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Austin Chronicle It Happened to Jane

By Marjorie Baumgarten

APRIL 27, 1998:  During the early Seventies when I was a college student living in a small rural community in the middle of Iowa, the region's illusion of a simpler lifestyle was everything that an 18-year-old refugee from New Jersey might hope for. Most of the time, the pungent, black Iowa soil and the untrammeled view of the stars were enough to quell any homesick memories of such things as how easy it was to belch through the Holland Tunnel and into the heart-revving land of Oz. Sometimes, however, my college friends and I would be overcome by the desire for things or experiences that could not be found in our pastoral paradise - for example, the craving to wander aimlessly through the aisles of a big bookstore or to shop someplace other than the Sears catalogue. Such things could only be satisfied by an hour-long drive to Des Moines or Iowa City, sometimes even Chicago. The same was true for medical care. The town had some general practitioners, but if you wanted to see a specialist - be it a dermatologist, psychiatrist, or gynecologist - the office visit involved a trip out of county. And if you wanted an abortion, well, finding access to that was a whole other ball of wax.

Abortion was illegal in those years, but then so were a lot of things. Yet in my little world it was easier to get a lead on where to score something like psilocybin than a safe, affordable abortion. Information about willing providers was passed from person to person. Even though some organized grassroots information networks began operating (not unlike a modern-day Underground Railroad), the dissemination of specific names and addresses was still very much a covert, one-on-one passage of information from one person's lips to another person's ears. One name that came up frequently was Jane.

JANE was the code name of a women-run abortion service in Chicago. It began in the Sixties as a self-help phone referral service maintained by women within the University of Chicago community. By the time it disbanded in the wake of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973, JANE had grown into an collective of abortion practitioners, who had performed over 12,000 safe, sliding-scale-fee procedures on women who came seeking their services from all over the Midwest.

JANE: An Abortion Service is a documentary by Kate Kirtz and Nell Lundy that finally sheds some long-deserved light on this clandestine organization. The film is being screened Thursday, April 30, 7:30pm, at the Dobie Theatre as a benefit for the nonprofit Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (TARAL) Education Fund, which works to educate the public on reproductive rights issues, provide training in grassroots organizing, and administer the Rosie Jiménez Fund, which provides grants for abortion services to women in need.

The film, which was selected for competition at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, supplements oral history with well-chosen and often ironic archival footage to provide a moving history not only of JANE, but of what conditions were like during the years of illegality. The disdain and disregard of the medical establishment, the real terror of risking one's life on the uncertainties of back-alley abortions, the cloak-and-dagger negotiations, and the financial burdens - all are bracing reminders of a time that is now a full generation in the past. What are still vivid memories for women of a certain age must seem like ancient history to those who have now grown up with the guarantees of choice, but the examples also illustrate why constant vigilance is the price of freedom.

The descriptions also serve to demonstrate JANE's roots as a self-help organization. The service grew from a desire to share information and help other women. Several participants had been politicized through their involvement in other civil disobedience actions and social causes of the Sixties. Also, their willingness to take the next step and learn how to perform the procedures themselves, and their real commitment to universal affordability remain hallmarks of the service.

Hidden from view for so long, it's nice to see the members of JANE testifying here on their own behalf. The individuals have faces - and names - and all have moved on to new phone numbers and occupations. Since most of the group's physical records were understandably destroyed, the history is related by editing together individual interviews. The effect is a rousing and cohesive story of bravery, "can do" fervor, and social analysis.

I think again of my pastoral Iowa paradise and wonder to what extent local access to abortion has changed there since legalization. Sure, information would be easier to come by, given phonebook advertising, 24/7 Web service, and the like. But this film also reports that as of 1995, 84% of all U.S. counties had no abortion provider. My guess is that the situation might still be Hello, Des Moines.


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