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The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service By Laura Kaplan

By Paul Smart

Times come when the quickness of news can’t fully encapsulate an issue. Consider abortion, that eternal American topic du jour that keeps returning to currency no matter how settled one feels modern attitudes are. How to deal with the returning possibility of a ban on procedures that have been part of our social fabric for a generation, if not longer?

Laura Kaplan’s The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service covers a rarely discussed period of pro-choice activism from the years just prior to Roe v. Wade when a secret organization code-named “Jane” came to life to anonymously help women find the services they felt forced to choose. The author was a member, and has used her life of activism since to fuel her narrative, from years as a midwife to time spent setting up rural shelter-based programs for battered women, an advocate for nursing home residents, and a board member of the National Women’s Health Network.

Kaplan’s book weaves together the voices and memories of her former co-workers, with the author recounting how the group initially focused on counseling women and helping them find reliable, reasonably priced doctors. But this remarkable (and remarkably current) story also recaptures the political idealism of the early ‘70s and, by inference, just how far a slip backwards today’s reversals on matters of choice mean.

Is it all a bit partisan? Definitely. But in good ways that demonstrate the beauty and courage in bringing one’s beliefs to the forefront, working for other people and not just dry idealism. Consider that in a short four years, Jane’s 100 members helped some 11,000 women end their pregnancies safely. And did so by risking not only their reputations, but their freedom.

What about those not-yet-born lives lost, many on the other side of this divide might ask? Here in Kaplan’s history, published by the University of Chicago Press, are real women’s voices, experiences, and stories. On the other side are vague descriptions, ugly photos, words taken from “the book.” 

It’s a perfect read as we prepare for the 2020 elections and another of our great national battles over social issues, between those seeking to hold on to hard-fought rights and those wishing to return us all to dreamed-of older times, even if that would mean the stripping away of others’ freedoms.

“Liberty will not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to liberty,” reads the book’s opening inscription by Emma Goldman.

“Over 40 years after Jane folded when abortion was legalized, its echoes continue to reverberate, but the right to an abortion has never stopped being under attack,” Kaplan has written of her own book as it’s moved from work in progress to published tome. “Facing the horrors the current administration presents, we all need to figure out how to confront government policies that limit our rights. I hope that Jane will be a source and that we will be inspired by the organizations I mentioned here to do the work that needs to be done.”

It’s because of books like The Story of Jane that we can get deeper into current issues. And win rights yet again.