Image credit: Daniel Arcana

Wisdom from the Original Jane Collective

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. Stay tuned for part II of our conversation.

Justine: So to get us started–how are you? What’s keeping you grounded, if anything? 

Judith: It’s fair to say I’m frightened by a lot of what’s happening in the United States now… I can’t say that I have a strong sense of what will happen. I know what I’m afraid of. And I know that there are those that say that the bad stuff is likely to happen. But I also know—to semi-quote Michael Moore, who is the greatest optimist on the planet—that the polls are often wrong. So that’s what I’m dealing with inside of myself while I take care of business, like this interview. I’m going to show up. 

Sheila: It’s interesting to have Jane come back into my life in such a big way, because it all happened when I was 21 and was almost in the rearview mirror about the time I was 22. And I went on and I did different things. But now it’s sort of back again, and it’s nice—I get to see Judith again! But one of the things that I’ve been doing more since I was retired—but I did before I was retired—is make pottery and sculpture. I’m working in the community. And so that’s a lot of fun just because I’m getting so upset about what’s happening in the country. I did a lot of postcarding, and handing out literature for the Dems at the polls.  

Justine: This is as good a time as any to ask: Where were you when you heard about the leaked decision? Or the Dobbs decision, but…I imagine if you’re like me, the leak pretty much told you which direction things were heading.

Judith: I actually was not surprised. I have been, perhaps obsessively, stalking this since the Hyde Amendment, which was in 1976 and put into place in 1977. There were just a few years after the Roe decision that you could say that pretty much everything looked all right in the United States in terms of abortion legality—just three years…I just got an email from someone who referred to me as “our Cassandra!” which is to say no one believed me when I said, “They’re winning. Roe is going to go.” So, I was not surprised. I was miserable, yes, but I was not surprised.

The Politico leak was a stunner because it was such a bold move–which I appreciated as a citizen. And then the court is in so many ways terrible now, not just in relation to abortion health care. But the strength that I see both on the streets and on this screen and in various other organizing/action venues on the part of people much younger than I am is heartening, and I choose to be heartened by it.

Sheila: I’d like to pick that up too, because I am heartened by how younger women are getting involved. Feeling that their rights have been violated and they want to get them back. And I must say, like Judith, I kind of expected this to happen. But nevertheless, when it happened, it was like you’re expecting someone to hit you and they hit you and it’s like—you hit me!…

And of course, I’m not going to get an abortion now, I don’t need it anymore. But I’ve got kids and I’ve got grandkids and I’m thinking about other women…

Justine: I’ve been working with a fund for six years. Yesterday, we got 50 calls—and we can’t fund them all. We’ve never been able to fund them all. So it’s been a crisis. In North Carolina we were absorbing surrounding states and now with the midterms we’re concerned Republicans could gain a veto-proof majority. And they’ve told us straight out what they want to do. Like you’ve both said: it’s the same playbook. We’ve been watching it. And there wasn’t that urgency, for example, after Texas—at least from my perspective. A six-week ban goes into effect and reproductive justice workers are panicked. And then a month later, it’s business as usual. We might see record numbers turn out to vote, and I’m hopeful for that.

Sheila: What gave me a lot of hope and trust that people are going to come out was Kansas. There was a clear choice right there.

Judith: Right.

Justine: It made me worry that they wouldn’t give it to the people again!

Judith: And especially because Kansas has a reputation for being—not exactly in the vanguard of that kind of thinking. And guess what? There it was. That was gratifying. It was actually thrilling. And it was a lesson, I think, for people who live in New York, D.C., Chicago, the West Coast. Don’t be so smug about what you think you know about those people! And now we can be grateful to them and recognize our errors with our gratitude.

Justine:  That’s such an important point. I’m in the South. I was born and raised here. I can’t tell you how much blue state or red state grinds my gears. I know what people are getting at. But you’re writing off swathes of people! Places that have so much history. For Black communities, for indigenous communities…our fund’s mantra is that the South has been post-Roe. And now the rest of the country is catching up in that regard. And I don’t want that to be the case. But it makes you ask: how did we get here? Gerrymandering, for one. And right now, we’re a destination for the entire southeast, and it shouldn’t be that way. Everyone deserves care where they live.

Sheila: People come up to Virginia, too.

Justine: I think people have a short memory when it comes to abortion. I grew up with Roe as settled law—or at least I thought it was settled law. You mentioned, Sheila, that this happened when you were 21, 22, and then you did a lot of other things in your life. What was your relationship to abortion activism after you left Jane?

Sheila:  I would always give some money to Planned Parenthood. But I was doing other things in my work life. A lot of people who were in jail for abortion work went on to do things that didn’t necessarily have to do with abortion…I’m thinking of somebody who advocated for years for early childhood education and child care. I saw it as part of a continuum. Abortion is taking care of people, taking care of women, but, you know, so is taking care of the children that are born. Children should be wanted and loved and chosen. And of course, for the people who are forced to carry children—our government won’t do anything to help them now.

Judith: Nor are the people trying to ban abortion going to do anything to help those children. I have long thought about and talked about and urged other people to think about: what does it mean to live in a world knowing? Almost inevitably people do find out one way or another, sometimes in unpleasant ways, sometimes just as a surprise that they were not wanted, as the saying goes. That was always one of my focal points long ago and remains so—I think about that a lot.

Sheila: Raising children is a hard job. I’ve got grandchildren locally, and I spend time with them. And I’m so impressed with my daughter and her husband. But it’s a hard job to take a little baby and get it to an adult. 

Justine: We have no safety net for these children that we’re begging folks to have. And we have the highest rate of maternal mortality in the so-called developed world, particularly for Black women. Pregnancy and childbirth can be a literal death sentence. Obviously, I work in abortion care, so it’s something I think about all the time. But the majority of people who are having abortions are already parents. And it’s why these TRAP laws are so patronizing.

I talked to someone on our help line a few weeks ago. We have a 72 hour waiting period in North Carolina, and you can do the intake over the phone, thankfully. So you don’t have to travel and then wait three days and then have the procedure. But the doctors have to read you a script written by politicians. You also have to have an ultrasound and they have to offer you a chance to look at it. You used to have to look at it. And the person I was speaking to said, “I have three kids. That anyone thinks I don’t know what an ultrasound looks like is insulting.”

Do you feel like this is the same as when you were working as Janes? Were people having the same arguments? 

Sheila: You know, the funny thing is, I think that the anti-abortion movement was not originally organized. And the people who wanted to advocate for abortion were a little more organized and were working towards something. It wasn’t until after Roe passed that the anti-abortion people became organized. And then they managed to make this unholy marriage with Republicans looking for power and Evangelicals. Whereas before it had been Catholics, pretty much. 

Judith: I agree with you, Sheila. When I hear people say “we won’t go back” or “we’re going back”–I say: no, this is not what it was like when the Janes were working. The things we’re seeing now were deliberately invented and encouraged over the last 50 years. It’s a set of circumstances deliberately created and used as a political tool, not to say a weapon. This is a malignant situation compared to what it was when the Janes were working. 

Sheila: And this issue and some of the other kinds of so-called “lifestyle issues” are a smokescreen because Republicans don’t want people to focus on how bad their economic policies are for the common person.

Justine: I have two different directions I want to go in. But one is: something I saw a lot of after Dobbs were people saying, “well, don’t you know, there’s always going to be white women who are going to be able to afford their abortions. It doesn’t matter. They’ll travel out of state. It won’t matter.” And not to in any way decenter the most vulnerable—but this is going to affect everybody. That’s the goal, because it’s not just abortion care—it’s IVF, it’s fertility treatment. It’s going to the hospital with an ovarian cyst and not being treated because they’re not sure if you’re pregnant or not. 

Judith: Truly. Absolutely.

Sheila: There are states now where a young woman should not go to college. Because you don’t know whether the doctors will feel safe enough to take care of you and give you what’s considered—or should be considered—standard medical treatment and take care of you if you have a miscarriage or an ectopic pregnancy.

Justine: This actually brings us to the other point I’d hoped we’d get to chat about: “exceptions,” and how they don’t actually work in practice. Politicians talk about exceptions for rape victims. First, you shouldn’t be violated to get to have rights. That process would also involve the police, and survivors rarely see justice in court systems. There’s also chatter about exceptions for incest. And I know this probably won’t shock you, but so often minors using our helpline–because we have parental consent laws in NC—are pregnant by a relative. Politicians are so detached from what this looks like on the ground. Exceptions just don’t work. But people will lean on them and say, well, at least if I’m dying the doctor will save me. They might not!

Sheila: It creates a situation where you’re lying there bleeding and you’re wondering whether they’re going to give you standard medical care or if they’ll call a lawyer or maybe just wait and see if you get worse. And there are so many people who can’t just up and leave their state.

Justine:  Right. And that’s such a smug mindset, like Judith said earlier. That’s a nonstarter.