have plenty of connections.”
All the above statements are authentic. When asked to look beyond the spring of 1990, which is when the Supreme Court is likely to decide the three abortion cases it has agreed to review this fall, the speakers found it easy to imagine organized civil disobedience.
Two of the cases concern parental consent and thus do not turn on the crucial privacy issue on which Roe v. Wade is based, the issue that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in her swing vote on Webster v. Midwest Reproductive Health Services this past July, said must be before the Court before she would consider reversing Roe. In her decision on Webster, O’Connor wrote, “When the constitutional invalidity of a State abortion statute actually turns on the constitutional validity of Roe, there will be time enough to reexamine Roe, and to do so carefully.”
But the third case could give the Court this opportunity. Turnock v. Ragsdale asks this question: to what lengths can the state go to mandate the conditions under which medical treatment takes place? The case involves Illinois regulations–imposed by the Illinois Department of Public Health in 1985 but made unenforceable by a court injunction that a Rockford doctor obtained–that would require an abortion clinic to match the conditions of a hospital outpatient surgical unit. The regulations are viewed by abortion supporters as having been promulgated not to protect the health of patients but to thwart abortions. The procedure used for first trimester abortions, which are the overwhelming majority of those performed, is so simple, it is said, that it can be safely performed by a trained person in a living room.
Which does not mean that Chicago’s abortion providers reject the idea of standards. In fact, this community polices itself. The Health Evaluation & Referral Service (HERS) was founded in 1973, shortly after Roe came down, expressly to ensure that the conditions under which legal abortions were performed were “safe and compassionate.” Voluntary evaluations are made every two years not only of the facilities’ physical conditions but also of their counseling services. While most of the facilities pass muster on the physical side, a number do not offer counseling that meets the standards of HERS, according to Joan Raisner, director of HERS.
If the court decides Ragsdale by simply upholding the state regulations, the Chicago area’s 18 freestanding clinics, which also service many downstate women, would have to foot the expense of duplicating hospital conditions, or else shut down. Abortions would then be left to the hospitals–which charge $600 or more, about three times what the clinics now charge. The consequences for the young, the poor, even for middle-class women on tight budgets, seem obvious.
What’s much more important, however, is that the Court could move from the state’s authority to impose conditions that abridge an abortion patient’s right of provacy to whether that right should protect the abortion procedure at all. At this point, Roe in its entirety would be in peril.
Some legal experts with long experience in the abortion rights field optimistically expect O’Connor to pass up Ragsdale as an occasion for reexamining Roe; they believe it is not quite the kind of case she is looking for. But, they could be wrong.
And for that reason there is now talk of settling Ragsdale out of court. “None of the players in this case want to see Roe reversed,” says Julie Hamos, a consultant for Planned Parenthood with ties to Mayor Daley and the Democratic Party. In 1985, when Ragsdale was filed, “the officials were not in a position to write regulations that we could live with. It was politically safer to write tough regulations and then let it go to the Supreme Court because the Court would always uphold Roe. But that has changed,” says Hamos.
The Court has moved to the right, while politically, Illinois has moderated. Secretary of State Jim Edgar, the Republican Party’s likely nominee for governor next year, has held a strongly prochoice position for years. Attorney General Neil Hartigan, the Democrats’ leading candidate, has lately said he’s prochoice too.
Of course, it’s Hartigan’s office that’s representing Public Health Director Bernard Turnock in Turnock v. Ragsdale. So Jay Miller, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging Turnock’s regulations, is skeptical. “Hartigan could just drop this case if he wanted to,” says Miller, who wonders if talk of a settlement is “merely an attempt to strengthen Hartigan’s position on abortion.”
Miller says, “There has been no proposal to us. We’re willing to talk, but we have to see a proposal.”
Julie Hamos says the idea of dealing with the state arose when “a small group of us sat around and looked at the law and the regulations and decided the time was right to get a settlement that we could all live with.” But there had been no actual talks, according to Deputy Attorney General Michael Hayes, until a newspaper reporter started asking around about a rumor that they’d begun. “Then Colleen Connell of the ACLU called us to find out what was going on. Since then we talked a couple times. I’ve also talked with my client Bernard Turnock. Frankly, we’re just trying to find out whether this case is settleable.”
If it isn’t, and Turnock v. Ragsdale proceeds to the Supreme Court, Illinois could soon find it has inflicted on itself a far more tumultuous dispute. Should Roe be reversed, it is more than likely that some statements will ban abortions outright, many states will harshly restrict them, and some few will continue abortion on demand. Illinois was described in Newsweek this summer as a “battleground” state that could follow the first or second path.
The prochoice movement, under the umbrella of the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance, and the antiabortion movement will each be working hard to marshal legislators. “We have an army,” says Joseph Scheidler, adding that his army, encouraged by the Webster decision, is getting bigger and stronger every day.
But Webster also stimulated Illinoisans who are prochoice. After complacently supposing that Roe would always be there, the prochoice movement has, as one supporter says, “finally gotten off its duff.”
In the first month after the Webster decision, hundreds of new members and donors signed up with the various organizations. The National Organization of Women (NOW) was receiving about 300 calls a day from women offering to help. At the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), at the Planned Parenthood Association, at Women Organized for Reproductive Choice (WORC), money and volunteers have been pouring in. And the polls seem to indicate that the public is with them.
A July Gallup poll taken shortly after the Webster decision indicated that 53 percent of the public disagreed with the ruling. A Harris poll showed 61 percent opposed, and a national New York Times/CBS poll last month showed 68 percent of all adults favoring legal abortion.
Yet these polls also show considerable hesitation. Only 29 percent of Gallup’s respondents favored abortion “under any circumstances,” and 51 percent believed states should have the right to restrict abortions. Seventy-five percent said teenagers ought to have their parents’ consent and 88 percent believed that “women seeking abortion must be counseled on their dangers and on alternatives to abortion.” The New York Times poll showed 71 percent in favor of parental consent for teenagers and 41 percent favoring laws that would make it difficult for private clinics to perform abortions.
Catherine Christeller, executive director of WORC, says, “This just shows how well the prolifers have done their job. Abortion is probably the safest surgical procedure there is. It is more dangerous to carry a baby full-term than to have an abortion, and if private clinics can’t do abortions most women couldn’t get them because they couldn’t afford it.”
On another issue, 61 percent of those polled by Gallup but only 35 percent polled by the New York Times believed public funds should not be used for abortion, making abortion a surgical procedure outside normal medical practice. And, in fact, no abortions have been performed at Cook County Hospital since County Board Chairman George Dunne outlawed them there in 1982.
So, what if the worst happens–Roe reversed, abortions banned in Illinois? How would certain people react? To find out, I went out and talked to them.
The prochoice legislators whom I asked mainly about the October veto session in Springfield, in which a restrictive bill is to come up for a vote, were split among themselves. Representative Barbara Flynn Currie insists that “we shouldn’t put Illinois in the antichoice column. My sense is that their support is slipping. There’s clearly a majority for antichoice legislation now, but that many change when they’re voting real-life options. Up to Webster, they could vote antichoice and know that it would either be vetoed or reversed by the courts. They no longer have that protection, and faced with a real-life option, I think that fewer of them will be antichoice.”
State Representative Woods Bowman says, “Quite clearly there will be a number of bills next year to test the limits of Webster. We already have one bill–574–which is quite similar to the Missouri law, and [State Representative] Penny Pullen has said she will redraw it this summer to conform to Webster. Whether it will pass is the big question. I can see it going either way. We haven’t had a real fight over abortion since Roe. What I mean is that people could vote any way they wanted knowing that it would be struck down. Everyone voted symbolically. In a real vote, some people will try to walk a middle ground, but that will be hard because they’ll make neither side happy. A Sun-Times poll of the legislature showed five or six people who wouldn’t be pinned down. They’ll probably be the swing votes. If they all went into the prochoice camp, it would be enough. But it’s really up for grabs whether 574, which is basically the 20-week fetal viability test, which would make abortion more expensive, will pass. And if it should pass, what the governor will do is also up for grabs. He was quoted in the Sun-Times saying he wasn’t pro- or antichoice. He said, ‘I haven’t had time to develop a philosophy.’ He is probably the only person in Illinois that doesn’t have a philosophy about abortion. So I have no idea what he will do. He’ll have to develop a philosophy.”
State Senator Dawn Clark Netsch, who recently announced her candidacy for attorney general and who is also strongly prochoice, is not optimistic about her side’s chances in the legislature. “574 has an extremely good chance to go through,” she says, “even if the state medical society has come out against it. I have a feeling that there are some votes that have been waiting for a Supreme Court decision to justify their antichoice position and will now vote for 574. As far as even worse bills are concerned, they will be there, and when the prolifers pull out all the stops they usually win.”
State Representative Ellis Levin agrees. “The antis will win, there’s no question about it,” he says.
It turned out to be a lost cause trying to find out what Penny Pullen, the leader of the antiabortionists in the legislature, was planning for the October veto session. At this point, her House Bill 574 requires that “before a physician performs an abortion on a woman he has reason to believe is carrying a fetus of 20 or more weeks gestational age, this physician shall first determine if the fetus is viable by using and exercising the degree of care, skill, and proficiency commonly exercised by the ordinarily skillful, careful, and prudent physician engaged in similar practice under the same or similar conditions.” If the fetus is found to be viable, the bill requires the abortion to be performed in a hospital with life supports available to the fetus. “Any physician who intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly fails to perform an abortion in a hospital,” the bill reads, “on an inpatient basis, with measures for life support for the fetus as required by this subsection (4) is guilty of a Class 3 felony.”
As it stands, Pullen’s bill is less restrictive than Webster now allows it to be. The Illinois Medical Society has stated that the medical world lacks the means to determine the viability of a 20-week-old fetus; but such considerations did not stop the Supreme Court from upholding Webster.
Pullen has stated publicly that she will rewrite 574 to conform to Webster, but she did not return any of my numerous phone calls. Her husband explained that she was “very busy.”
Except for Dr. Ron Sable, most of the physicians I talked to insisted on anonymity. They are gynecologists who are now performing abortions. They are all horrified at the prospect of a ban on abortions in Illinois. One of them worked in an emergency room in the days before Roe. “We had girls coming in every night with 105 degree fever, sick from illegal abortions and home remedies,” he said. One case he recalls is of a woman searching for some way to abort who took a friend’s advice and inserted soap into her vagina. “Soap is such a symbol of cleanliness she had no idea what damage it could do. The girl was 19 years old. By the time she came in, her vagina was almost dissolved. She lost her vagina and her uterus.”
The doctored paused a moment to reflect, then went on. “I’ve seen tetanus infections because abortionists used dirty instruments. I’ve seen women with their bowels hanging down from their vaginas because the abortionist didn’t know what he was doing. I’ve seen all these things. Our society is so forgetful.
“Today I had a patient who was 15 years old. She could hardly put two words together. She’s pregnant. Whether she decided for herself or her mother convinced her I don’t know, but she decided to have a termination. If we no longer had Roe, she would have that baby. A disaster for the mother, a disaster for the baby. Fifteen-year-olds have very complicated pregnancies. And they don’t have enough education or sense to take care of a baby. They don’t have enough money to take care of a baby. She is black. No one will adopt her baby. That’s a social and personal disaster.”
In 1987, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York City, 24.8 percent of all abortions were performed on girls 15 to 19 years of age. A 1985 article in Family Planning Perspectives said that 45 percent of the teenage pregnancies in the U.S. in 1980-81 ended in abortion. What’s more, those teenage pregnancies in this country occurred at more than five times the frequency–96 pregnancies out of every 1,000–of teen pregnancies in England, Wales, France, Canada, Sweden, or the Netherlands. The study’s authors said that the United States was the only area among the seven compared that did not provide teens with comprehensive birth control information.
I showed this article and the Guttmacher figures to the gynecologist I’d been speaking with, and he said, “If you are sensitive about these things, which I know to be true from my own practice, you know we are heading for disaster. Who is going to suffer the most? The young girls and the poor women who can’t get on a plane and go to New York for an abortion. I remember the 7 AM flights to New York before Roe when everyone on the plane was going for an abortion.”
According to this doctor, illegal abortions will be harder to obtain than in pre-Roe days because “there is so much more awareness in society. Back then, there was no one spying on everyone. Everyone minded his own business. If you came to me and said, “I had an illegal abortion,’ I didn’t right away ask you where, who, what. Now you have all those cynical people out there who will be spying. Nobody’s going to do abortions who is anybody. It’s going to be the completely unethical people, gangsters who cheat women, who hurt them, and then run. Here today, tomorrow there. Jsut like before Roe but much worse. And even then, fewer people will take the chance, even among the gangsters, because it will be so much more dangerous.
“It’s frightening, but it’s the fact as I see it. It seems the Supreme Court doesn’t know society at all. They have no idea. They are blind. It’s easy to say abstinence, but it’s just plain foolishness.”
This doctor raised an issue that seems to have been largely ignored in most discussions about abortion. He says, “One of the reasons I believe they legalized abortion in 1973 was because there was a terrible glut of unwanted babies that no one would adopt. There were simply not enough adoptive parents to go around, especially for black babies. The antis say adoption, not abortion, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. Within five years after abortion is banned, we’ll have that glut of babies again. Who will provide for them? People have forgotten. In those days, you couldn’t open a newspaper without reading about all those unwanted babies. It might not be kosher to say so, but that was one of the main reasons abortion was legalized.”
But other doctors maintain that if abortion is banned in Illinois, a large network of doctors, nurse practitioners, and lay women will form who will provide safe, compassionate abortions. Ron Sable said, “I will do anything I have to do.” Though not a gynecologist, he insists he would learn the very simple vacuum aspiration technique used in first-trimester and early second-trimester abortions and he would teach it to others.
“The medical profession has a strong role to play by giving abortion the kind of legitimacy we can bring to it,” he said. “Cook County, pre-Roe, had whole wards full of women who suffered and died from infections that resulted from the kind of illegal abortions they did then and from self-induced abortions. There will be lots of physicians who will be doing illegal abortions. The climate of training and the number of women in medicine has changed drastically since Roe. There is now a lot of support and consciousness to create a resistance movement, to have doctors put their licenses on the line if that’s what it takes. It may be like resisting the draft was in the 60s. A lot of young people went to jail then. It would be quite a dramatic thing to have some young physicians jailed from performing a service that the American College of Obstretrics and Gynecology defines an appropriate medical service.
“But the problem,” Sable added, “would be to get the message out to the poor women and youngsters who are not connected to the networks we take for granted. Even today, poor women have trouble getting abortions. I have written checks for women who didn’t have the money. And we can’t get contraceptive information to the kids. The pro-choice organizations are going to be challenged to reach those women. The middle-class women will find the illegal networks easily enough or get on a plane and go to New York for a legal abortion, but the poor ones will suffer. I’m sure that there will be, though, lots of doctors, professionals of all kinds, nurses, social workers, who will resist any effort to restrict abortions. Many of us will do whatever we have to.”
Another doctor, this one a woman who had no experience with illegal abortion, concurs wih Sable. She recalled an experience during her residency. “I took care of a woman who had a spontaneous abortion. She had not induced it. She wanted the baby. She got an infection that was exactly like the kind you would get with a botched illegal abortion. She almost died. She had a hysterectomy and was blinded. When I saw that, I realized what women had gone through before Roe. We had to call in a staff psychologist for her but frankly, he spent most of his time with the doctors on the case. It was devastating for us. I can’t believe there is any doctor who doesn’t believe in legal abortion. They are inviting suffering and death. They shouldn’t be doctors.”
Heatedly, this doctor declared, “Lots of us will do illegal abortions if it comes to that. I know a large number who are ready. I’d like to see so many of us keep on doing it that they would not be able to enforce the law. But I know that’s naive. The state has the power to shut down all the offices and clinics even if they don’t prosecute the doctors. But I’m sure there will be an underground.”
Yet another doctor says he has been thinking about what he will do. “I have three kids. Do I take a chance on going to jail? Or losing my license? I don’t know. I pray to God I don’t have to make that decision. The idea would be for all of us ob-gyny people to just keep doing it. They couldn’t put us all in jail. It would make terrible press. I’ll tell you one thing, though, whatever I do, I’ll be on the inside. I can’t even comprehend a situation where the illegal abortions are in the hands of the Mafia the way they were before Roe.”
“At the same time, it probably will be tougher to do abortions after Roe than it was before. In those days, illegal abortions were taken for granted just as legal ones have been these 16 years. You were defying the law, not society. No one would have thought of turning you in the way the antis would today. Hell, the cops were referring women to abortionists. They either looked the other way or took a payoff. I never heard of an abortionist going to jail, though I’m sure a few did. Mostly, they paid off the cops, though. Nowadays, the cops seem to be antis, judging from the way they’ve been handling these clinic invasions. They seem to be on the same side as the antis in those scenes. God, I remember in the 60s how they arrested people at antiwar or civil rights demonstrations at the drop of a hat.”
Margie Schaps is head of the Women’s Health Resources Center at Illinois Masonic Hospital. The center’s social workers and doctors counsel women on abortion and abortions are performed in the hospital. Speaking only for herself, Schaps says, as do most people in the pro-choice movement, that she is certain the Supreme Court will update the Ragsdale regulations.
“If Illinois bans abortions,” Schaps tells me, “I clearly see an underground movement as there was before Roe. I suspect also there will be people figuring how to get RU 486 into the states (RU 486 is a new French drug that induces menstruation.) I can see a lot of very safe illegal abortions being performed by physicians and other health workers who have either done them or learned the technology. The technology is everywhere. There is vacuum aspiration equipment all over the place. There will be plenty of people willing to go to jail. The issue is too crucial.”
Straightening up in her chair as if to assert herself, Schaps said, “I would like to organize a large group of physicians who are willing to stand up to the legislature and say, ‘We believe this is right and we’re going to do it and you’re going to have to jail 500 of us.’ I don’t think they’d put 500 doctors in jail.
And there will be lots of demonstrations and trips to Springfield. The nation and the state will become horribly divided on this issue in a way we haven’t seen since the 60s. For most issues that end up in the legislature, there’s a way to compromise, to convince people. But this issue is too central to the core of people’s lives. And for many it’s religiously based.
“Personally, I’ll be very active,” Schaps said.”I will raise money to send women to other states if that’s what they want. I’ll lobby. I think there is power in numbers. I will fight to get our rights back and I’ll figure out ways for women to get their abortions.”
Some abortionists were turned in to the police in the pre-Roe days. In April l972, nearly a year before the momentous Roe v. Wade came down from the Supreme Court, Jane (the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union’s Abortion Counseling Service) was raided after the disapproving sister-in-law of a client reported the service to the police. Most Chicago police officers knew about Jane and looked the other way. Some officers even referred women to Jane. But the officers to whom this woman complained were different. They broke down the door of the apartment where the abortions were performed, confiscated the equipment and money, and arrested seven persons. The case was continued for several months, while the Supreme Court reviewed Roe. After that decision came down, charges against Jane were reduced to misdemeanors, the defendants received suspended sentences, and later the criminal records were expunged. Jane’s microscope and money were returned, but the state kept the rest of their equipment. It was no great loss, however, because Roe put Jane out of business.
I visited two former Janes, Jody Howard and Ruth Surgal, who were among the founders of Jane in l969. At first, Jane consisted of about 12 women–Hyde Park housewives and University of Chicago students–who arranged for illegal abortions done by doctors. The fee of $600 was soon reduced to $500 and then went even lower as Jane guaranteed the abortionists a steady stream of patients and arranged for places for the abortions to be done, thereby relieving the abortionists of the travail of moving from motel to motel. Jane quickly attracted like-minded women all over the city and by the time Roe came down, about 120 women had participated.
One fateful day, a few weeks after they started, a couple Janes learned that the abortionist they counted on most was, in fact, not a doctor. There was panic in the ranks. “We had the medical mystique. How could we be referring women to a guy who wasn’t a doctor? But we knew he was doing a wonderful job,” Surgal said. A few members left the group over the issue. The rest decided that if this fellow had learned to do abortions so successfully, they could, too. By this time, they were assisting in the abortions. They watched carefully. Some of the abortionists even explained the procedure, dilation and curettage–a scraping of the uterus. They started buying surgical equipment. They learned to give anesthetics. And over the next four years they did between 11,000 and 12,000 abortions, charging an average of $50. About 75% of their clients were poor women. Women of means could fly to New York where abortion had become legal.
A survey Jane made under the guidance of the University of Illinois School of Medicine showed that the safety rate of their abortions matched that of New York City’s. About 1 percent of Jane’s abortions and 1 percent of those done in New York resulted in complications. “I think we had so few problems because we counselled the women so well. And we tried so hard,” Howard said. “It was our whole life. We worked two or three days a week and met two nights a week.” They gave each client a copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves and had books on birth control and on sexually transmitted diseases. They also gave out a pamphlet they had prepared themselves that talked about abortion as an act of self-assertion and personal freedom.
Word about Jane spread throughout the city. Surgal said, “In one part of the black ghetto, we were the women’s movement. When people needed an abortion, they would say, ‘Call the women’s movement.’ They passed the number around.” For the four years of their illegal activities, there was just one phone number to call, one member’s phone number. Any underground activity that can keep the same phone number for four years clearly has the cooperation of the powers that be.
“Even if they make abortion illegal, they can’t turn back the clock,” Howard said. “Before people were used to not being able to get an abortion. Then we gain that right. And now, all those people who have reached maturity in the last 16 years take it for granted that, if they have a problem pregnancy, they can get an abortion. They are going to be much angrier at a right taken away than they were 16 year ago when they didn’t have the right. I think doctors and nurses will do it, no matter what the law is. And midwives can do it. And, like we did, lay people can be trained to do it.”
Surgal added, “Many young people will set up their clinics. People used to be starry-eyed over our doing it, but they wouldn’t be today. It would just be normal. Having an abortion for women with problem pregnancies is like curing an illness.”
Both Janes say they won’t go back to doing abortions themselves if they are made illegal in 1990, but they will organize the network and train the women. “I have a group ready to be trained now,” Howard said. “We are at a different stage of our lives now.” said Surgal. “It was an emotionally and physically exhausting experience. It was also an intense high. Superintense. When it was over, it was hard to go back to an ordinary life.”
“We would organize something similar to Jane,” Howard said, “but much more sophisticated and high tech.” Surgal added, “It’s a whole different time. You couldn’t go to the drugstore and buy a pregnancy test, so you didn’t know till you’d missed a couple periods. Then, you had to hunt around. The result was that we did a lot of second-trimester abortions, which is unusual today.” Ninety percent of all abortions are performed in the first trimester, according to the National Abortion Federation.
As our conversation ended, Howard said to Surgal, “Don’t you think we should get a training sessions set up?”
About a month ago, Surgal and Howard came to Women & Children First bookstore on Halsted to discuss Jane. About 70 persons attended their talk and afterward about 20 young women–they were under 30, said Linda Buban, coowner of the store–signed up to work with Surgal and Howard in getting Jane underway again.
1969 was a pivotal year in the development of pro abortion sentiment. The women’s liberation movement was at its heights. Not only was Jane founded, and NARAL, but also the Chicago Clergy Consultation Service which involved clergy in the illegal abortion network as a referral service. Some of these clergymen steered women to New York for legal abortions, thereby staying within the law. Other, more daring, referred women to illegal abortionists locally, including Jane.
One of the founders of Clergy Consultation was Don Shaw, then an Episcopalian minister who marvels that his bishop tolerated his activities. He says now, at 70, “If we get to that point again, I would have to be an elder statesman. I’d be a spokesman for all those who were doing what we did in the pre-Roe days. I’d leave the work of finding the abortionists up to the younger people, but I’d be their spokesman. I’d be out there on radio and television and talking to newspaper reporters explaining the situation.”
Shaw has a long history from which to draw. He not only helped found and worked in Clergy Consultation, but also helped to found NARAL and was active earlier in Citizens for the Medical Control of Abortion founded by Dr. Lonnie Meyers in the mi-60s. In 1973, when Roe came down, the vasectomy clinic that Shaw worked in with Meyers began doing abortions and until l984, he was manager of the Midwest Population Center, which was the only not-for-profit abortion clinic in the state. In 84, because, he says, he wasn’t such a good financial manager, Planned Parenthood took over the clinic. Shaw remains on the board of NARAL today.
Clergy Consultation also used lay people to make abortion referrals. Mary Smith (not her real name) was one of those people. She recalls how “they really trained us, with films and lectures, to know the whole process. What really stands out in my mind is that they talked about all the options you had to explain to a woman, so that she made her own choice. But, through all those years, I only recall one woman who decided to have the baby”
“We were given lists of abortionists and I had to interview them. I did some over the phone but I met some in restaurants. I wanted to know all about their procedures. I wouldn’t send a woman to anyone I was unsure of. Only a few doctors would do second-trimester abortions, so I sent most of these women to New York.”
Almost mournfully, Smith recalled, “We had a 13 year old who was past 20 weeks. I found a social worker who was willing to take her to New York. The family was Hispanic, didn’t have a penny. The father impregnated the girl. There were 11 children in the family and the mother was an alcoholic. These kinds of things really tore me up. The social worker said she would take the girl to New York if I could raise the money. I got the money from the Playboy Club after trying all kinds of other sources.”
Smith continued, “We had all kinds of brochures that we gave the women. When we ran out of the ones I liked–the clearest ones–I would xerox them myself. I talked to women about their feelings, their needs, husbands, children, everything. I’m the last one to encourage a woman to have an abortion if she really wants to have the baby.”
Smiling, Smith remembered how she started counselling in the “cold, sterile atmosphere of the church, but then I decided I could do it in my home. I would make a cup of coffee and it was very natural and comfortable.”
After Roe came down, Smith worked at one of the first freestanding abortion clinics in the city. She provided women with the same kind of service, but now in a legal setting.
If abortion is once more made illegal in Illinois, would Smith return to her earlier role? “Absolutely!” she said. “I’d do exactly the same thing again, but now I feel that there will be many more competent people doing abortions. The procedure is much simpler and lay people can learn it, like the Janes did. And many doctors and nurses will be willing to break the law. The situation is much different now. Many people feel as I do–why should a woman be prevented from doing what she desperately needs to do by a minority of hostile men who don’t understand and don’t care about the welfare of women?”
The Reverend Roger Brewin is now minister of the Beverly Unitarian Church. Before Roe, he was a seminarian in Ohio. He said, “Should we get to the point where abortion is illegal in Illinois, I would do whatever I could to help women who come to me to receive abortions. The most obvious and responsible thing to do is the same procedure many of us used before Roe, when some states had legal abortions and we sent women to those states. Many of the women we helped were quite yound and had no independent source of income. For most of them, the idea of getting together the money for a plane ticket was normally far beyond their reach, but the cost of having a child and raising it was far higher and somehow they managed. Some didn’t, of course. We had some funds to help, but not much. We tried to help them identify all the resources they could find.”
Reflecting on those experiences, Brewin said, “We sent young women 17 and 18 years old who had never traveled alone off on some pretty scary trips to New York and Detroit. Traveling alone, being met by strangers, being told to look for such and such a limousine service, traveling across a strange city 15 miles to a medical facility referred to them by relative strangers, which we were.”
“I must have counselled, from 1970 to 1974, about 150 to 200 women,” Brewin said, “but the group with which I worked in the campus ministry and then later in a woman’s center we started, must have counselled many hundreds, not only for abortion but for adoption, and some who wanted to have their babies but were unmarried. Most of them had abortions, though. We were the only one in town with that information. A lot of people got to know us because we put ads in the alternative press and distributed flyers to churches and medical clinics.”
Looking ahead to 1990, Brewin said, “The situation may be different in the coming years if abortion is banned in Illinois and other states, with more doctors and nurses providing abortions illegally, but whether I will risk doing something illegal I don’t know. It’s a moral question and I won’t know what I’ll do until the first woman sits across my desk and says, ‘I know that it’s available in the city. Can you help me?’ I assume that many of us will decide that’s what we must do. I would certainly be highly supportive of anyone who chose to provide abortions.”
” On the other hand,” Brewin said, “I can see a gray market in the French abortion drug RU 486 springing up that would be a very different approach than doing a surgical procedure. There’s certainly a wealth of experience among cancer patients smuggling in treatments not available in the U.S.”
The ministers of the Unitarian-Universalist Church were particularly active in Don Shaw’s Clergy Consultation Service. The Reverend Spencer Lavan, dean of the Meadville/Lombard Theological School of the Unitarian-Universalists, said, “Our people would work very hard to prevent the legislature from passing anti-abortion laws, but if that was unsuccessful I can easily imagine that they would, in conjunction with other religious groups, create a network or an underground railroad similar to what many churches have done with regard to Central American refugees. Groups of people in our church would probably respond with a form of civil disobedience. We will certainly work with other groups to make sure women get the abortions they need, though we do believe that it is an option of last resort.”
Lavan ends our conversation by commenting,”Your call will probably provoke our having some kind of workshop or seminar on this subject. We haven’t started to think about it yet.”
The Reverend Michelle Bentley is having a second career as a Unitarian-Universalist minister, serving at two churches and as chaplain at the La Rabida Children’s Hospital and Research Center. In 1967, when she was a college freshman, her best friend got pregnant.She urged her friend to have the baby. Indignant, her friend rejected her advice and her friendship, too. “I learned then that this was a very private decision a woman has to make and I had no right in the world to try to influence her.” Then, another good friend got pregnant and, Bentley recalled, “she asked me to accompany her to an illegal abortionist. I went. It was a filthy room, at night, and then I stayed up with her for three days afterward when she had the worst pain I’ve ever seen a person experience without any medication, till she finally discharged the packing that had been stuffed into her.”
Bentley feels strongly about the poor who will not be able to afford to go out of state for a legal abortion. “As a black woman,” she said, “a ban on abortions in Illinois will certainly hit black and other poor minority women very hard. So, in 1990, I will certainly be in the forefront of pushing for freedom of choice and helping women to get safe, clean abortions. I would certainly counsel women so that they can feel good about whatever choice they have to make. Working at Children’s Hospital, I see so many kids who are unwanted, abandoned. I think it’s great when people realize that they would not be good parents, they choose not to go through with the pregnancies.”
Although the Catholic Church has been in the forefront of the movement against abortion, there is ample evidence that many Catholic women have abortions, regardless. There are cracks in the wall that the Church has erected around abortion; and Sister Donna Quinn has chosen to stand in. A member of the Sinsinawa Dominican Order, Quinn is executive director of Chicago Catholic Women which she founded in 1974 and which now has about 1,000 members, about a third of whom are nuns. Sisters in her order do not all agree with her ideas, but some belong to her organization. She is also past president of the National Coalition of American Nuns, a group of like-minded sisters.
Quinn signed a 1984 New York Times as in which Catholics asked the Church for a dialogue on abortion. In the Webster case, she filed an amicus brief in her own name and the name of her organization defending a right to abortion, an act that has led, she says, to an investigation of her “by Rome.”
If abortions are banned in Illinois, “we would be counselling women about where they could find the proper medical help for whatever their choice was,” Quinn said. “We would speak out against the laws that have had the impact from the Catholic Church and we would be emphasizing the primacy of conscience. We would be saying that the Church always says, ‘We respect primacy of conscience but conscience must be informed.’ What we are saying is, informed by whom? Only by men? No way!”
“We would probably be part of any underground system that develops and do whatever is needed. We would go to jail if we had to.”
“Take away our rights, lose your seats,” is the slogan of the pro choice organizations that are trying to ensure that if an abortion ban does occur, the public will rise up to replace those legislators who voted it with legislators who would roll it back. At Planned Parenthood, NARAL, NOW, and the other pro choice groups, the leadership is encouraged by the flood of phone calls and money tht the Webster decision inspired. Sue Purrington, executive director of Illinois NOW and chairperson of the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance, says that phone calls are coming in from every age group, from a 13 year-old girl to a 70 year-old woman, from every occupational group, including bank executives, and from men as well as women.
“It feels like the civil rights movement again.’ she said. “I’m sorry that it came about this way, but it is very exciting to see people so aroused. I think the issue of privacy is beginning to bother people. Even politicians with wives and daughters, though I don’t know what they’ll do when it is time to vote.”
Purrington told me, “There are about 25 seats in the House that I call the murky middle. And, all these years, because Roe was the law of the land, we have been working on these people on other issues such as women’s health, pay equity, jobs, and so on, while the antis have been pressing, pressing on this one issue, plus birth control, of course, which is just as important to them. But there’s been this pattern Patty Pullen introduces some horrible legislation. We try to stop it, but it passes the House and then the Senate by a very few votes. The governor vetoes it on constitutional grounds and says something like, ‘Give me a bill that is more constitutional and I will sign it.’ The legislature sometimes manages to override the veto and then everyone knows the ACLU is going to go to court to get the bill enjoined because of Roe v. Wade. The pattern was understood by everyone. Now the gloves are off. We are going to have to become a single issue group just like the antis.”
Defiantly, Purrington insisted, “But we will never go back to pre-Roe. There are already people calling to volunteer to pay for buses to send caravans of women for abortions to other states. There’s also an exploration of a possible purchase of a drug company to produce RU 486 or just buy it for distribution, although it still has some problems that we will have to work out. Also there are networks developing with nurses, doctors, lay people saying, ‘I want to volunteer my services.’ I know too many people today who are willing to learn how to do it who have never done anything like that in their lives. A number of medical students have called to volunteer. As executive director of NOW, I can’t myself get involved in any illegal activity. I still have to raise money and try to overturn that bill. But as a private citizen, if I could ever be that, I will certainly be part of that network.”
With her eyes sparkling, Purrington exclained, “I think 1990, if abortion is banned, will look like the civil rights movement, but just exactly what will happen I can’t predict like I couldn’t have predicted what would happen then. But I know there will be lots of demonstrations, sit-ins, all kinds of things that people for whom electoral politics is not enough will figure out. The more conservative people will work on getting out the vote and lobbying and the more radical ones will be doing civil disobedience, just like it was in the 60s.”
The antis are uniting us. We will be able to build a strong political movement. I’m sure. We may not have been winning so far because they’ve been so much more united on this single issue and they have so much more money, but the tide will turn. I see 1990 being even bigger and wilder than 1969. I’d like to see the Court reverse Roe right now instead of whittling away at it because it would mobilize people immediately, but I have to think of the women who are pregnant right now and need abortions. People are already calling asking, ‘Can I still get an abortion?”‘
The optimism of Purrington and the other pro choice leaders is understandable in light of the office phones ringing off their hooks. But a New York Times poll of August 3 might cause them to think twice. “One of the most surprising findings of the survey,’ said the Times, “is that despite the intense publicity surrounding the Supreme Court’s Webster decision, most Americans–59 percent–said they had not heard enough about the ruling to have an opinion on it.” Only 18 percent polled said they had discussed the Court’s ruling, and only 9 percent said that abortion would be “the most important single issue” in their voting in state elections.
Such a response might daunt the pro choice movement which looks forward to a huge turnout of single-issue voters, but its leaders are confident they can arouse public opinion. Patricia Dougherty, recently named executive director of NARAL, spent most of her adult years in the abortion network with Midwest Reproductive Health Services in Saint Louis, which was the defendant in Webster, with the Midwest Population Center, and with Planned Parenthood. Dougherty told me, “I’ve been gratified the way people have understood the Webster decision. I think there will be a vengeance you have never seen because the politics have completely changed. There will be a huge majority moving in that direction, not just college kids. We need a systemic change, not just band-aids, and people are coming to understand that.”
“I know there will be people, on a day-to-day basis, making sure women get their abortions, but I believe that reproductive privacy is so critical that, as a state, we will demand it. It’s all about women getting jobs and employers saying, in the back of their heads, ‘What if she gets pregnant?’ Or when a woman applies to medical school, the dean saying, ‘This woman won’t be able to make responsible decisions about her reproductive life.’ Without abortion, a woman’s career opportunities are going to be seriously damaged. And look at the number of women already alone and raising children. We just can’t do without abortion; people will understand that. It’s going to go to the heart of it, to the ballot box.”
Excitedly, Dougherty said, “Since Roe, there is a large group of people who didn’t exist before, people who have lived in the medical community and clinics, myself included , who, by virtue of being employed at those places, have a very clear idea of how abortions are done and what is involved in a safe, decent abortion. They will make up a large underground movement that will not be greed motivated. I would be in that system along with, at the same time, working for the long haul, to change the law. If I had to choose only one it would be very difficult, because if you’re the one woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy that is the long haul for you.”
The Midwest Health Center, operated by the Planned Parenthood Association since 1984, is still the only not-for-profit abortion clinic in Illinois. Of the 3,000 abortions it performs a year, a third are subsidized. Over 12 percent of those abortions are performed on girls under 17. Another 6 percent are done on women over 35. About 40 percent of the patients already have children.
“For some women, abortion is a rational decision reasonably arrived at, but for others it is a very stressful decision. For them, having to travel to another state to get an abortion would be just one more obstacle they would have to overcome. Planned Parenthood would take a very active role in referring women to abortionists,” said Bryan Howard, associate executive director of the Chicago-area Planned Parenthood. “We went through a real learning process in 1984 when it was decided to begin providing abortion services. Our board had to educate themselves about the needs of the community. Cook County had stopped doing abortions and there were few resources for low-income women.
“Our board would want very much to protect the right to abortion. Right now, some members of our federation are trying to use its resources to bring RU 486 into this country. Our president, Faye Wattleton, is actively pursuing some means to accomplish this. Just what else we might do is hard to say now. It’s our preference to stay within the law, but I know the board and the staff would think creatively about how to keep the options open. One of the things we would probably do is to expand the fund we now have for low-income women to include travel expenses to send people out of the state if that became a necessity.
Howard became reflective. “There are about 65,000 abortions done in Illinois every year,” he said. “If all those pregnancies were to come to term, school boards, adoption agencies, the welfare system had better begin to think about it. It’s going to change things drastically. We should think about the alternative to having abortion available, though that in and of itself is not the reason to keep abortion legal. The reason is that our society has not been able to reach a consensus about all those very private matters of conception and pregnancy. It is such a private matter in the U.S. that individual decisions have to be made. But if those individual decisions become illegal, and if the climate remains the same regarding sexual matters, our whole society better begin thinking about the consequences.
“If abortion is banned in 1990, let’s think about 1991 when those first 65,000 babies are born. If the system that investigates child abuse is overburdened now, what will it do then? A 1985 study showed that, among teens who become pregnant, about 23 percent of those infants were subject to child abuse in their first five years. There are no words for it.”
Howard continued, “There are a lot of doctors and nurses who are very passionate about abortion. Under Roe, they have worked to ensure that the quality of care is high, that all women who need the service get it. It’s not inconceivable that these people will continue to see that the need is met regardless of what the minority’s political agenda has determined for the people of this state.
“This is not a new problem,” Howard observed. “As early as Hellenistic Greece there has been controversy over abortion. In the pre-Christian era, there was a tradition for women who couldn’t abort to take their babies out on a hillside or into the country and leave them to the wolves.”
Catherine Christeller is executive director of Women Organized for Reproductive Choice and its offshoot, the Emergency Clinic Defense Committee, which have in their midst persons who tend to be on the left of the political spectrum. Christeller is the most radical person whose remarks I report here, but in essence she agrees with most of the people who have appeared throughout this article. She has reservations, though.
“I wouldn’t want to commit myself to an underground abortion network that wasn’t a challenge to the system,” she said. “My fear is that the underground network is exactly what they want. They want abortion suppressed so that people are fearful, can’t tell anyone about it, it’s a hidden social reality. That would make the antis happy. What we need is a massive resistance that is very public. A huge group of people saying, ‘We’ll fill up the jails.’ I can see myself organizing that resistance.” She will join a large group apparently with the same goal.
Christeller is more pessimistic than others about Roe v. Wade’s prospects and about the chance that extreme legislation will not be passed in the General Assembly and signed by the governor. She said, “Politicians who say they are prochoice will nevertheless join with the antis to vote for regulations that will drive up the cost of abortions, drive the clinics out of business, limit second-trimester abortions, and exclude teenagers: They will call it middle-of-the-road because they are supposedly protecting a woman’s choice, but we will see some pretty extreme legislation. Thompson is committed to an antiabortion party platform, and though he likes to have a more progressive image, it is unlikely that he will veto all these regulations. It’s just like with the AIDS legislation. He got testimony from every possible public health official saying premarital testing for AIDS was foolish, but he didn’t veto it.”
With deep resignation in her voice, Christeller said, “Roe is going to go down; they’ll use Ragsdale to bring it down. If abortion is then banned in Illinois, which could very well happen, a resource network will immediately spring up. The question is whether we do underground abortions, who does them, who do we educate to do them, how do we regulate the system so that women are safe, do we bring in RU 486 with all its problems? And the women’s movement would really have to reactivate to do intensive education. The question is who is it going to reach? If you have RU 486 being brought in by underground groups, which I’m sure you’ll have, and if the pill is taken by some young woman living on the south side who doesn’t have a doctor and is in her third or fourth month and she starts hemorrhaging, or thinks she’s no longer pregnant when she is, and has a defective baby, that would be a tremendously unsafe condition which, while the women’s movement wouldn’t necessarily have created the situation, it would be responsible.
“The big question is not, as Kate Michelman [executive director of national NARAL] says, just a question of getting out the vote. It’s much more complicated. The public is just not sure about the issues. The Gallup poll showed that 75 percent thought that teenagers should have parental consent. They just don’t understand the problem with that. It’s clearly a reflexive reaction–‘I need to protect my kids’–a parental fear, not a realistic view of sexually active teenagers and their relationships with their parents. And on the issue of women being counseled about the dangers of abortion that 88 percent agreed about, that is just code language for antiabortion propaganda. We know that, but I don’t think people understand. Abortion is the safest surgical procedure there is. There’s a huge educational gap out there. People have absorbed the propaganda–a lot of negative language. If they applied it to their own experience, they’d know it was a lot of garbage. Of course you have to have informed consent. But are you being told that pregnancy is dangerous? Are you told that there’s a higher rate of maternal death associated with full-term pregnancy than with abortion?
“We need a real movement that will do mass lobbying, where we all go down to Springfield, not just have paid lobbyists as the mainstream groups do now,” said Christeller. “There are huge organizing tasks ahead. The mainstream feminist groups have become increasingly committed to playing the game properly, to presenting themselves as very reasonable ‘with-it’ people worthy of political power. There is an increasing institutionalization and bureaucratization of the women’s movement, which is inevitable. It happens to all movements. But it has meant a lessened commitment to grass-roots organizing, a lessened fervor, a lessened ability to organize in an impassioned way, almost a fear of building an unruly movement that can’t be controlled. That’s why we lost the Court and the legislature. We have to pull in all those women who’ve had abortions, who figured it was their private business. It’s not private anymore. And the black women. I know that some of them are ready to get involved. They have said so. There were 14 buses of black women at the April 9 March on Washington, and they marched under their own banners.
“If we are to prevent bad legislation from being passed or to overturn it if it does get passed, which it surely will, we have to have that huge unruly movement that will make the difference.”
At the turn of the century, a great social upheaval called the Progressive Movement organized against the incredible concentration of wealth and the mistreatment of the working class that had occurred in the previous 30 years, and launched what has become a 30-year cycle of repeated social revolt in America. Or the Civil War might be said to have been the cycle’s actual starting point. In any case, the 1990s will mark the passage of 30 years since the country last became engulfed in social protest.
Polls now indicate that today there is no wide interest in the abortion issue in America. But it remains to be seen what the 1990s bring, and whether, if social upheaval does revisit the country, abortion is a major part of it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.