An underground network of women saved my life by helping me get an illegal abortion in 1969. Now I'm scared for my daughter's future.
- An underground network called the Jane Collective helped Sunny Chapman get an abortion in 1969.
- Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, she's worried about her daughter's rights and safety.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Sunny Chapman. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I was 19 when I got pregnant. It was 1969, and when I had tried to buy birth control by wearing a fake engagement ring, the pharmacist knew I was lying about being married and refused to provide it.
I'd had a challenging childhood and ran away to Chicago when I was 16. I was legally emancipated and had a limited support system around me when I realized I was expecting. My boyfriend at the time was aggressive about wanting to get married, but I didn't want to. I was 19 years old and still busy trying to save the world — how would I have time to save the world if I had a baby?
It was a physically difficult pregnancy that left me sick all the time, with fainting spells and abnormal bleeding that had landed me in the emergency room twice. So there really was never any question: I wanted an abortion.
At the time, abortion was illegal. I'd heard stories of botched procedures and predatory abortionists, but I knew I had to try.
As a teenager, I was heavily involved in activist circles. I'd marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. and pledged to fight injustice wherever I saw it. The underground newspaper I worked for, called The Seed, often published ads for a group called the Jane Collective — a secret network of anonymous women who helped other women get safe abortions in Chicago.
I found a copy of their flyer, which read "Pregnant? Need Help? Call Jane." So I did.
After a phone screening, I was asked to get into a stranger's car
A voice on the phone asked me screening questions to make sure I wasn't a police officer or someone who sought to hurt abortion providers. Then they set me up with a counselor, who I met a few blocks from my home. She explained the abortion procedure to me.
My counselor gave me a date and time and told me to wait on a specific street corner while wearing a color-coded sweater. I think it was yellow, but after so many years, I'm not 100% sure.
I knew I was safe and in good hands, but I was still scared. I was afraid of getting into the wrong car, maybe with somebody who didn't have my best interests in mind. I was afraid of the pain. I was afraid something would go wrong — you worry about these things before surgery in a hospital, but imagine how much more you'd worry if you were doing it like this. I was worried the police might come in the middle of it — which did happen to the Janes eventually, but not during my procedure.
Despite my worries, when a stranger pulled up to me in a station wagon, I got in the car.
I had the procedure blindfolded, but I felt supported the whole time
There were other women in the car, and the driver took us through Chicago to the first of two apartment buildings, where we waited for our appointment. One by one, we were blindfolded and taken by van to a second location.
At the next apartment building, we were kept blindfolded to protect the providers and taken into the bedroom, which served as the procedure room. There were two anonymous women, the Janes, in the room to help. I remember being in a lot of pain, but they were so supportive, holding my hands during the abortion.
I would later learn my procedure was completed by a volunteer with no medical experience who had been trained to perform abortions, but I didn't mind. They sent me home with a medication that would help my uterus go back to normal. I had a little bleeding for a couple days, but then I was fine. I stopped bleeding and having fainting spells. I gained back the weight I had lost, and I got my life back.
It was amazing.
I became an artist, a pro-choice activist, and eventually, a mom
Ultimately, I was one of more than 11,000 women who ended their pregnancies thanks to the Janes. Unlike some other illegal abortion providers, the Janes never lost a patient. They saved my life and the lives of other women who got abortions with their help.
After my abortion, I went on to work as a pro-choice activist for many years. I escorted women at clinics and filmed anti-abortion activist groups. I worked for the Planned Parenthood Federation's clinic security department and testified against violent groups in federal court.
I performed as a singer and dancer, designed jewelry for stores like Barneys and Saks, and made documentaries. I still make jewelry and occasionally read my poetry in Brooklyn and the Catskills.
I regard the whole thing as being a lifesaver. I can't even imagine what my life would have been like if I had a baby at 19 — it would have been terrible. Through my work, I know that a lot of single mothers are plunged into poverty, and I would have been for sure. When I did have my incredible daughter years later, I was a single mother, and believe me, it was not easy.
Having a legal abortion was much easier and safer — and I worry for the women who won't be able to get one
I had another abortion after it was legal. I went to a nice clinic where they put me to sleep. I woke up in a big, comfortable chair with a blanket over me and a cup of tea and some cookies. I remember thinking: "This is how this should be." The Jane Collective was a godsend, but that's not how women should get health care.
Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, I'm absolutely furious. I'm in a blind rage.
I worry for the women who will need abortions and be unable to get them. I worry for women who will be forced into unsafe situations trying to end their pregnancies. I worry for my daughter, for the rights she has now that may come under threat in the future.
When my activism work quieted down at the clinics, I believed I was done. I thought: "I'm old, I can't do this anymore." But you know what? I'll go back and fight anti-abortion activists right now, face-to-face. I don't care how old I am.
So I'm going back into activism. I will help women from other states get abortions. I will buy emergency contraceptives in bulk and keep them in cold storage to donate to those in need. If someone comes to me and says, "I'm pregnant. I can't get an abortion where I am," my response is going to be: "How can I help you?" — because I know what it means to need an abortion.
I'm angry, and I'll do everything I can to fight this.
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