A collage of older documents promoting underground abortion services.

Access Denied

The Forgotten History of the Underground Abortion Movement

Roe is poised to be overturned by year's end. And nearly every state in the union is passing increasingly oppressive, dangerous anti-abortion bills. Can we survive without safe, legal abortion?

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In the last few hours of Monday, February 28, the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA) died in the U.S. Senate, an abject failure from a branch of government used to abject failures. The WHPA, which would enshrine in federal law the right to a safe abortion, took on increased importance after December’s oral arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, when the conservative majority of the Supreme Court indicated that they were poised to overturn, or at least severely gut, Roe v. Wade. Ultimately, the WHPA, which reflects the view of a vast majority of Americans that abortion should remain legal, couldn’t even get a majority of the votes in the Senate.  

It was a fitting start to Women’s History Month, as this is likely the last March in which Roe v. Wade will stand. I, like many abortion-rights supporters, I suspect, feel profound grief and horror at the continual failure of our institutions to protect our most basic, fundamental rights. It’s hard to watch the bottom fall out for abortion rights and know that there is nothing left that we can do to stop it. The fate of Roe v. Wade is now out of America’s collective hands. 

But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. There is a long and storied tradition of women in America mobilizing to enable access to safe abortion, regardless of legality. As we enter a new, post-Roe phase in 21st century America, it’s that history that we must not only learn from, but embrace.

Abortion up to the point of “quickening” was common and largely legal in much of the United States until the late-19th century. But not for enslaved Black women; their reproduction was tightly policed and controlled, and preventing or terminating pregnancy became an act of resistance. Substances like calomel, turpentine, and indigo were used to induce miscarriages. On cotton plantations throughout the antebellum South, Black women like Mary Gaffney chewed the ubiquitous cotton root to prevent or even terminate pregnancy. When Gaffney’s slave owner forced her to marry someone she loathed, she stealthily turned to cotton root to successfully prevent pregnancy.

A century later, after decades of unsafe, “back-alley” abortions and scores of deaths, some states legalized “therapeutic abortions” for issues like psychosis and excessive vomiting. That wasn’t enough for Pat Maginnis. In 1962, she founded what came to be known as the Society for Humane Abortion, a radical organization that not only publicly advocated for a repeal of abortion laws, but coached pregnant people on how to fake symptoms like hemorrhage to quality for a therapeutic abortion. Eventually, they even facilitated underground abortions by teaching people how to properly self-induce an abortion.

Maginnis wasn’t the only one. In Chicago, a group of feminist activists formed the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation—or “Jane” for short. In 1969, the activists started referring pregnant people to safe, clandestine abortion providers in the Chicago area before learning to provide abortions themselves. By the time Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide, in 1973, the Jane Collective had performed thousands of safe, underground abortions. In Los Angeles, Carol Downer took a speculum from an illegal abortion clinic and taught herself how to do a vaginal self-examination. She and fellow compatriot Lorraine Rothman traveled across the country, giving out specula to women and teaching them the practice of menstrual extraction, a means of self-inducing an abortion.

All of these activists knew that what they were doing was technically illegal, but morally imperative. Downer and several members of the Jane Collective were, in fact, arrested, and faced serious charges, until Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide. Their actions didn’t create the Court case that would topple abortion laws, but they did save lives. They mitigated suffering. They created the cultural movement that helped sway public opinion and move the Supreme Court to acknowledge this constitutional right.

Now, faced with Roe’s likely eradication, the history of underground abortion can light the way as we face this human rights crisis, and it doesn’t even have to include violating the law. Donating to abortion funds, which provide financial support for abortion patients in need, will become even more important as patients will need to travel out of state. Volunteering with a practical support organization like DAPSN, which helps provide financial and logistical support to patients traveling for abortion care, can ease the tremendous burden on patients. Folks can even purchase medication abortion online, safely and legally, to terminate a pregnancy in the privacy of their own home. 

This Women’s History Month, let’s not only honor, but embrace the history of underground abortion access. The time for wallowing in grief over the failure of our institutions to protect our most basic right to bodily autonomy is over. Neither the Senate nor the Supreme Court is going to save access to safe abortion care. Like those who came before us, we are going to have to do that for ourselves. 


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