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Being A Jane: Past, Present and Future Tense

by Judith Arcana

February 16, 2012

I’m a Jane. Another Jane said – when she heard me use the past tense a few years ago – No. Once a Jane, always a Jane; it’s not something that passes. We are Janes.

Immediately, I knew she was right. I’ve been dealing with abortion, one way or another, since October, 1970, when I went to a meeting in a small neighborhood church and joined the Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (most often called JANE – though mostly called “the Service” by Janes).

One of the ways I deal with abortion now is explain to folks much younger than I am that people in the U.S. used to think, feel and talk about abortion – and contraception and motherhood, for that matter – quite differently from the way they do now. That difference is the great achievement of the anti-abortion movement in the U.S.

I do this explaining in classrooms or libraries or bookstores or cafés or living rooms. Sometimes people want to know what we did, pre-Roe. Sometimes they want to talk about what to do now, this very minute, when Roe has not yet been overturned but has been eviscerated.

We talk about how it’s always been necessary to resist bad laws – and about what resistance might mean. Many don’t know about the extensive damage already done to abortion and contraception access in the U.S. They may know about clinic defense work - or even do it - and may work or volunteer for Planned Parenthood or NARAL.They may be medical students, nursing students, midwifery students and herbalists. Many are learning about and working for Fund Abortion Now! – the National Network of Abortion Funds. They may want to talk about ways to raise money – and consciousness.

I try to point out that even people who consider themselves “pro-choice” have absorbed the nearly omnipresent concepts and language created by the anti-abortion movement. Their most successful language achievement surely is the creation of the term “pro-life” – which must always be challenged, civilly, when used ignorantly or deliberately by others; it should never be used to describe the anti-abortion movement.

Words – as a medium, a connection and a method – are enormously important to me. I’ve written stories, essays, poems and books about mothering. Sometimes I present that work live in a performance. Sometimes I show the documentary video about the Service, made by Nell Lundy and Kate Kirtz 16 years ago and point out three relevant historical moments: when the Service was working (1968-73), when the documentary was made (1993-95) and the present. I direct folks to the JANE page on my website, so they can link to resources.

My explaining includes saying that I want people who support abortion access to talk and write more about emotions, female sexuality, ethics, morality, motherhood, religion – even about killing – in relation to abortion. Mostly we’ve left all that to the other side, and they’ve won power with it because abortion’s not only or even mostly about medicine and law, and everybody knows that. So when we refuse to, or are unable to -- or have decided it’s politically inadvisable to -- deal with emotions, female sexuality, ethics, morality, motherhood, religion and killing in relation to abortion, the anti-abortion movement is happy to portray us as selfish bitches, just like the popular media so often suggests about women and especially feminists.

I urge small groups to talk about what abortion is – its thousands of years of history, its many ways and methods, how it actually works; and about what abortion means – in the life of a particular girl or woman, as well as the life of the community and nation. Though I do want talk about how deciding to abort entails conscious acceptance of responsibility for the decision, I don’t particularly want us to talk about “choice.”

We need to remind ourselves: there’s still no contraceptive that’s both 100 percent effective and 100 percent healthy, so abortion-as-backup is a necessity. We need to actively question the assumption that birth is the best thing a woman can give an embryo, a fetus. We have to consider the folly of oppositional arguments in which antis talk about “the life of the baby” and abortion access advocates talk about “the life of the woman” – thereby creating a dreadful contest that is not an accurate or a useful description of unintended pregnancy.

We need to discuss our opinions with colleagues to learn how to articulate our ideas and define our actions. No aspect of this complex issue can be set aside. We need a coming together of those for whom access to abortion and contraception in the U.S. still appears to be unthreatened and those whose lives have already taught them that jeopardy and vulnerability are chronic. And when we’re called upon to behave strategically or tactically in public, we need to have prepared ourselves by doing the internal, small group work that helps us speak with assurance, intelligence and compassion.

One of the many useful things about being a Jane is that my “explaining” can include this: I already know women can do what has to be done. Even when we hardly know each other, even if we don’t especially like each other, even when we have to learn everything new from the ground up -- and in secret, women can do what has to be done.

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Judith Arcana writes poems, stories, essays and books; forthcoming are a poetry chapbook (“The Parachute Jump Effect,” 2012) and a fiction collection (“Hello. This is Jane.” 2013). Visit

Also see ”As Access Slides, Feminists Need to ‘Extract’ From Our Self-Help Past” by Carol Downer in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See ”Can We Choose to Move Forward on Reproductive Justice? -- And How?” by Ayesha Chatterjee and Judy Norsigian in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


Heather Ault posted: 2012-02-23 22:41:25

A really amazing article, Judith!! Thank you!

Jane Roberts posted: 2012-02-24 01:00:50

Since human beings (women) evolved the intelligence to know that abortion was possible it has always been a part of human behavior. Worldwide of the 200 million pregnancies every year, twenty percent end in abortion i.e. 40 million Of those 20 million are illegal, unsafe, causing about 60,000 deaths and more than 5 million injuries, hemorrhages and infections requiring post abortion care. Laws have never, will never, stop abortion. Simply put, when the world takes care of women, women take care of the world. I'm really a JANE and cofounder of 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund which deals every day with the ravages of unsafe abortion.

LYNDA MOTTANDREWS posted: 2012-02-27 18:48:50

I'm a Canadian,watching the gop race I AM DISMAYED to hear the negative rhetoric re contraception and abortion in 2012. I'VE read many of the blogs and I applaud AMERICAN WOMAN FOR STANDING UP FOR THEIR RIGHTS. Canada has no such laws that govern a women's right to choose.Many years ago I was employed as a sw at the biggest hospital in Toronto Canada. I was asked to work in o/p clinic where abortions were being performed. I HELD A LOT OF HANDS, WIPED AWAY TEARS IN THE END IT WAS THE MOST PROACTIVE AND EMPOWERING PART OF MY EMPLOY.

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