I recently viewed the trailer for the movie Call Jane, based on the history of Chicago’s illegal abortion network. If you’re a regular listener, you know that the various personalities of Honey Badger Radio differ in our outlooks on this topic. I think I’m probably the strictest pro-lifer, and even I don’t think legislation will stop women from having abortions. I haven’t pussy-footed around about my beliefs; you all know I consider the entire abortion industry to be a scam. Well, I can tell you, this trailer was a real eye-opener. Here I thought it was just the industry.
The story features a main character with a problem pregnancy with complications that, according to her doctor, have a 50% chance of killing her. After a panel of male doctors votes to not allow her an abortion, she just happens to see a flier for the Jane collective bearing the film’s title, Call Jane. She contacts the organization and undergoes an illegal abortion, then decides to join them in their mission. The rest of the trailer, backed by cheesy feminist anthem music, is flash after flash of moments from the film, hinting at a story of an organization of altruistic feminist underdogs defending desperate, endangered mothers against an oppressive patriarchy bent on mass-murdering them through the dangerous process of gestation and childbirth.
Well then. That settles it, right? I mean, all you have to do is watch this movie trailer to realize that if abortion on demand is not kept 100% legal up to the moment of birth in all 50 states, throngs of women will die in childbirth, and you don’t want that happening, right?
Good thing there are other sources of information, then, isn’t it?
Let’s take another look at the implied claim on which the main character’s story arc is based. The premise is that she was left with no legal recourse after her request to terminate her life-threatening pregnancy… remember, she was facing a 50/50 chance that complications of her pregnancy would kill her… was casually denied by three male agents of the patriarchy who were well aware of the risk to her life and their power to deny her access to this life-saving procedure. Sounds like a drama straight out of the Lifetime network, doesn’t it?
Is that really how things were?
According to the Chicago Tribune, the Illinois law criminalizing abortion, passed in 1867 and maintained for 103 years, simply carried an exception in cases of medical necessity, a rather broad standard left up to doctors’ discretion. I found no mention of any kind of legally-mandated panel to determine the validity of a woman’s need for therapeutic abortion, nor anything barring a patient from obtaining a second opinion if she was not satisfied with her initial assessment. Instead, I found only that one particular facility, Mount Sinai hospital in Chicago, had created its own panel to handle requests to have the procedure done on its campus by its staff.
The legality of therapeutic abortion in Illinois is consistent with abortion law in other states. In a speech on illegal abortion as a public health problem, presented before the Maternal and Child Health Section of the American Public Health Association in 1959, Mary Steichen Calderone admitted that abortion done to preserve the life of the mother was legal in every state.
So the movie’s premise is shady, at best.
The law did not prevent a woman facing life-threatening pregnancy complications from obtaining an abortion. Perhaps some individual hospital advisory panels would not recommend it, but one panel at one hospital is not the extent of the patient’s recourse.
Then there is the portrayal of the organization as the savior of women doomed to die in childbirth without the benefit of an abortion. In reality, this was not the main business of the Jane collective, which performed not just the rare abortion for the woman in dire circumstances, but approximately 11,000 abortions in Chicago between 1969 and 1973. The Call Jane trailer makes it look like the group had to turn some women down, as well.
How likely is it that this portrayal is honest?
To answer that, we must first look at statistics on the reasons why women seek abortion. According to the report, “Reasons given for having abortions in the United States,” by Wm. Robert Johnston, 98.3% of abortions done in the United states are elective, with 0.1% being done to prevent the death of the mother and another 0.8% for other maternal health reasons, making a total of 0.9% for all maternal health reasons, the remaining .8 being for other reasons.
We also need to look at how many abortions were done legally during that time, and how that compares to legal abortions after restrictions had been relaxed.
According to The Public Health Effects of Legal Abortion in the United States Sara L. Tietze & Richard Lincoln, throughout the United States, 2.61 abortions per 1,000 live births were performed on medical indications in 1967, or an approximate total of 9,190 abortions, based on the number of live births listed by infoplease.com for that year. In 1968, that rose to 5.19 abortions per 1000 live births, for a total of 18,174, a jump that can be attributed to some states expanding the concept of “maternal health reasons” to include the broad and difficult to refute category of mental health.
The CDC began tracking these numbers at this point, as more states began to relax their restrictions. According to their nujmbers, over the entire United States, 12,584 women were able to obtain legal abortions in 1969, 180,119 in 1970, and 212075 in 1971. In 1972, 586,760 legal abortions across the US were reported to the Center for Disease Control, with many women travelling out of state to obtain them. This increase resulted from legislation in some states that dramatically or completely relaxed their abortion restrictions, and continued up to the Roe v. Wade ruling. In 1973, when the ruling legalized abortion, the total number was 615,831. If the percentages hold true, meaning that only 0.9% of these were done for maternal health reasons, that’s 5281 total abortions performed for maternal health reasons in 1972, and 5543 in 1973. To attribute the 11,000 abortions done by the Jane Collective to life-threatening pregnancy complications as Call Jane implies, we would have to assume that on average, 2750 women a year with such complications were denied care, despite the high number of therapeutic abortions that were legally performed during each of those years.
Being generous to abortion advocates in general and the Jane Collective in particular, one could assume that there was an epidemic of problem pregnancies between 1969 and 1973 that just suddenly ended when abortion restrictions were deemed unconstitutional. One would also have to assume that physicians during that time were just a bunch of callous, domineering patriarchs who were willing to risk being targeted with malpractice lawsuits in order to deny therapeutic abortion to women in need.
According to the article History of Medical Malpractice in the US, by Chianese and Reilly law, the 1960s saw some of the highest medical malpractice reward payouts, creating an industry-threatening legal environment that led to malpractice reform, award caps, and the creation of the doctrine of Informed Consent in medicine. Some of the top payouts were related to medical errors affecting patient outcomes in infants during their birth. Imagine risking a malpractice suit involving wrongful, preventable death in that environment.
Why is all of this relevant?
The Call Jane trailer essentially claims that the Jane Collective did 11,000 abortions due to “life or death” circumstances in the Chicago area over a 4 year period, during which a minimum of 9190 legal, therapeutic abortions were performed annually in the United States, with legislation that legalized abortion under increasingly broad circumstances passing in an increasing number of states each year.
We are asked to believe that in 11,000 cases over and above those involving legal therapeutic abortions, doctors and the facilities that employed them were willing to deny patients a perfectly legal therapeutic option at their own financial and reputational risk in an era of frequent litigation and massive awards to plaintiffs, all for their own personal reasons. This is despite the fact that statistically, during subsequent years, the numbers indicate that abortions done in the US for therapeutic reasons were fewer than those done prior to the procedure’s full legalization. And remember, while the total of therapeutic abortions amounted to 0.9%, only 1 in 9 of those was done to prevent the death of the mother due to pregnancy complications.
Are you feeling a bit skeptical yet?
I am. The greater likelihood is that this organization existed to meet a demand for mostly elective abortion done under circumstances that abortion-seekers considered pressing, but not pressing enough to travel to New York, where standards for therapeutic abortion were more lax than in other states.
This film has obviously been made for the purpose of emotional appeal. Its point is to convince the public that until the Roe v Wade ruling was handed down, the patriarchal male overlords of the nation enacted laws that just flat-out condemned women with life-threatening pregnancy complications to death, and only illegal abortion rings protected the poor, helpless mothers of America from mass fatalities. The viewer is expected to conclude that abortion restrictions are misogynistic and deadly policies that only men want and only exist to harm women. The reality is far more complicated, as is the issue of government policy regarding reproductive health and human rights, and if this trailer is any indication of the finished product, the viewer should be truly insulted by the film’s one-dimensional portrayal with its transparently manipulative intent.
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