Underground Abortion Group In Spotlight As GOP Threatens Women's Rights

Heather Booth

Washington (AFP) - Heather Booth was a student in Chicago in 1965 when she received a call from a friend in need. His sister, he said, was pregnant but not ready to have a child. She was "nearly suicidal."

Drawing on her contacts in the city, Booth helped the young woman find a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion -- in what she believed would be a one-off "act of goodwill."

"But word must have spread," the 76-year-old said in an interview from her home in Washington, more than half a century later.

That one act would grow into an underground network of women called "Jane," whose members helped end thousands of unwanted pregnancies, safely and without stigma -- eventually performing 11,000 abortions themselves.

By January 22, 1973 -- when the US Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision created a nationwide right to abortion -- seven "Jane" members were awaiting trial.

One of them was Martha Scott, who at the age of 80 -- and with the court now expected to repeal that right -- looks back defiantly on her decision to break the law many years ago.

"I felt very strongly... that we are doing this illegal thing because it is important to do, because it can't be done legally," Scott said in a video interview from her home in Chicago.

"We were just ladies down the street," she said, but "bad laws require you to choose to act in ways that may be a little risky."

'Caring Community'

Booth and Scott, whose journey with the "Janes" is spotlighted in an upcoming HBO documentary, have stark memories of the time before Roe -- when desperate women would harm themselves attempting to end their pregnancies.

"Some were taking lye (a caustic ingredient in soap), some were using a coat hanger," said Booth. "Some were doing damage to themselves, throwing themselves down stairs or off a rooftop."

Without alternatives, women sought out abortions from illegal providers, many of whom were motivated by profit or unscrupulous in other ways, with little concern for women's health.

Eleanor Oliver, another former member of the network, said when she sought an illegal abortion in Washington, she was told the doctor might want her to be "a little cozier and friendlier than just a patient."

Fortunately, said the now-84-year-old Oliver, "he was very businesslike, very official."

As word got out that Booth could help women get a safe abortion, more and more began contacting her -- and she recruited others to help.

To be discreet, they told callers to leave a message for "Jane" -- and the group, established as a "caring community," was born.

After some time, the group discovered their abortionist was not a licensed doctor -- a shock that led some members to leave.

But others, said Scott, realized that if a man without professional training could learn how to safely perform abortions, so could they.

'Just Furious'

In May 1972, the police barged into the apartment where the "Jane" collective was operating.

"They kept saying 'So where's the doctor?'...'‘Where's the guy who's doing abortions?'" recalled Scott, who was in one of the bedrooms-turned-surgeries.

"Well, of course, it wasn't any guy who was doing abortions… we were doing abortions."

She and six others were rounded up and taken to jail, where they spent the night -- before being released pending trial.

In the wake of Roe v. Wade, the charges against the "Janes" were dropped, and the group disbanded.

Half a century later, though, their work appears relevant all over again, after a leak revealed that the Supreme Court is seriously considering a full reversal of Roe.

Scott was "furious, just furious" at the news -- but "not surprised" either, in light of former president Donald Trump's nomination of three anti-abortion conservative justices, tilting the bench decisively to the right.

If the nationwide right to abortion is struck down -- leaving states free to enact "dangerous" restrictions -- Scott expects a new generation of activists will need to step up.

"What we need to do is use every tool at our disposal," echoed Booth.

While conservative-led states are expected to drastically curb abortion rights if given free rein, it would remain legal in many other states -- "islands in the storm," as Booth calls them.

Some, like Illinois, have already moved to loosen their abortion restrictions in anticipation of the Supreme Court decision.

The poorest women -- less able to travel out of state -- will be the hardest-hit, as seen in Texas where abortions after six weeks have already been effectively banned.

But new medication can safely induce abortions up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy and -- though it would still be illegal -- can easily be sent through the mail.

And so, Scott and Booth hold out hope that the United States will not be going back to the dark days of back-alley abortions.

"The abortions won't stop," Booth said, citing data that shows one in four American women will terminate a pregnancy at some point in their lifetime.

"It's not rare, and it needs to be safe."

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Black Lives Matter protest

The latest police scandal in Seattle provides a crystalline example of how local law enforcement authorities have become toxic entities in modern urban areas—largely because it demonstrates, once again, that the city’s ranks have become populated with right-wing extremists who share an abiding contempt for the citizens they’re supposed to “serve and protect.”

An investigation by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) reported this week that city police, during George Floyd-inspired June 2020 protests against police brutality, engaged in a campaign of disinformation over police radio intended to convince leftist activists who had created an “autonomous zone” in the Capitol Hill neighborhood that a phalanx of far-right Proud Boys were marching around the city. The radio chatter heightened tensions within the encampment that eventually erupted in real-world gun violence.

The investigation, spurred by social media reports from leftist activists, found that on the night of June 8, 2020—just after police had abandoned its East Precinct Station on Capitol Hill and as activists were creating what they called autonomous zone they later renamed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP)—deliberately broadcast false verbal reports of a gang of Proud Boys marching around the downtown area.

The participating officers traded the false reports over the radio, saying: “It looks like a few of them might be open carrying,” and: “Hearing from the Proud Boys group. … They may be looking for somewhere else for confrontation.”

Activists monitoring police radio raised the alarm on social media, leading some of the CHOP participants to arm themselves. OPA Director Andrew Myerberg noted that while some of them may have brought guns regardless of the warnings, the disinformation “improperly added fuel to the fire.”

Moreover, key police leaders were aware of the disinformation campaign, even though it violated department policy. However, Myerberg also concluded that the four officers who participated may have used “poor judgment,” but were following guidance from their supervisors, who the report blames for spreading the false story.

The two supervisors it identifies as organizing and overseeing the disinformation network, as it happens, have both left the department in the intervening months. Chief Adrian Diaz will review the activities of the remaining employees.

Prior to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, many police departments—including Seattle’s—had generally amicable relationships with the Proud Boys, leading many of them to conclude that they could behave with impunity in those jurisdictions. This was notably the case in Seattle, which had been the sceneof a number of Proud Boys protests before 2020, resulting (as in Portland) mostly in the arrests of leftist counterprotesters and relatively few far-right street provocateurs.

Seattle activist Matt Watson (who uses the nom de plume Spek on social media) first reported the police-radio hoax shortly after it happened, and was able to document the fake reports. His reportage went largely unnoticed until early 2021, when activist Omari Salisbury began digging into the matter. Salisbury’s requests for body-camera footage of the purported Proud Boys sightings led OPA to open its investigation.

Even after the police hoax in early June, real Proud Boys (led by Portland agitator Tusitala “Tiny” Toese) showed up at the CHOP and engaged in harassment of the activists there, as well as of residents in the surrounding neighborhood. Toese and a gang of his Proud Boy and white-nationalist associates entered the zone on June 15 and attempted to start fights and were largely prevented from doing so; they later were videotaped assaulting a man and destroying his cell phone on a neighborhood side street near the zone.

By the end of the month, there had been multiple incidents of gunfire within the zone and in its vicinity, resulting in two deaths. CHOP was shut down on July 1.

Seattle citizens’ fraught relationship with the city’s police department goes back decades, but has intensified since 2011, when the Justice Department opened an investigation into complaints by community leaders about its excessive use of force and its biased behavior while policing minorities, resulting in a federal consent decree under which the department has been operating since 2012. City officials moved in early 2020 to lift portions of that decree, but pulled back on those efforts after the June riots on Capitol Hill.

The presence of right-wing extremists on the force became an acute matter of public concern after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol—largely because six Seattle officers were identified as participants in that day’s “Stop the Steal” protests. Two of them were fired after an investigation found they had entered the Capitol that day.

“Misinformation, especially of this inflammatory nature, is totally unacceptable from our Seattle police officers,” newly elected Mayor Bruce Harrell said in a statement lamenting the “immeasurable” harm caused by the scandal. “This kind of tactic never should have been considered.”

“This misinformation from SPD led to a fortification of the East Precinct and weeks of violence against the people of Seattle,” Seattle City Council member Tammy Morales wrote on Twitter. “As @Omarisal says, it was a ‘strategy planned by the higher ups.’ We need an investigation outside City process and we need real accountability.”

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos