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A Tribute to Underground Abortion Clinics

by Hanna Carney //

This piece was originally published in Issue 1: Secret Edition (Spring 2022). To see past print publications, click here.

Many people imagine a person getting an abortion as a teenage girl. She is young, reckless, selfish, and not ready to have a child (think Cassie Howard from Euphoria, or Maeve Wiley in Sex Education). However, people of various ages and genders terminate their pregnancies for many reasons. Some of these reasons include:

  • Not financially prepared
  • Bad timing/unplanned
  • Don’t want to be a single parent
  • Their partner is abusive
  • Their partner isn’t “the one”
  • Interferes with career plans
  • Want to focus on their marriage
  • Health concerns
  • Already have children and do not want more

There will always be someone in need of an abortion, no matter
their gender, race, or financial status.

Before the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, abortion was illegal almost
everywhere in the United States. People who wanted to terminate their pregnancies were hard-pressed to find safe means of doing so, but that didn’t necessarily deter them from seeking an abortion. As Nina Liss-Schultz writes in Mother Jones, “As long as women have had unwanted pregnancies, other women have helped them resolve the problem.”

Enter the underground abortion clinic.

What is an underground abortion clinic?

Since the mid 19th century, people, mainly women, have banded together to help others end their unwanted pregnancies. One of the more famous underground abortion networks dubbed “Jane” was founded about 50 years ago. The Jane Collective operated from 1969-1973 in Chicago, Illinois helping thousands of people terminate their pregnancies. They advertised their services in smaller newspapers—usually student or alternative papers. They kept their ads short and sweet:

‘Pregnant? Don’t Want to Be? Call Jane.’

Groups met discreetly, learning how to conduct pelvic exams, administer drugs, or any other medical practices necessary for an abortion. These groups provided underground healthcare to countless pregnant people, usually without the help of cis-men. Bingham in Vanity Fair helps paint a picture of the underground abortion clinic:

Martha Scott, a 30-year-old mother of four, was preparing for a procedure when she heard the doorbell ring. Moments later, five Chicago homicide detectives were barging into a living room full of startled, wide-eyed women. “It’s the cops!” someone shouted, as if on cue. Scott leapt into action. “You don’t have a search warrant,” she screamed. “You can’t come in!” One of them handcuffed her. After searching the apartment and finding it filled with women, the cops demanded: “Where is he? Where’s the doctor?” It turned out the police didn’t know exactly who Pildes and the other women were. Acting on a tip, they had expected to find a male doctor operating an illegal abortion clinic. Instead, they found women in surgical gloves.

Why are these women in surgical gloves necessary?

Underground abortion networks did not cease to exist in 1973 with the ruling of Roe v. Wade. They still pervade today around the globe. For example, Mexico has many underground networks that provide essential healthcare to people with unwanted pregnancies. And these networks cross borders. With the enactment of SB 8 in Texas, Mexican networks near the US border have been preparing for an influx of patients seeking treatment.

Since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18th, 2020 and the nomination of conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett, pro-choice people have been anxious to see if Roe v. Wade will be called into question yet again. And it has.

Since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18th, 2020 and the nomination of conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett, pro-choice people have been anxious to see if Roe v. Wade will be called into question yet again. And it has. Most notably in Texas and Mississippi, two consistently conservative states.

On May 19th, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill that would prohibit abortions 6 weeks into pregnancy. This bill attempted to give private citizens the power of suing providers of banned abortions. SB 8 is unique from other abortion restrictions, because most abortion restrictions are normally enforced by states. Thus, the Texas government wanted to reduce protection for abortion providers, making it more difficult to defend themselves in court.

Then, on December 1st, 2021, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a Mississippi abortion law, one that challenged Roe v. Wade. This law makes abortion illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Roe v. Wade allows for an additional 2 months for any termination decisions to be made. The conservative-leaning Supreme Court agreed to review this law, reconsidering the 50 year precedent that Roe v. Wade has set. Will our country regress 50 years? We are likely to find out later this spring, when the Supreme Court is set to give their decision.

If Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court, what will that mean for the US?

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, people’s lives and well-being will be in danger. The safest way to have an abortion is with the help of a trained medical doctor. However, people are not always granted that option, but that does not stop them from seeking pregnancy termination. People may resort to self-managed abortions.

The history of unsafe abortion is marked by dangerous methods—including the use of sharp sticks inserted through the vagina and cervix into the uterus; ingestion of toxic substances such as bleach; herbal preparations inserted into the vagina; infliction of trauma, such as hitting the abdomen or falling. Many of these methods are not even effective in terminating the pregnancy, but can leave lasting damage. (Doctors Without Borders)

Criminalizing people seeking abortions or their healthcare provides protects no living person. In fact, restricting a person’s right to an abortion puts many lives at risk, including the fetus. The World Health Organization reports that “around 5 million women are admitted to hospital as a result of unsafe abortion every year,” and “almost every abortion death and disability could be prevented through sexuality education, use of effective contraception, provision of safe, legal induced abortion, and timely care for complications.” Restricting access to legal and safe abortions only adds to the number of people at risk to injury and death.

Overturning Roe v. Wade would disproportionately affect marginalized groups, such as BIPOC, the LGBTQ+, and low-income communities.

Additionally, overturning Roe v. Wade would disproportionately affect marginalized groups, such as BIPOC, the LGBTQ+, and low-income communities. Individuals within these groups may experience additional barriers to accessing reproductive health care. Black women have a higher maternity mortality rate than white women in the US; they are three to four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth, according to Amnesty USA.

Additionally, “poverty rates on average are higher among lesbian and bisexual women, young people, and African Americans within our community,” as outlined by the National LGBTQ Task Force. Low-income individuals may have a harder time paying for proper health care or taking time off work to get the care they need.

A Tribute to Underground Networks

Underground abortion networks have provided necessary healthcare to countless women and pregnant people around the world. These volunteers step up when a government falls short in its support of reproductive rights. If the US government chooses to revoke our rights, millions will mourn the overturn of Roe v. Wade. But the Supreme Court should know that as long as people have had unwanted pregnancies, there will always be others to help them solve the problem.


Works Cited

“Abortion Access for LGBTQ People.” National LGBTQ Task Force, https://www.thetaskforce.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/TF_FactSheet_Abortion-Final.pdf.

Bingham, Clara. “Code Names and Secret Lives: How A Radical Underground Network Helped Women Get Abortions before They Were Legal.” Vanity Fair, 17 Apr. 2019, https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2019/04/jane-network-abortion-feature.

“Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA.” Amnesty International USA, 12 Mar. 2010, https://www.amnestyusa.org/files/pdfs/deadlydelivery.pdf.

Haberman, Clyde. “Code Name Jane: The Women behind a Covert Abortion Network.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Oct. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/14/us/illegal-abortion-janes.html.

Liss-Schultz, Nina. “Inside the Top-Secret Abortion Underground.” Mother Jones, 1 Feb. 2018, https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2018/02/inside-the-top-secret-abortionunderground/

“Preventing Unsafe Abortion.” World Health Organization, 2014, https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/112321/WHO_RHR_14.09_eng.pdf?sequence=9.

“Unsafe Abortion: A Forgotten Emergency.” Doctors Without Borders – USA, 7 Mar. 2019, https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/news-stories/story/unsafe-abortionforgotten-emergency.