Jody Howard, 1940-2010

15 02 2010

Jody Howard, one of the founding members of Jane, the underground abortion-and-women’s-health care network, died February 5th.

Howard was given the name ‘Jenny’ by Laura Kaplan in her history The Story of Jane, and her story opens the book:

The first voice Jenny heard as the anesthetic lifted was the surgeon’s, “The sterilization procedure was a success, and congratulations, you’re eight weeks pregnant.” That was the news Jenny dreaded most. “All I wanted to do was roll off the table, pull the IV out of my arm, and bleed to death right there,” she recalls. Jenny was twenty-six, the mother of a two-year-old and a three-year-old and had been suffering from lymphatic cancer (diagnosed while pregnant with the younger daughter–ab), Hodgkin’s disease, for the past two years. Her health had deteriorated to such an extent during her previous pregnancy that she had every reason to believe another one would kill her.

Kaplan noted that when Jenny asked a doctor to perform a tubal ligation after her second daughter was born, he refused: ‘He could not endorse elective tubal ligation for a woman as young as she.’ Only after months of trouble with birth control pills did he agree finally to sterilize her.

She then sought to end her pregnancy, which required the permission of the hospital board. Even though her oncologist, radiologist, and gynecologist supported her decision, the board denied the request, as ‘her life was in no imminent danger. It was only after she convinced two psychiatrists she would commit suicide if she didn’t get the abortion that the board relented and agreed to it.

‘She came out of the hospital after her abortion infuriated.’

The key to Howard was not just the fury, however, but the context for that fury—that others, in this case, all men—had a quite literal control over her life. And not just her life, but, by extension, over the life of every pregnant woman.

It took Howard a while to make that connection, that women could never be free as long as someone else controlled their bodies and their lives, but once she did, she gave herself over to Jane.

She fought the good fight, for us all.

Rest in peace, Jenny.

(h/t: Feministing)





Jane says

4 10 2009

Do you know Jane?

‘Jane’ was the name of the underground abortion service in Chicago in the late sixties and early seventies; it wound down after the Roe decision in 1973.

As told by Laura Kaplan (who was a part of Jane) in The Story of Jane, a number of women in the Chicago area put together a not-for-profit and completely illegal service, one which they eventually expanded to include pap smears and female health education. Although a few members were eventually busted (somewhat by mistake), they operated for years with the knowledge both of police and various ‘legit’ medical professionals.

That such an underground service existed is not a surprise. What is stunning, however, is how completely fucking radical these women were. They initially relied upon various sympathetic and/or mercenary doctors to perform the abortions, but eventually learned how to do them themselves.

You got that? These women received training from a guy who received training from a doctor—and went ahead and performed not only D&Cs, but also vacuum aspiration, and, eventually, second-trimester abortions.

I’m as pro-choice as they come, but even I blanched when I read that. Fucking hell, I thought, second-trimester abortions done in apartments and hotel rooms?!

But they were good. One woman did die—a death which led some members to drop out, and to a great deal of turmoil for those who remained—but her death was almost certainly the result of an infection caused by  abortion attempts performed elsewhere. Upon realizing the extent of her infection, Jane members told her to go immediately go to the hospital; she waited more than a day, then died at the hospital.

Kaplan describes the meeting following the woman’s death:

As details of the story were recounted, a numbness spread throughout the room. They had founded the service to save women from dying and now the very thing they were trying to prevent had happened.

That was the whole point of Jane, to save women; even more, to give them a way to save themselves.

It wasn’t simply about making safe, inexpensive abortions available to women, it was also about women—both Jane members and those who used their service—taking responsibility for their own lives. Jane set up training for their members, and provided counseling for the women who came to them. They didn’t have moral qualms about abortion itself, but they were careful to ask anyone who seemed uncertain if she really wanted to go through with it. The decision, and the responsibility, lay with the woman herself.

Kaplan is not a deft storyteller, but she is an honest one. She details the egos and tensions, the difficulties of involvement with an underground organization, the conflicts with other women’s liberation organizations, and all the varieties of risk taken by Jane and the women they helped. All of these women shared desperation: the women (‘participants’, not patients) who came to Jane for help, and the members of Jane themselves, to help all who asked for it.

It was, in fact, that desperation to save women from unsafe abortions that led Jane to take over the operation itself, and to end up inducing 2nd-trimester miscarriages. If we don’t do it, they worried, what will happen to all these women?

There’s so much more to The Story of Jane. I used it in my ‘Women and Politics’ course I taught this past summer as a way not only to foreground reproductive issues, but also the issue of underground, anarchist, or DIY politics. Does underground work affect politics above the ground, or does DIY simply let the above-grounders off the hook? Or is the effect on ‘normal’ politics less the issue than the creation of one’s own politics?

I’m still chewing over those larger political issues. But when it comes to abortion, I wonder if Jane didn’t have the right idea. I’m a big fan of Planned Parenthood (see my links list), but they are at the forefront of putting abortion and contraception firmly within the medical sphere, i.e., within the sphere of specialization and  licensure and, most importantly, women-as-patients.

Jane insisted that abortion was something that women participated in, not that it was something done on or to them. This is your body, they repeated over and over and over, this is your life. In this context, the notion that women should have some idea of their own genitalia—a kind of mirror-empowerment which, honestly, always kind of put me off—seems less woo than utterly practical. How can you take care of yourself if you don’t know what you look like?

I know, there are both hospital-based and free-standing women’s clinics, not a few of which are also interested in patient or client education. And, frankly, autoclaves and medical education seem to me very good things.

But what about responsibility and liberation and solidarity? What of a woman’s (or any) emancipatory movement premised upon the simple declaration that you can and must free yourself? Jane was not encouraging women to bust out into chaos, but to recognize themselves as full human beings, and to inculcate a sense of responsibility not only to themselves but to those around around them.

With liberty and justice for all. Pretty fucking radical, huh?