A firsthand account of an underdocumented moment in the history of abortion and women's liberation.
Four years before the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide, a group of Chicago women set up "Jane," an underground abortion referral service. Here Kaplan, a community organizer who joined Jane a year and a half after it was founded, describes the organization's effectiveness: It helped more than 11,000 women obtain abortions, and the group's members provided them with counseling before, during, and after the procedure, explaining each part of the process in detail. Eventually, many members learned to perform abortions themselves. Kaplan also recounts Jane's crises. The group's abortions were unusually safe and well regarded by the medical community. When a woman came to the group already infected from a previous abortion attempt, she was told that there was nothing Jane could do and that she should go to a hospital immediately. However, she did not seek treatment immediately and eventually died. Though the medical records suggested that it wasn't their fault, Jane's members were traumatized and many quit the group. The police, usually sympathetic to Jane, busted it once; seven members were jailed, but the case was dismissed after Roe. Kaplan interviewed many of the participants, who are candid, thoughtful, and articulate. The author has a keen sense of Jane's place in history, relating the group and its members to the politics of its time--the student movement, women's liberation, and black power. Contemporary activists will also be fascinated by Kaplan's description of Jane's day-to-day logistics and by her account of the power dynamics of a group that professed to be egalitarian but actually had a hierarchy based on who controlled information. At times Kaplan's storytelling falters, though; she frequently reintroduces people, assuming readers will forget them. And a bland epilogue provides summations of members' lives after Jane, with some lackluster quotes that do not sound like the powerful, complex, and often difficult women who appeared earlier in the narrative.
Although Kaplan's prose flags at points, her powerful story will be invaluable to organizers, feminist historians, and anyone concerned about contemporary threats to personal liberty.