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“Jane: An Abortion Service” is an instructive oral history of the Chicago group’s activism

A member of the Jane Collective carries the group’s banner at a protest in Chicago. The women's gender symbol ♀ substitutes for the all the letter Os in "Women's Abortion" Service.
A member of the Jane Collective carries the group’s banner at a protest in Chicago. The women’s gender symbol ♀ substitutes for the all the letter Os in “Women’s Abortion” Service.

Kate Kirtz and Neil Lundy’s 58-minute abortion rights documentary from 1995 screens at Madison Public Library’s Central branch in Room 301 on July 12.

You know the drill. Rights are disappearing left and right, and the Left is increasingly subjugated by the Right. A focus on history can feel quaint at a time when immediate action is more necessary than ever (and Tone Madison’s own Christina Leiffring has done invaluable reporting on Wisconsin’s crises and opportunities right now). As abortion rights are stripped across the country, it can also be useful to look to the past for signs of how to move forward. After all, regressive times call for us to look back toward historic examples of resistance and resilience. One could do worse than studying the methods of the Jane Collective. This year’s HBO film The Janes covers the subject, but the Madison Public Library’s Central branch takes an earlier look at the group this week, on July 12, in Room 301 with The Peregrine Forum‘s 6:30 p.m. screening of Kate Kirtz and Nell Lundy’s 1995 documentary Jane: An Abortion Service

Their film, made up of talking-head interviews with members and patrons of the Jane Collective, is an oral history of sorts that looks back on the era immediately before Roe v. Wade was decided in January 1973. Between 1968 and 1973, a network of abortion activists based in Chicago, known to people in the group as “The Service,” but more broadly as the Jane Collective (due to their code phrase asking patrons to “ask for Jane” when they were calling about setting up the procedure), provided upwards of 12,000 safe underground abortions. When the Roe decision legalized abortion, it highlighted the illegal and ostensibly dangerous aspects of the underground abortion circuit now that the procedure could be performed in more mainstream medical establishments. As a result, the group disbanded and most women moved on to other lines of work due to both the change in societal necessity and their own burnout from years of working dangerously (and courageously) with vulnerable women.

The film’s key educational point is the way it links abortion networks to other protest movements of the 1960s (civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war). Many of the women among the Jane Collective were also active in these other circles, which allowed for better networking. The group’s founder Heather Booth organized her first abortion while working at Southern freedom schools in 1964. Unfortunately, this also helped the police more easily identify Jane members as radical actors. The issue for cops was not necessarily that Jane activists were performing abortions, but that they were members of broader radical movements that needed to be neutralized in the simplest way possible.

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There’s a tendency to narrativize history in a way that allows for a happy ending, towards a sort of “objective” justice. It’s certainly the trend in contemporary liberal depictions of fights for civil rights, in part to reinforce the idea that, since things are better than before, they are now good. And that’s certainly the tendency with this film, released at a (comparatively) safe time for abortion rights in 1995. We can see it with different eyes now, knowing this cycle of justice was exactly that—a cycle now heading back towards its low point. It’s a refresher, especially in the wake of ongoing waves of horrible news, of the fact that law is a fluid concept that exists separately from ethics. Despite the numerous civil rights fought and won in the ’60s and ’70s, history does not move linearly, and the radicalism of basic human rights advocacy will eternally tussle with the forces of Christofascist surveillance and punishment that worked against the movements originally.

But rather than feel bogged down by this seeming nihilism, people fighting for abortion rights today can seize upon the same logic to arrive at an ethic of hope. The Jane Collective fought impossible odds, and carried out procedures that were widely thought of at the time as immoral, in the name of individual justice. Lest centrists tell you otherwise, the lesson of civil rights movements should always be that legality and morality are not the same, and moral actors would do good to separate themselves from the ideas of decorum that are pushed by establishment “liberals,” much as these brave organizers did over half a century ago.

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