, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 339-357

Seizing the means of reproduction: An illegal feminist abortion collective—How and why it worked

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This paper describes an illegal feminist abortion collective [the Service] through whose efforts 11,000 abortions were performed between 1969 and 1973 when abortion was legalized. An analysis of interviews from 32 members of this lay group indicates how and why the collective was so effective in providing what is usually a physician-controlled medical procedure. After describing the structure of the organization and the process by which women obtained the abortion, including pre-abortion counseling and post-abortion follow-up, two sets of reasons for the collective's effectiveness are presented. The first five reasons derive from the interview themselves; they deal with the organization's social and historical context, its illegality, its charismatic leaders, its member satisfaction and its financial self-sufficiency. The next nine reasons deal with factors that make The Service a relatively typical democratic collective organization. The most important of these factors is its lack of concern for organizational survival per se. This account supports the Rothschild-Whitt model for collective democratic organizations. It also suggests that counseling is important both for the providers and for the receivers of abortions.

This is a revised version of a paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association, Chicago, Illinois, 1977. I wish to thank Frances Chapman, Arlene Kaplan Daniels, Meredith Gould, Joan Huber, Carol Joffe, Kristin Luker, Patricia Miller and three women from the abortion collective who wish to remain anonymous, for their comments. I would like to thank Jane Mansbridge and Shulamit Reinharz for their help in revising the manuscript, and Amy Siegel for editing. Rosabeth Kanter brought Joyce Rothschild-Whitt's work to my attention. Content analysis of the data on self image was performed by Melinda Bart Schlesinger. The Boston Women's Health Book Collective generously provided funds for the coding.