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I Was Arrested For Helping Women Obtain Illegal Abortions

On May 3, 1972, I was one of seven women arrested in Chicago and charged with abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. Members of the Abortion Counseling Service — known as Jane — helped women access illegal abortions between 1969 and 1973.

“The Janes,” as we were called, were helping mostly poor women obtain illegal abortions, because women with money could fly from Chicago to New York City, to obtain a legal one. To make the experience less frightening, we counseled women about the procedure. But the conversation went in both directions. Often, the women wanted to tell me why they made this personal decision.

I remember the first woman I counseled told me she had three children, and was terrified that she would lose her job and be forced to go back on welfare if she had another baby. Another was a waitress, mother of one, and told me she was going to lose her job if she didn’t get an abortion. “Then how am I going to take care of my son? How can I be a good mother to my son if I can’t support him?” she asked me.

Like them, most of the women I counseled were already mothers. Those who weren’t were planning to have children, just not at that time. Like one very young woman from Mayor Richard Daley’s neighborhood who said she couldn’t tell her family that she was pregnant for fear they would disown her.

Many of the women said they were desperate. They were desperate enough to seek out an illegal abortion. And the ones I talked with were very set on their decision. For them, it was the wrong time in their lives to be pregnant.

Women who sought abortions when it was illegal found ways to end their pregnancies and will do so again, even if states criminalize abortion. But their health will suffer, and it will be a death sentence for many. The U.S. has the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world, and it is even worse for Black women. Criminalizing abortions is going to make that rate climb further. This discrimination against women will fall most heavily on poor women, Black women, brown women and rural women who can’t access abortion care.

The author (far right) with two other members of The Janes.
The author (far right) with two other members of The Janes.

Courtesy of HBO

In 1971, women did not have many of the rights we now take for granted. Unmarried women couldn’t get effective contraception. Women did not have the right to open credit in their own names. They could be fired if pregnant, and there was no legal recourse for that or for workplace sexual harassment. Spousal rape was legal. Black and brown women faced a double shot of discrimination based on race and gender. But over time, women gained rights.

We will not go back.

Poll after poll shows that those who support a right to reproductive privacy are the majority in the U.S. We must organize, protest, and support efforts to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act to codify Roe regardless of how the Supreme Court decides. We must also support state action to protect the right to reproductive privacy. Finally, we should ensure that women have equal protection under the law and cannot be enslaved through forced pregnancy.

This year, 50 years to the day that I was arrested, I woke to the news a draft of a majority opinion that would overturn Roe was leaked. It was shocking not just for me, but for tens of millions of others who had counted on the settled precedent of Roe.

The Supreme Court has never taken away rights that it had found were constitutional. Especially chilling is how the leaked draft’s argument is based on laws in place when women had almost no legal rights and brushes aside the discrimination inherent in forcing women to bear unwanted children.

Being forced to bear unwanted children is a form of involuntary servitude not imposed on men. The draft opinion argues that forcing women to bear unwanted children would “increase supply” in the domestic adoption market, which is how the U.S. in the 1800s increased the population enslaved after the importation of slaves was outlawed.

The draft opinion would effectively remove a right to privacy that had been established by the Supreme Court in other cases and addresses other areas of life. It undercuts the Ninth Amendment ― part of our Bill of Rights ― which states that the enumeration of certain rights in the Constitutional text shall not deny or disparage others retained by the people.

After Roe v. Wade was decided, I was enormously relieved that women would be able to make their own reproductive decisions without interference ― and that I wasn’t going to jail. But, bit by bit, I’ve watched with great concern as states chipped away at access to abortion services, even as the Supreme Court upheld Roe.

If the Supreme Court can take away these rights, what other rights will be targeted next?

Sheila Smith is one of the members of the ’60s-era underground abortion network featured in the documentary film “The Janes,” which will debut on HBO on June 8.

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i was arrested for helping women obtain illegal abortions

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