Adventures in the Archives
Adventures in the Archives: The Dangers of Legal Abortion

Adventures in the Archives: The Dangers of Legal Abortion

This summer I worked with Professor Carolyn Herbst Lewis and three other students on a research project in which we explored the history of reproductive health care in Chicago. Part of our summer included a trip to Chicago to do archival research on our subjects, and, after a month of poring over secondary research, I was nowhere near having a thesis or a direction for a paper, which was supposed to have something, anything, to do with abortion services. I knew going into the project that, given the socially charged and complicated nature of the subject, it would challenge me both academically and emotionally, but I had no idea of the frustrations that this project would give me. When we arrived in Chicago, I made the decision to take a step back and see if any of the primary sources I was interested in would speak to me and steer me in the right direction. Even so, as I stepped into the unexpectedly warm and brightly lit Northwestern University archives, I was admittedly pessimistic about whether any of the sources I requested would be of any use. What I did not expect to discover were materials that would give me chills and move me as emotionally as some of these documents did.

Jane was part of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, an influential activist group that included the Graphics Collective, founded by Estelle Carol, who designed this 1972 poster. (Estelle Carol/Library of Congress)
Jane was part of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, an influential activist group that included the Graphics Collective, founded by Estelle Carol, who designed this 1972 poster. (Estelle Carol/Library of Congress)

The first box of materials that I explored belonged to the Paula Kamen Collection. Paula Kamen conducted a series of interviews in 1992 in which she spoke to some of the people directly involved in Jane, a feminist underground abortion service in Chicago, in order to use the interviews to write a play about the group. Most of the interviews illustrated some very positive experiences, but some reported negative experiences or memories. All of the interviewees reported little to no change in their views on abortion over time, and everyone believed that although Jane worked, abortion should never return to the underground. One interview that particularly stood out to me was with an African American woman named Crystal.

Crystal did not have an abortion through Jane, but accompanied a friend for her abortion procedure. The two girls were sophomores in high school, and Crystal admitted that, at the time, she neither realized that abortion was a highly contested subject nor understood that many women commonly used it as a form of birth control. That, however, was not the most striking comment that she made. Crystal said that although she would not advocate returning to the days of underground abortion, she believed that it had been safer for women to obtain an abortion through Jane than it was to get a legal abortion in 1992. This observation completely surprised me. How exactly could legal abortion be more dangerous than the underground, “back alley” abortions performed in the 1970s?

When she called legal abortion in the 1990s more dangerous, Crystal was referring to the anti-abortion terrorism that began in the 1980s and continued to escalate in the 1990s. According to the National Abortion Federation, in 1992 there were 32 incidents of arson/bombing or attempted arson/bombing of abortion clinics, 221 incidents of invasion, assault and battery, vandalism, trespassing, death threats, burglary, stalking, etc., and 1,481 incidents of hate mail, harassing phone calls, and bomb threats.

Sign from a vigil held in 2009 in San Francisco for George Tiller, who was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist. (Steve Rhodes/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)
Sign from a vigil held in 2009 in San Francisco for George Tiller, who was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist. (Steve Rhodes/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)

The goal of making abortion legal was to create a safer environment for women to exercise their freedom of choice regarding motherhood, an environment in which women would no longer have to face the potential dangers of the underground abortion circuit. The reality, according to Crystal’s memory and the National Abortion Federation’s statistics, is that the environment in which legal abortions took place was no safer than using a credible underground abortion service such as Jane had been. In fact, the circumstances surrounding legal abortion in the 1990s seemed to pose a greater danger to women’s emotional, mental, and physical safety, as well as that of abortion practitioners.

The claim that obtaining an abortion was less safe through legal channels in the 1990s does not mean that the underground was safe. Prior to legal abortion, attempts to self-abort often came from a place of desperation. According to the National Abortion Federation, “in the years before Roe v. Wade, the estimates of illegal abortions ranged as high as 1.2 million per year. Although accurate records could not be kept, it is known that between the 1880s and 1973, many thousands of women were harmed as a result of illegal abortion.” Underground abortions, especially those performed outside of trustworthy groups such as Jane, posed substantial risk to women’s health and safety. When women’s liberation activists worked toward legal abortion, they assumed that the process would become significantly safer in every way than it had been during the time of abortion’s illegality. It seems, though, that the women’s liberation movement did not anticipate the violent backlash that would follow legalization. As a student of history, this discovery is startling. While we tend to focus on how underground abortion posed more of a serious risk to women’s health and the potential for criminal prosecution, the reality, as I have learned, is that the underground abortion circuit may have protected women from the current climate of emotional and physical abuse targeted at women and abortion providers.

(afagen/Flickr user  | CC BY-NC-SA)
(afagen/Flickr user | CC BY-NC-SA)

Crystal’s concerns about the actual safety of legal abortion continue to be a reality today. My discovery of Crystal’s interview happened just days before the Supreme Court ruling striking down buffer laws that keep protesters a certain distance away from clinics in order to protect patients. Eliminating buffer zones opens women back up to harassment from right-to-life protestors. As I have continued my research, I have not been able to forget Crystal’s interview, and it makes me wonder: Are legal abortions as safe as they should be? With this newest Supreme Court ruling, will we be forced back into an arguably safer underground?

Further Reading

Kaplan, Laura. The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service. University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Reagan, Leslie. When Abortion Was A Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Kimberlyn Kasperitis is a history major at Grinnell College. Her research interests focus on the history of sex and sexuality in the twentieth century United States.