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Brown, Bodies, Battles: Abortion Activism on College Campuses

Image via HBO

When the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision was released on June 24, the stories on my Instagram feed were inundated with outrage. With every swipe came a new story condemning Amy Coney Barrett, the Supreme Court, the US government, and the system. But, as time progressed, and discussion about abortion waned in the media, the regular infographics and quotes from politicians disappeared from my feed. It was back to sunsets and dinners with friends. 

The fleeting nature of this “trendy” activism does not lead to much tangible, credible change. These quick, flickering Instagram stories may have raised awareness and catalyzed discourse about abortion rights, but the material impact of reposting an infographic is limited. As abortion activism content disappeared from my feed, it became apparent that few people changed their opinions, and even fewer were provided with impactful aid. I started to become a little disillusioned with grassroots activism, or an individual’s ability to create real change on such a significant issue. Given the strength of the monstrous institutions that uphold anti-abortion laws in the United States, what impact would some students pontificating about “the system” on their Instagram stories really have? 

There has to be a more radical and actionable approach.

I find the story of the Jane Collective to be an inspiring example of what grassroots activism should resemble in a post-Roe world. In 1972, when a feminist activist group of University of Chicago students crossed paths with a Black doctor fleeing the segregationist South, the Jane Collective, officially known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, was founded. This grassroots medical operation on Chicago’s South Side was one of the only places in the city where women could access safe and affordable abortion procedures. 

Subtle advertisements in student newspapers read, “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.” Anonymous phone calls rang in throughout the day, scheduling counseling and procedural appointments in undercover locations. As the organization expanded, the Janes began to stop only referring women to covert medical professionals—members of the collective actually learned how to carry out the procedure themselves. By doing this, the members could change the price of the procedure. Only charging the amount the patient was able to afford, they gave women with limited financial resources barrier-free access to the service. 

Other illegal abortion rings existed, but many of them were organized by criminal gangs that charged tens of thousands of dollars for unsafe procedures. At the Jane Collective, women did not treat abortions as a profitable black market good. As the founders of the Jane collective proclaimed, “We are for every woman having exactly as many children as she wants, when she wants, if she wants.” The impact of the Janes and their accessible, sterile, and friendly service cannot be minimized—in their three years of existence, they provided almost 11,000 abortions. 

One of the group’s founders, Laura Kaplan, was inspired by her own experience receiving an abortion. At the time, women in Chicago could only legally obtain abortions if their lives were in danger. She recounts that experience vividly, recalling, “Through that whole experience, there wasn’t one woman involved. It was men— the doctors, the hospital board—controlling my reproductive rights and condemning me to death.” By contrast, a woman who came to the Jane Collective would be met with an actual member of her community, another woman similar in age who had an understanding of her motivations and her fears. This is the atmosphere that should emerge from a grassroots organization: one that provides familiarity and accessibility when members of the community are flooded with uncertainty; one that breaks the rules a little bit when those rules are unjustified; one that does not just shout expletives about the system but actually works to dismantle it, just a bit. 

Rather than sitting in a room discussing huge institutional upheaval (which, do not get me wrong, is always fun to do, but has a limited impact), the Janes kept their ambition actionable by providing abortions to women—right then and there. They centralized their organization around one city, where they could provide aid to many women and spread the word efficiently. Even more importantly, the citizen-led nature of the grassroots organization allowed women who believed they would have otherwise “gone to the grave sweeping the floor” the opportunity to create meaningful change. Some even learned medical skills that they later used in legal medical establishments. 

On a post-Roe college campus, I do not want to inspire students to break the law as these women did, but I hope the story of the Janes inspires students to rally their communities together with real solutions as legislative battles are being waged. So, of course, in all upcoming elections, vote like your life depends on it. Then, if you have money left over from your allowance, donate it to the National Network of Abortion Funds, which provide direct assistance to people seeking abortions around the country. 

In Rhode Island, abortion rights may be legally protected, but that does not mean they are easily accessible to all. The Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would include abortion as a medical benefit for Medicaid recipients and state employees, still has not passed the state legislature. That the state continues to deny insurance coverage for abortions to its poorest residents impacts the future of tens of thousands of Rhode Island citizens. The Rhode Island State House is just down the hill from Brown, so maybe it is time to pay the lawmakers a visit. 

All this is to say that there are ways to turn our anger and frustration into action. We can condemn anti-abortion laws all we want, but we should also make positive movements forward. For the women in states where abortions are not legal, and for the women who cannot afford a pregnancy, we can take advantage of our arguably privileged lives as Ivy League college students to spring into action. The values of the Jane Collective provide inspiration for how to do so.