In 1973, the US Supreme Court legalized abortion across the United States in the landmark decision, Roe v Wade. 50 years later, the recent decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe on June 24, 2022 has stripped women of their reproductive rights. American women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy are under threat; and the recent activity by the Court has proven this to be true.
In May 2022, Politico reported that a US Supreme Court draft opinion had been leaked. The opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, argues: “We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. It is time to heed the constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” Supported by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, the draft opinion came in response to the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Clinic where the Court was considering “whether the state of Mississippi can ban nearly all abortions from 15 weeks.” The final decision, which ultimately overturned Roe, maintained that abortion was not a protected right under the Constitution and abortion regulations should be determined by each state.
With the leak of the draft opinion, many states began issuing “trigger laws” that were “designed to immediately ban or severely limit abortion in the event of Roe’s reversal.” Following the Court’s decision to overturn Roe, trigger laws have gone into effect in four states: Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. In other states that have issued trigger laws, the bans and restrictions will come into effect following a specified time. For example, the laws in Idaho, Tennessee, and Texas will take effect 30 days after the Supreme Court decision.
This time ‘delay’ does not mean that legal abortions will continue in this 30-day period as the anti-abortionist movement has prepared for the reversal of Roe since 1973. States have consistently, and increasingly since the election of former President Donald Trump in 2016, signed laws that severely restricted abortion while Roe was still in effect. A prime example is the Texas Heartbeat Act signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott on May 18, 2021. This Act prohibits abortions after six weeks, often before many women know they are pregnant; and circumvented the legal obligation of Roe by making private citizens, rather than the state government, enforce the Act. By giving private citizens the power to sue abortion providers or anyone that helps a women get an abortion in Texas, this ability not only influenced other states to pass restrictive abortion laws but established a precedent of giving a legal capacity to anti-abortion vigilantes.
The criminalization of abortion has not eradicated the existence of abortion but has put at risk the health and safety of women who will continue to seek this form of healthcare. Pre-Roe, illegal abortions were often conducted by people with “no medical training and [who] used dangerous and unsanitary techniques that could cause severe medical complications, including infections and death.” During this period, approximately 15-20 women a day were sent to the septic abortion floor or to the operating room in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital due to injuries sustained from illegal and unsafe abortions – with on average one woman dying per week. The history of illegal abortions on the health and safety of women will be repeated as women – specifically women who do not have the resources to travel out-of-state to regions where abortion remains legal – namely, poor, and racialized women – turn to different measures to have an abortion. Make no mistake, in this post-Roe America women will die.
In response, many states, organizations, and women have begun creating a patchwork of abortion resources and regional ‘safe havens’ (states where laws were passed to ensure women’s reproductive rights will survive) for women who live in states where abortion has become illegal. One example can be found in New York, where Governor Kathy Hocul passed a package of bills on June 13, 2022 to ensure “protections for both residents and out-of-state women seeking abortions” in the wake of the Court’s June 24th decision. This isn’t the first time New York has been a leader on abortion rights, as they were one of the first states to repeal their abortion laws in 1970 prior to Roe.
The Legacy of the Jane Collective
As a network to help women receive abortions emerges, it is worth revisiting the agency and bravery of a group of women who challenged the patriarchal institutions that govern reproductive rights in the medical and justice systems: the Jane Collective.
Emerging from the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements of the time, the founders of the Jane Collective were female students from the University of Chicago who recognized the plight of women struggling to receive an abortion. From 1969 to 1973, the Jane Collective provided 11,000 illegal but safe and affordable abortions to women in Chicago, Illinois.
In a time before social media and easy access to the internet, this underground organization printed an advertisement in student and alternative newspapers with the tagline: “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.” Women would call the listed number and leave a message with their name, contact information, how far along they were in their pregnancy, and how much money they had. A “Callback Jane” would phone back and provide patients with an address to “the front” where they received counseling and detailed information on the process and procedure. A driver then picked the women up and drove them to “the place” where the procedure was conducted. At the height of their operation, the Janes were performing 30 abortions a day three times a week before the organization was charged by the police.
In 1972, the Chicago homicide unit raided the Janes apartment where they arrested and charged seven women on 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. According to former Janes, while the seven women were in the police van “[they] ripped off the sections of index cards bearing their patients’ names and addresses, and swallowed them” to protect the anonymity of their patients.
Each “Jane” faced 110 years in prison but on January 22, 1973, the US Supreme Court legalized access to abortion across the nation. In doing so, the charges against the seven women in Chicago were dropped. What remained was the impact and legacy of this feminist counterculture movement. For instance, historian Laura Kaplan notes how the Jane Collective “eliminated the profit in illegal abortion by lowering prices” and asking women to pay only what they could afford. In turn, this ensured abortion was accessible to all women.
Nearly fifty years ago, the Jane Collective said, “We are for every woman having exactly as many children as she wants, when she wants, if she wants.” The power and courage of these women should influence the current fight for reproductive rights and freedoms in the United States. The miracle of timing between the case of the “Chicago Seven” and Roe demonstrates that rights, in this case women’s reproductive rights, are not immutable.
Even in democratic societies, rights can be taken away as easily as they can be given, and we would be foolish to think we are safe in Canada. Be angry, be sad, be vigilant, but do not give up – the anti-abortionist “pro-life” movement never did.