What Will it Look Like if Abortion Becomes a Crime Again?Historians in the News
tags: abortion, reproductive rights
In the early 1970s, law enforcement leaders in Chicago decided the practice of illegal abortion was intolerable in their city and, in a mostly forgotten chapter of history, undertook a campaign to root out those who performed the procedure in secret.
On a tip, police turned their attention to “Call Jane”, a feminist collective of young women who, since 1965, had provided safe but illegal abortions to roughly 3,000 Chicagoans per year. The collective was raided after two Catholic women told police their sister-in-law planned to have an abortion performed by the group.
A Chicago homicide detective was assigned to the case and traced “Jane” to the South Shore neighborhood, bordered by the blue waters of Lake Michigan. There, police raided an apartment, arrested nearly 50 people for questioning, and sent three women who were actively undergoing abortion treatment to the hospital.
Seven women were charged with 11 counts of performing an abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. They would soon be dubbed the “Abortion Seven” by newspapers. But the Call Jane members protected people they served – they even ate index cards detailing patients’ contact information.
Then, in 1973, the Abortion Seven had a reprieve. Prosecutors abandoned the case when supreme court justices issued a landmark ruling in the case of Roe v Wade, effectively legalizing abortion across the US.
In Roe, the court affirmed that access to safe and legal abortion was a constitutional right. The court ruled that states could not ban abortion before a fetus can survive outside the womb, roughly considered to be 24 weeks gestation (a full term pregnancy is considered to be 39 weeks).
Now, Roe faces a direct challenge. US supreme court justices have taken up the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Clinic, in which they will consider whether the state of Mississippi can ban nearly all abortion from 15 weeks. Abortion advocates believe the choice to take the case implies that at last four justices see it as a chance to reconsider the precedent set by Roe.
Oral arguments in the case are set to be heard on 1 December, with a ruling expected in June 2022. But already, pro-choice campaigners are warning of a future where abortion may no longer be legal in the majority of the US, and where prosecutions like that of the “Call Jane” collective could once again become a reality.
In court briefs and reports, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, international human rights experts and academics have begun to unpick what a return to illegal abortion might look like in a country with a vast law enforcement apparatus, with the world’s largest incarcerated population, and with women as America’s fastest growing imprisoned demographic.
Other American historians, such as Leslie J. Reagan, the author of When Abortion Was a Crime, have warned of Ceausescu-like regimes where prenatal care becomes about ensuring “all pregnancies are progressing to term”, and authorities monitor menstrual cycles. In Missouri, health department officials have admitted to monitoring periods to identify “failed medical abortions”, part of a bid to close the state’s last abortion clinic.
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