More Wisdom from “The Janes”

On November 8th, while Americans streamed into polling stations across the country to cast ballots in the midterm election, I had the pleasure of speaking with Judith Arcana and Sheila Avruch. In the early 1970s, Chicagoans “calling Jane” for abortion referral support might have reached Arcana or Avruch. Both women participated in “the Service”—helping callers access abortion care pre-Roe. Over the course of our hour-long call we talked about the history of the Janes, Jewishness in abortion justice, Judith Slaying Holofernes, and taking power into your own hands. Read part I here.

Justine: We started talking about the Moral Majority a minute ago, and I think this is a good time as any to talk about Jewishness—and if that had bearing on how you acted with the Janes.

Judith: I was happy to discover that Jews— and Jewish practice and writings—have never been anti-abortion. Of course, many people who are Orthodox are not pro-abortion. But I think the combination of being a member of an oppressed group—having a history all over the globe of being the assailed, the attacked, the hated and the murdered—makes us attuned to suffering. We have a very deep, complicated relationship with life and death. So Jews are pretty good about abortion–about wanting to be able to control our own lives, control our bodies, not see ourselves as being dominated by the majority or most powerful group, etc.

This will be a fun footnote for you. We never called ourselves the Jane Collective. That has been invented—I’m thinking in the last 25 years or so, does that seem right to you, Sheila?

Sheila: A newspaper writer or a sociologist did it, and it got into her notes, and now it’s on Wikipedia.

Justine: I feel like I’m getting a real nugget of history here. I had no idea! 

Sheila: We actually called ourselves the Abortion Counseling Service, and we called it the Service, which was confusing later on when I met some people in the Marines [laughs].

Judith: And we played with language! I’m not saying we never varied from a particular speech. We were an eclectic lot. But I remember using Jane as a noun and a verb–like are you Jane-ing in this week? And when you, Justine, asked to interview Jewish Janes, I thought: okay, so who are the Jews? And indeed, we had a percentage of Jews in the group that was higher than the percentage of Jews in the population—even in Chicago, which had a sizable Jewish population. I think that has something to do with this history of social action, whether you’re religious or not. It is striking. 

Sheila: I didn’t think about it at the time. I grew up as a Christian. I converted to Judaism later. So I’m Jewish now, but I wasn’t Jewish then. At one point, somebody in the group who is quite Jewish said to me, “oh you’re Jewish.” And I corrected her, and she was stunned!.. But I grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood. So it was the sea I swam in, so to speak.

Judith: Yes, and even of the seven of us who were busted, more than half of us were Jews, which I did not think about until this year.

Justine: The first time I ever heard about “calling Jane” and learning about the Service was because I worked with the Jewish Women’s Archive. And the Service was presented as something to be especially proud of as Jewish women.

Judith: I didn’t know every single Jane. I was in the service for two years. But among those that I did know, it was like I had a forehead slap and suddenly said—look who’s here! And then as I grew into adulthood I learned that Jews had a reputation for this kind of involvement, and to some extent, the expectation that we would behave this way…it was eye-opening. My mother died when I was very small, but I knew a lot of her family all the years I was growing up, and my grandparents were essentially communists. In my father’s family, they were socialists. So that was the mindset that I was around, as a toddler. As we grow, these things make themselves known to our consciousness and understanding. I remember there was a period of about three years when my family lived in Gary, Indiana, which had only one temple, and it was Orthodox. So, of course, if we wanted to be in shul for a holiday, we went to the Orthodox shul. And that, too, was part of my education, even though it was not deliberately applied. I still remember stuff the rabbi said for my brother during my brother’s bar mitzvah, etc. The women sat in the balcony. Even though I was a Jew from the jump, I was getting this education all the time.

Sheila: I think it’s partly the Jewish attitude toward women, which, again, if you look at specific sects of Orthodoxy, may seem retrograde. But at the time that some of these laws were written, it was progressive in terms of what women could do. Women could get divorced! And a woman’s life is worth more than her pregnancy. Women have religious responsibilities in the home. You didn’t necessarily see it in the same way in Christianity.

Justine: Do you feel now, as you think about abortion in this country, that being Jewish colors that lens at all? 

Sheila: I think it’s reasonable to assume that a fetus becomes a person when it can survive in the world, and of course a baby still needs a lot of care…but that first breath is when you become a person, which is how Judaism sees it.

Judith: That is a useful understanding. As I said before, I didn’t know that stuff until I was an adult. I went to Sunday school until I was 12 or 13. Girls were not getting a bat mitzvah at that time. And this thing that you just said, Sheila…it’s interesting to think of it in the context of this particular conversation. Miriam, for instance, rarely gets top billing, but was a heavy hitter. And I have a name in the spirit of one of the heavy duty Jewish women. I think it was my 30th birthday when I got myself a copy of the Apocrypha. I had not realized growing up that Judith was not in the Bible. She was one of the stories in this special side book. When I read the story, I immediately said—Well, I could see why these things did not make it into the main text! You’ve got a woman with the big sword cutting off a general’s head! I thought about the guys who put her out to the sidelines and into the Apocrypha. Even Esther is in the side pages, and Esther was a sweetie pie. She’s never cut off anybody’s head.

Justine: I love that. That’s my favorite painting, by the way. Judith Slaying Holofernes by Gentileschi.

Judith: It caused me to read her life story. I thought, what was she thinking, Artemisia Gentileschi? Not a Jew, but definitely thinking about womanhood.

Justine: That’s right. And she painted her rapist’s face for Holofernes—so she’s taking her anger out in this Biblical way. And miraculously, in the 1600s, she actually won her court case.

Judith: It’s a beautiful painting.

Sheila: I didn’t know that, Justine—that she painted her rapist’s face in. I’ll have to go look that painting up after we chat.

Justine: If you’re willing, I’d love it if you could share in your own words how you got involved in the Service and what made you want to take that risk on.

Judith: I joined because in 1970 I had been a high school teacher for a number of years and I had tenure and a couple of friends and I were fired in a secret school board meeting in March during the spring break of that year, supposedly for things like not keeping appropriate attendance records, but really because of political ferment. We were the scapegoats.

There was a long trial because my friend John and I found out that in the state of Illinois, if you had tenure and you were fired, you had the right to a public hearing. We demanded our public hearing. It wound up going six months and huge crowds attended. So I was getting an enormous political education in the same year for somewhat of the same, but not exactly the same reasons my marriage was dissolving. 

During that summer, I also thought I was pregnant. I had what I still call the latest period ever. I asked a friend who was a medical student. He said, “Everybody here”—meaning at the medical school—“says call this number and ask for Jane.” So I did. And I got a woman whose name was not Jane, of course, but she said, “Hello, this is Jane.” 

I called her back because my late, late, late period finally showed up. She said—we’re going to be taking in new people in the fall, and it sounds like you might be interested. And sure enough, when she called to give me the information about a meeting that was taking place in a little church not far from the apartment I was living in in Chicago, I went and I joined right up. Politically—what I just related to you both—it was a perfect fit. 

Sheila: Similar to Judith, I wanted to get involved in the politics of the moment. The civil rights movement had moved on, especially for white allies, and the antiwar movement was male- dominated. I was doing things on a superficial level, going to marches, things like that. But I wanted to do more. And then I found out about Jane. I overheard this person in the library talking about it to her friends. And then I asked her about it, and she didn’t think I had been listening. She didn’t want to tell me how to contact the group. She had been lending her apartment, and she was being careful. But about two months later, my friend Jeanne’s roommate got invited to go join. And she didn’t want to do it, but Jeanne and I did.

We went to the meeting, but because they weren’t expecting the two of us, we raised the paranoia level as we showed up. But we looked like what we were–University of Chicago students in our little coats. So everybody calmed down, and we joined. And there were a couple of meetings to get things straight. You got assigned to somebody, and you could watch them counsel so that you could learn to do it too.

So that’s how I ended up being involved.

Justine: That’s wonderful. Here I am congratulating you on the life choices you made many decades before I was born, but still—congratulations!

Judith: Thank you [laughs]. We accept your congratulations!

Sheila: A pretty high number of people apparently never thought–would I do this if I was going to get arrested? That was the strength of me being always a worrier. I thought about that kind of thing. I was actually more worried about hurting somebody than getting arrested. But I thought about both of those possibilities because…you know, a doctor can treat someone and inadvertently hurt that person, but that’s built into their training and insurance and worldview. And I decided I would take the chance on that, and take the chance about getting arrested. I wasn’t lucky with the second one (laughs).

Justine: So in these last few minutes, I wanted to talk about something that I’ve been thinking about since seeing the documentary. There’s a real thrill, I think, that comes from learning that the Service was referring folks to physicians who could do this work—and then there was somebody who didn’t actually have credentials he was supposed to have. And so you thought—we can do this. We can give this care to people on our own. 

Do you think that there’s a sense of hope we can take from having this knowledge in a post-Roe world? 

Sheila: Abortion is much safer now, and much easier. With the pills, you can do a self-managed abortion. But of course the downside to that is a lot of legislatures are now thinking about ways to criminalize that. But I do think this is a power that people can take into their own hands.

Judith:Yeah, I certainly agree with that…One of the greatest lessons for me in our work was that if you have the intelligence and the emotional, spiritual—whatever you want to call it—capacity, you can learn how to do this. We could have just done estimates or referrals. But you can learn how to do something. One of the Janes says this in the documentary. She talks about how she only knew this one procedure and type of care. And I love that she said that because it makes it clear that this is a task. You do it with your hands. That was extremely important to me, particularly in relation to the medical industry, which I’m not a big fan of.

Sheila: And physicians have to learn how to do these things, too. Sure, they have much more knowledge about the human body, but they still need to confront situations: oh, she’s bleeding a little too much; oh, I have to go in and scrape again. They have to learn how to do it, just like we have to learn to do it.

Justine: Abortion is a component of your health care. It’s a part of your life. I think earlier one of you described it as a continuum. It is a dot in a constellation of experiences you can have over your lifetime with your body. And we segment this one off because we attach all these moral ideas and feelings and, you know, a small subset of evangelical Christians run the narrative on it.

Sheila: I don’t want the doctors who are treating my daughters and granddaughters to not know how to deal with an incomplete miscarriage.

Judith: Right. Good example.

Sheila: And the way you do that is a D&C!

Judith: It’s doable.

Sheila: To take abortion out of health care takes out a critical component of women’s health care, and out of health care generally.