Activists Discuss Women’s Reproductive Rights at Hyde Park Forum for Social Justice Issues

The forum, hosted at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, highlighted the historical work of abortion activists and the current state of the reproductive justice movement.


Justin Walgren

The First Unitarian Church of Chicago.

By Justin Walgren

The First Unitarian Church of Chicago hosted a forum on the history and future of reproductive rights in Chicago on March 26. Titled “Women’s Reproductive Rights—Abortion Yesterday—Abortion Today,” the forum was the most recent event in First Unitarian’s “First Forum” series. The series is dedicated to exploring social justice issues.

The forum featured guest speakers Martha Scott, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, and Qudsiyyah Shariyf, all prominent reproductive rights activists based in Chicago.

Scott and Galatzer-Levy are former members of the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, commonly referred to as the Jane Collective or “the Janes.” The Janes were an underground network of women who performed over 11,000 illegal abortions in Chicago from 1969 until 1973, when abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade.

Scott drew parallels between the time before Roe v. Wade and the present in the wake of the June 2022 Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The ruling effectively overruled Roe v. Wade, striking down the federal protection for the right to an abortion. “Abortion in the United States, everywhere, was illegal, dangerous, humiliating, and expensive. That changed overnight,” she said. “So when abortion stopped being a crime, then it became what it should have always been, which was healthcare. But with the Dobbs decision, which has just come out from the Supreme Court, we’re kind of back to the bad old days.”

Scott joined the Janes shortly after the group’s founding in 1969. She contextualized the Janes within the broader climate of social activism in the 1960s and spoke of the imperative that she and other young women had felt to do something about the restriction of abortion rights.

“So our group came out of a really political sense of ‘This is dead wrong,’ and dead is a very accurate word here, because women were dying because they could not get this service. ‘This is dead wrong, and we can do something about it,’” Scott said.

Galatzer-Levy further explained gender inequality in the decades preceding Roe. “It’s hard for people to imagine how tough it was being a woman in the ’50s,” she said. “Jobs were listed either for men or for women. Women were routinely turned down for medical school because they were women. It was just a constant barrage.”

Second-wave feminism developed in reaction to these lingering inequalities, and Galatzer-Levy became increasingly engaged in feminist politics. She was particularly invested in abortion rights, viewing the issue as the front line in the fight for gender equality. “This was where we were literally dying,” she said.

Galatzer-Levy, like Scott, started out in the Janes as a counselor. She answered phone calls from women seeking abortions, most of whom discovered the organization through flyers that read, “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.”

After agreeing to the operation, the Janes would direct their clients to an address known as “the Front”. From the Front, clients would be driven to a site simply referred to as “the Place,” where the operation would be conducted. Afterward, they would be driven back to the Front and return home.

Galatzer-Levy challenged the notion that abortion was a psychologically damaging procedure for women, stating that the Janes’ clients expressed relief far more often than regret. “There’s been 50 years of propaganda about how difficult this is for women,” she said. “And what I always tell people is that so often at the Place, it was like a miracle.”

“Imagine being 20 years old, your whole life is ahead of you, and suddenly it’s just trashed, and you have no idea what you’re gonna do,” she continued. “And then, you would go into a room, they would talk to you, someone would hold your hand, the procedure would be done, and it would take 10 to 15 minutes. Women would often say, ‘Is that it?’ And we’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s done.’ And they’d go, ‘It’s done!’ And suddenly their whole life was in front of them again.”

Police eventually uncovered the Janes’ operation and arrested seven members in May 1972. The arrests, coupled with the passage of Roe the following year, caused the group to disband. Scott and Galatzer-Levy both believed their fight had ended, until the passage of Dobbs in 2022.

Qudsiyyah Shariyf (A.B. ’19) is one of many activists continuing the fight for abortion rights. She is the deputy director of the Chicago Abortion Fund (CAF), a nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance to people seeking abortions in Chicago and advocates for reproductive justice.

Shariyf explained that CAF is actively fighting disinformation about abortion. She specifically pointed to a surge in fraudulent abortion clinics intended to dissuade women from seeking abortion. “We’re fighting ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ in Illinois, which are fake abortion clinics that give people misinformation and really cause violence within our communities.”

Shariyf characterized the Dobbs decision as the culmination of a concerted effort to restrict abortion access. “We know the Dobbs decision was not the beginning of attacks on abortion access; it was part of a long string of attacks that continues to be part of this strategy [by] anti-abortion folks trying to restrict our bodily autonomy, period.”

CAF advocates not only expanding abortion access but also empowering women to set the conditions of their pregnancies and parenting, which Shariyf refers to not only as reproductive rights but also as “reproductive justice.”

“Recently, we evolved to align ourselves with a reproductive justice framework, which was coined by fourteen Black women and women of African descent in Chicago in 1994. They saw a need, in a reproductive rights space, to talk about not only the ability and the need to access abortion but also our right to parent and our right to parent in safe and sustainable environments,” she said.

According to Shariyf, the need for organizations like CAF is growing. “We received over 7,000 calls from people last year trying to access abortion care,” she said. Many of those calls come from residents of other states where abortion is either restricted or banned.

In closing, the speakers emphasized the importance of looking to the history of reproductive rights, particularly for inspiration and guidance in the wake of Dobbs.

Galatzer-Levy said, “Jane would just be an interesting historical footnote if Dobbs hadn’t happened. But what it is [now]—I think it’s an example to people of taking direct action and how much you can do. The stat we figured out is that, in the time that Jane was in operation, we probably provided about 11,000 abortions to the women of Chicago.”

Like Scott, Galatzer-Levy also compared the political climate during the time of the Janes to the present political climate.

“It was a very exciting time when we were doing this because we really felt that we had agency,” she said. “And what I think has happened, partially as a result of [COVID-19], is that we have Black Lives Matter, we have other movements that have come out, brought people out into the street, made people really aware that they have to take agency. And I think after the Dobbs decision, what we’re seeing is women and people all over the country understanding that we must take agency, we must take action.”