[ Contents of this issue | Other online articles ]


the Body Politic
Vol. 6, No. 2 - February 1996, Page 32
Copyright © 1996, 1997 by the Body Politic Inc.
Book Reviews Reviewed by K Kaufmann

Doctors of Conscience
The Struggle to Provide Abortion Before and After Roe v. Wade
By Carole Joffe
Beacon Press; 256 pages; $24

The Story of Jane
The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service
By Laura Kaplan
Pantheon Books; 336 pages; $25

Recent efforts by Congress to outlaw the late-term abortion procedure called intact dilation and evacuation have opened the possibility that, for the first time in decades, a safe medical treatment, and women's right to make their own reproductive decisions, could be criminalized.

An antidote to the emotional rhetoric that usually surrounds the abortion debate, two recent publications recall the very real dangers of making abortion illegal and the lengths to which women and their doctors are willing to go when faced with the desperate circumstances often surrounding unplanned pregnancies.

Doctors of Conscience by Carole Joffe, a sociology professor at the University of California, Davis, documents the role of physicians in the fight for abortion reform before and after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing the procedure. Well-researched and clearly written, the book provides a compelling narrative of the dedication of abortion doctors who have braved society's and the medical establishment's continuing ambivalence toward women's right to choose.

Based on interviews with 45 physicians, Doctors recalls the pre-Roe 1950s and '60s when emergency rooms were regularly packed with women suffering the effects of botched illegal abortions. At the same time, doctors who were publicly opposed to the procedure used their influence to arrange expensive "therapeutic" abortions for wives, daughters and well-to-do patients.

The horrors and hypocrisy of the situation motivated many of the individuals Joffe calls "doctors of conscience" to risk professional and legal censure by helping women to get safe abortions. Jane Hodgson, a well-known abortion advocate, publicly flaunted Minnesota's ban on abortion in 1970 and later became director of one of the first legal clinics in the United States. More typical, however, were doctors like Sheldon Rothstein, who in the 1960s provided patients with referrals to illegal abortionists, and Daniel Fieldstone, who "quietly" performed abortions for the wives and daughters of friends and relatives.

While legalization has brought abortion and abortion providers out of the back alley, Joffe finds the social stigma surrounding the procedure remains frustratingly in force for women and their doctors. As she writes, "U.S. medicine has not normalized the practice of abortion since the Roe decision," and respected physicians are often passed over for promotions and other professional recognition because they work part-time in abortion clinics.

Joffe attributes the current shortage of abortion doctors – 84% of counties in the United States are currently without providers – to this low prestige and the continued harassment of clinics. Possible solutions to the problem, she says, include increased fees and physician involvement at clinics, plus expanding the pool of qualified providers by training nurse practitioners and physician's assistants, as has been done in Vermont.

A complement and contrast to Doctors of Conscience, The Story of Jane by Laura Kaplan is a timely reminder that, in fact, abortions need not be performed by doctors to be safe. The book records the history of a small group of women who, between 1969 and 1973, ran an illegal abortion service in Chicago and learned how to perform the procedure themselves.

A member of the group, Kaplan was able to track down and interview close to one-half of the women who called themselves "Jane". Coming together in the early, heady days of women's liberation, they were, she emphasizes, ordinary women – students, teachers, wives and mothers – who made a conscious decision to break the law to help women get safe, affordable abortions.

Weaving together the voices and memories of her former coworkers, Kaplan recounts how the group initially focused on counseling women and helping them find reliable, reasonably priced doctors. However, when the women discovered that one of their "doctors" was a lay abortionist, he was persuaded to teach a few women to perform the procedure, and they in turn trained others.

By 1971, the women at Jane were performing first and second trimester abortions – at times, over 100 per week – as well as pap smears. Clergy, doctors and even police officers referred women to Jane, and by the time the service closed in 1973, an estimated 12,000 abortions had been performed safely.

Kaplan's account of this remarkable story recaptures the political idealism of the early '70s – and the extreme security measures the group had to take – without glossing over the internal conflicts endemic to women's collectives of the era. Lack of focus and weak writing do slow the narrative a bit, and readers may feel particularly frustrated by Kaplan's omission of vital details, most notably, how the women found out "Nick," the lay abortionist, was not a real doctor.

Access to safe, affordable abortion continues to be a pressing problem for many women in the United States. An estimated 20 percent, according to a recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union, are unable to get abortions when they want to, and stories of women's attempts to induce their own abortions are again beginning to surface.

The depressing reality behind The Story of Jane and Doctors of Conscience is that 23 years after Roe v. Wade, the issues and memories raised by the books are close and all too relevant.


K Kaufmann is currently writing Getting an Abortion: What Every Woman Needs to Know, to be published by Simon and Schuster in 1997.

[ Top of article | Contents of this issue | Other online articles ]