Old Diary

A common provenance

I have had elements of this post laying around for a couple months but no courage to let them loose. Well, here goes.

I got started thinking about pain as a result of a comment overheard. How do you feel when your God (assuming you have one — if not this post may not apply to you) doesn’t do what you expect. Particularly if you are in pain, and you’re pain doesn’t go away in response to prayer.

It’s not all that uncommon to hear people moaning that God didn’t “fix” something in their life. I have heard people who expressed that they were believers who almost charged God with neglecting them because they were allowed to suffer through some experience that they thought shouldn’t happen to them.

Excruciating experiences happen all the time. Sometimes they even happen to people of faith. In fact, I’d bet there hasn’t been a moment in collective human history when someone hasn’t been suffering pain in some way or another. Then again, not all that we perceive as extreme pain is in fact extreme. Nor is everything we suffer for other reasons than our own behavior. There are a lot of times when our own actions are the sole cause of our sufferings and I hardly think it fitting to blame the Supreme Ruler of the Universe for our own stupidity.

I’m not breaking new intellectual or philosophical ground by saying we see the world through our own bias and limit filters. Doctors have their sliding scale for interpreting pain because what is excruciating for one is bearable for another while a different kind of pain might be perceived by the same two people entirely in reverse. Pain is, if nothing else, subjective.

Not only is pain subjective, so is any reason why God might intervene in our suffering. We perceive pain as sensation. But whoever or whatever God is perceives it entirely differently for the simple reason he/she/it is not bound to a human body of flesh, bones, and blood.

Just as surely as we humans may say to God, “Why did you not reach out to me?” he may say to us, “why did you not reach out to me?” The idea that God exists to make our life easier denies the very nature of a Creator, turning the creator into a negligent servant.

We humans have suffered with the subject of pain for millennia. I’m not going to say anything that hasn’t been said a lot of times before in different languages and at different times, but I think it’s worth thinking about what we go through and maybe find some rhyme or reason in some of it.

All things of grace and beauty have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Beauty is an idea pretty familiar with people. I’m not so sure “grace” is anywhere near as understood. It seems to me, just one person’s view, that grace is understood in terms of higher ideals. Beauty can be perceived as animal — sexually we see something and desire it because it appeals to us. Grace is quite something else. Grace is not about our desire. Grace is external. Beauty too can be external. There is a beauty that has naught to do with the animal in us, naught to do with desire in us; there is a beauty in order and form and harmony and line — and that beauty is something we come to appreciate by reflection, by appreciation, by rubbing shoulders with it. Grace, not so much.

Grace is something else.

We don’t need theology to understand grace. I guess we could say that grace is like the shock absorbers on your car. Grace is how we get through life without damaging collisions with all around us.

Neither grace nor beauty are things we go our and set our minds on acquiring. We can’t just decide to be beautiful. We can’t just decide to be gracious. I think McCarthy hit the nail on the head by saying that both Grace and Beauty have their origin in pain. It is out of the hurtful that we come to appreciate it’s opposite.

In 18 simple words we have a summation of millennia of philosphy. We don’t birth either by smiling a lot and having an easy life that comes without consideration. No, it’s by grief and ashes that we learn to distinguish that all things are not alike good. Or bad. It is by pain and fire that the lines of distinction come clear. It is good arising out of the bad in our life.

It’s never easy suffering. And for those who trust in a God, who live their lives to please that God, it’s natural to want that being to reach out and change our lives in good ways. It’s only human to think if we are honoring him/her/it by worship that perhaps there ought to be some reciprocity. But the question begs to be asked, is that all a God is good for? A bargaining chip when we get into a tight spot?

I happen to think not. And as a guy who lives a life by faith I happen to think that whomever this God is that he/she/it might have purposes that extend further than I can see or appreciate. If I’m his creation than there is that right of creation to be contended with. I am not my own, I am his to do with as he pleases. Fortunately for most of us that purpose seems rather benign — but that is not to say that for reasons known to him alone it has been difficult, painful, even excruciating for some. To us, the cost may seem negligible or the cost may seem supreme but it is always our view, and not his that we see.

One of the realities of human life, indeed of pretty much every life form on planet earth is that :

in time you can get used to anything.

We are amazingly adaptive creatures. Not just us humans, but all of the creatures upon this planet. We all adjust and adapt to our circumstances and we take what weather and climate and floods and drought send our way and we make the best of what we have. If there is no God then it is what it is, and nothing more. If there is a God — about which I have no doubts — then it’s likely that the same God what put us all here also have some reason for doing so and if I further that goal than I have done my part in whatever his grand plan might be. Does that mean that I have gotten something for myself that I would not have gotten if I were a non-believer? If you ask me, that’s the wrong question to ask. Whether there is a God or not, the question I want to ask is has my life mattered — not just for me, but for those around me as well. I think pain is part of the way we are enabled to do just that. So, I repeat the words once more.

All things of grace and beauty have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Old Diary

What is The Opposite of Revisionism?

There is a term for rewriting history, we call it Revisionism. We often see it applied to denials of the Holocaust, or to those who pretend that U.S. treatment of blacks and Native Americans was other than the sordid reality that it was. There are a lot of places where it shows up, if we are paying attention.

I wonder about the way we judge the men and women who lived 50, 100, 150 years. We think nothing of applying contemporary standards to them, as if they knew back then what we know today. But obviously that is not the case; has never been the case; will never be the case. That’s really quite unfair. Isn’t that like judging a 5 year old child by the standards of a 70 year old adult?

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not making excuses for anyone’s bad behavior. Not for ANYONE. But we all behave the way we do because we consider that we are within the norms of acceptable behavior for the culture in which we live.

I’m not sure there’s a word for it, the concept I’m thinking about. If there is I don’t know it. Revisionism often seeks to deny the actions of others. But what’s the word for accepting the reality of what happened, yet judging it by a more current morality?

In the last couple years Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein have both been called to account for their actions 10 – 20 years prior. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think that women should ever have been preyed upon as has happened in our culture. Indeed, such actions are going on today and those also deserve accountability. But I also accept that twenty years ago we lived in a very different world. Women (or men) who were sexually harassed, abused, fondled or otherwise mistreated in work settings had little legal recourse on a practical level. They could express their disgust, or try to take action against the culprit but society was accustomed to blinking at the misdeeds of the rich and powerful. That wasn’t right, but it was the way of the world at the time. Those in the lower echelons of power ended up bearing the shame for what happened to them and rarely was there any justice to be found.

Similarly, there have been accusations made against politicians. There have been the likes of Al Franken, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden — all of whom has seen criticisms raised over their actions and all of whom have responded differently and been variously received because of those accusations.

For those with time on their hands it’s great fun to rummage around in the archives to find quotations from a politician from 5 or 10 or 20 years ago, made in very different circumstances, and without the benefit of those years of experience and to accuse them of horrible crimes. But if the microscope were turned around and the researcher into past lives was turned into the subject of that research I doubt that many people could stand the reversed scrutiny. Oh, perhaps the subject of their infractions might not be identical. But the world has ways of moving on and not many of us are still exactly the person we were 5, 10, or 20 years ago.

Times change. Society grows — hopefully it matures too. The idea that someone living 20 years ago was prescient and could anticipate the mores and idiosyncrasies of modern society is ridiculous — and yet we here in 2020 judge others as if they could day in and day out.

It’s not just politics or politicians that do so.  You can find the tendency in interpersonal relations, in race relations, in a great many areas of life where we now think we know better than people of a prior generation, or a prior century. OR…. might we not see a similar example in regard to COVID? Have we not learned about the virus in the last three to 6 months? Do we continue to judge the actions of others months ago by the knowledge base of today? I bet we do.

But then it’s easy to throw stones at someone else, isn’t it.

Old Diary

Red Door

Door p1

Doors fascinate me. They can tell you a lot about people, or they can tell you a lot about a society — depending on where you are.

Household Doors here in the U.S. tend to be on new-ish construction and whether the homeowner has painted the door, or decorated it, the kind of hardware that embellishes it, or doesn’t — all these things tell us a lot about how people see themselves.

Doors in other countries — particularly those with longer histories than the U.S. tell us more about the society than about the individual. Take this door in Paris for example. Most likely it was there long before WWII. It’s lived through more trouble and seen more joy than a lot of folk yet, there it is in it’s bright red color drawing attention to itself.

Old Diary


We all like recipes, don’t we? traditionThe idea of someone else laying out all the steps leading to a scrumptious meal, or entree is pretty appealing.  I’ll admit that my personal relationship with “recipes” is a bit challenged. Seeing as I rarely do the same thing exactly the same way twice, Peggy has gotten accustomed to the idea that I am always tinkering with the dishes I prepare.  But even I use recipes as a jumping off point from which to improvise.

But what about behavior?  What about morality?  What about all those things for which we have recipes for our actions.  We call them Traditions, but what they really are is peer pressure from dead people.

I’ve been thinking a little more about tradition since our Granddaughter married into a much larger family that is steeped in tradition.  I have no doubt that she is independent enough to know when to give in and when to resist, she was raised in a very open household.  Not all people are so blessed. The birth of our first Great Grandchild got me to thinking about how she is going to cope, because knowing how much I chafed under rules and regulations as a youth, I know that not all people deal well with being told there is only one way of doing things.

I think I mentioned some months ago, in connection with the Great Grand One’s baptism that the family has a baptismal outfit that some 60+ infants have used for their baptism service.  Then I think back on the short engagement Peg & I had — barely 4 months from proposal to altar — and all the traditional things we were supposed to do that we refused to abide by and I scratch my head about how a young child who is pressed on all sides to behave in a certain way manages to make their own choices?  It’s hard.

As a youth I was a rebel from the word go.  But I had parents who didn’t push me to conform.  I have no idea how the little one’s parents will do, or whether they will even recognize the challenge it places upon some youth.  I’ll be interested to see how it all works out; and challenged myself to be a good great grandparent and let the current generation do their thing without interference.  That is hard for every grand, or great grand parent, I’m sure.

We talk a lot about how peer pressure affect students and youth.  But so much of the time we aim out critical vibes at the pressure from other young folk urging non-compliance with our traditional parenting ideas.  We rarely consider tradition or the ways of our parents as also being “peer pressure.”

The Millennials have made a lot of Gen-X’ers and Baby Boomers stop and take note. Many of them are forming new norms and finding very different ways of looking at society and the prospects for their lives than their parents and grandparents did.  They have no choice.  It isn’t possible to exist on a single wage and a stay at home parent.  It may not be possible to own a home even if both parents are working.  And the new construction apartments are aimed at higher incomes so the percentage of income a lot of young people are having to commit to “rent” is skyrocketing.  Money to do interesting stuff is harder to find: travel, entertainment, education, fun.

You’ll remember the poem I quoted a few months ago, Heroism.  The opening lines have stayed with my like glue:

It take great strength to train

To modern service, your ancestral brain.

To hold that back with one hand,

And with the other to support the weak steps of new resolve.

In a world dominated by social media, TV, peer pressure and advertising it’s tough to break out and think for yourself.  To dare to believe that you don’t have to be skinny to be attractive, or that you can have a trade instead of a degree, or that you don’t need to use alcohol or drugs to escape your life — these things are immensely difficult if you are the only one in your peer group trying to break the norm.

One thing I do know.  If young folks don’t ever see people thinking for themselves they won’t think it’s possible. This is just as true of day-to-day human relationships as it is of Christians learning it’s possible to live by faith when they don’t see anyone doing it.  There are a great many things in life that we doubt until we see that they are possible — because we see someone else doing it.  SOMEONE NOT DEAD.

That is partly the reason that Peer Pressure is as strong as it is.  Young people give in to peer pressure because other people doing or thinking or behaving in a certain way is proof to them that living that way is possible.  Whereas the things they are told by their parents or grandparents or teachers but which they don’t seen those people doing — those things are relegated to the pile of impossibilities.

It’s not enough to give a kid a pad or a smartphone and let the machine babysit them. They need time doing things with people who have lived life, to see that the impossible things they are being asked to do make sense, that they are possible, that they make their life better, that they are worth the effort.

Tradition may be peer pressure by dead people.  But if you don’t see people living that way it’s easy to question whether that tradition “works” in day -to-day living.

Old Diary

The climate stakes of China’s Belt and Road initiative

While the U.S. is ditzing around with an infantile President and an impotent Congress the rest of the world is moving forward.  China, which presents the world with new challenges every day is aggressively seeking to make friends with other countries.  Take a look at how things are shaping up via this piece from AXIOS.Com

The Chinese have been working on this “Belt and Road Initiative” since 2013. If you wonder what is significant about their aggressive liaison with emerging nations consider this:  The U.S. controls 24% of the global economy and China 15%.  But in 2000, the U.S. controlled 31% and China only 4%.  To borrow a colloquial term, the Chinese are eating our lunch. :-\

Do some research,  there are credible news media articles on the project if you take the time to look for them.

Infrastructure projects with Chinese involvement as of March 2017


Adapted from a Mercator Institute for China Studies map; Map: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Yale Environment 360 has a cautionary look at the emissions stakes of China’s Belt & Road initiative (BRI), the massive collection of infrastructure projects that spans several continents.

Why it matters: The multi-decade project formally launched in 2013 aims to project China’s economic interests through a network of infrastructure projects that include shipping ports, railways and highways, Isabel Hilton, writing for Yale Environment 360, argues: “BRI has the potential to transform economies in China’s partner countries. Yet it could also tip the world into catastrophic climate change.”

Where it stands: She notes that the project will “absorb massive amounts of concrete, steel, and chemicals, creating new power stations, mines, roads, railways, airports, and container ports, many in countries with poor environmental oversight.”

But her biggest focus is on the initiative’s connection to Chinese-backed plans to expand coal-fired power construction in other countries — even as it takes steps to curb domestic air pollution and carbon emissions.

The big picture: “China may be pursuing eco-civilization at home, but it urgently needs to address the global risks it is creating in the Belt and Road Initiative,” Hilton writes.


Old Diary

How Long Will Australia Be Livable?

I’m reprinting this article even though the Australian fire season has ended because the ideas brought out here are not dependent upon one fire season in one isolated place on earth.  The reality of changing climate will mean drastic changes for every man, woman, and child on the face of the planet.  Maybe not today.  Maybe not tomorrow.  But sooner than any of us want’s to see it for sure.

Other nations around the world are trying to address their part in the changing global situation.  Only the U.S. is hiding it’s head in the sand, and we are doing it because the only thing we seem to care about (as a society) is making a profit in this quarter.  We seem unable to care about making a profit 10 years down the line, or 50 years down the line, or how our children’s children’s children will fare in the world we leave behind.

Facing a future of fire, drought, and rising oceans, Australians will have to weigh the choice between getting out early or staying to fight.




When tiny flakes of white ash started falling like warm snow from a sky sullen with smoke, we left. We had lived for weeks with the threat of two huge bushfires hanging over our small Australian town, advancing inexorably toward us from the north and the south. My hometown of Blackheath, perched at the top of the Blue Mountains, surrounded by stunning but drought-parched Australian wilderness, was in the center of this flaming pincer.

The kids had just come home from their final day of school in December when our neighbor messaged to say there were concerns the northern fire, which had already burned through nearly 2,000 square miles of national park, would hit Blackheath that night. Fire authorities had warned of dire conditions in the following few days: high temperatures, low humidity, and wind.

So we fled east down the mountains, heading for the coast and the relative safety of Sydney, nearly 60 miles away. We returned five days later to our scorched land, the house untouched thanks to the courageous actions of neighbors and firefighters.

Australians pride themselves on being battlers, on facing down terrible odds and triumphing against whatever this land of droughts and flooding rains—and bushfires—can throw at us. Yet one of the single most defining moments in modern Australian nationhood was actually a retreat. In one of the greatest military-campaign failures of World War I, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—the ANZACs—staged an ingenious escape from the shores of Gallipoli in 1915 after a bitter, futile eight-month battle with Ottoman forces.

“This is our Gallipoli; this is our bushfire Gallipoli,” says David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania. He’s talking about the bushfires that began in the spring of September 2019, that have burned in every state and territory, that have claimed at least 24 lives, that have destroyed nearly 1,800 homes, and that have turned more than 8.4 million hectares of land into lifeless charcoal. They have led to one of the largest peacetime evacuations in Australia’s history, as fire authorities in two states instructed tens of thousands of holidaymakers and residents to remove themselves from the path of several flaming juggernauts. In an echo of the Gallipoli retreat, thousands had to be rescued from beaches by the Australian navy and air force. In the face of these unprecedented fires, Australians appear to be listening less to the inner voice of the Aussie battler, and instead heeding the pleas and warnings of fire authorities.

Eleven years ago, the mind-set of bushfire response was different. Before the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in the southeastern state of Victoria, which killed 173 people over two cataclysmic days in 2009, the accepted wisdom on bushfires was “stay and defend, or leave early.” After Black Saturday, a new category of bushfire warning was introduced, labeled “Code Red” in Victoria, and “Catastrophic” in New South Wales. The unambiguous message of the new warning was “for your survival, leaving early is the only option.”

It appears the message is cutting through, says Richard Thornton, CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. “With the magnitude of these fires, and particularly with the fires that occurred in the Blue Mountains and Mallacoota—in heavily populated areas—that we didn’t end up with a Black Saturday–type fatality list is a sign that something is different in these fires.”

But what happens after the fires have passed through, and Australians return to either their intact homes or smoking ruins, dead cattle, a blackened moonscape where crops once grew? The lucky ones give thanks and get on with their life. The unlucky ones grieve, rage, shake their fist at Fate—and defiantly rebuild on the same ground. The battler spirit triumphs again, but for how long?

As the country suffers through one of its worst droughts on record, and heat waves shatter temperature records not once but twice within the same summer week, some are asking whether Australians can afford to keep returning to the same parched, scorched landscapes that they have occupied not just since the European invasion two and a half centuries ago, but for tens of thousands of years before that. Even before climate change, survival—particularly of agriculture—in some parts of Australia was precarious. Farmers were so often rescued from the very edge of disaster by long-overdue rains that arrived just in time. Now the effects of climate change are making that scenario even less likely, and this bushfire season and drought are but a herald of things to come.

If people are to continue living in these places, “they’ve got to drastically change their relationship with the surrounding environment; they’ve got to drastically change the surrounding environment in order to be able to survive and reduce their vulnerability,” says Ross Bradstock, director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong. “Another option is the retreat from flammable places.”

After the Black Saturday bushfires, the state government attempted to buy back land from people in the most high-risk areas who had lost their homes in the fires. Very few took up the offer. Now there’s a record-breaking drought on top of the fire threat. Dubbo—a regional New South Wales town with a population of more than 38,000 people—has all but run out of water, with its dam at just 3.7 percent of capacity and the river supplying it forecast to dry up by May of this year. Towns in Queensland are relying on charity handouts of water, even as a planned coal mine in the region is set to access billions of gallons of groundwater. The largest remote Aboriginal community in Central Australia—along with many others that have long thrived on their traditional lands—is also running out of drinking water.

Then there are the heat waves. On January 4, 2020, western Sydney became one of the hottest places on the planet, at 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48.9 degrees Celsius). “That’s uninhabitable; you can’t live in that,” Bradstock says. And there are floods—one-in-100-year floods have laid waste to Queensland twice in two years—and climate-change-related sea-level rise, which is predicted to be a significant issue for a nation whose population is concentrated in a narrow strip of land around its coastline.

To abandon parts of this land, though, will be a tough sell to people who have “stay and fight” ingrained in their soul. “There is definitely something about the Australian way that people want to stay and defend, and don’t necessarily want to think about moving away from the bush,” says Catherine Ryland, an urban planner and a bushfire-resilience expert. She would like to see more conversation around the idea of planned retreat—rebuilding in low-risk locations, reducing development in high-risk areas, and even relocating existing, unaffected communities, which she describes as the “biggest, bravest, boldest step.” And some experts are starting to consider what such steps would look like: The Planning Institute of Australia has released a national settlement strategy, for instance. It highlighted both the large parts of Australia more and more at risk from the adverse impacts of climate change and the dearth of effective planning for climate change or disaster-risk reduction.

“Everyone is suddenly starting to realize that we actually need to plan better for those things, instead of just keep sprawling out into the bush or closer to the ocean,” Ryland says.

Bowman argues that whatever we’re doing now isn’t working, so like the ANZACs at Gallipoli, we have to rethink our strategy. He has put forward the deliberately provocative idea that Australia shift the timing of its summer-holiday period to avoid having massive numbers of holidaymakers—and the businesses that rely on their coin—being displaced by bushfire. But really, he says we need far, far greater cultural change.

“We’re talking about real money, talking about bunkers, safe sites, massively changing our firefighting capacity, fire preparation, communication systems, our understanding of what nature is, our understanding of what being Australian is, our understanding of the value of water, the understanding of our relationship to other life forms, our understanding of what fire is,” he says.

It’s a big ask, and will not happen overnight. As we spoke, another day of frightening bushfire weather was forecast. Bowman had already seen the bush burn across the valley from his holiday house in Tasmania.

“I’m just worrying like hell about tomorrow.”

Read here: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/01/only-way-confront-australias-wildfires/604546/

Old Diary

You have to stand up to illegitimate authority

Once again the Guardian has done a remarkable job putting one topic into stark context.  I hope you find the read worth your while, I did. Obviously, I’m a guy and men ought not to be making rules for women to follow regarding the use and health of a woman’s body.  While I do not encourage abortion and would not want to see my wife make that choice were we still at that point in life, I also fully support the right of a woman to make her own choice and not have it made for her by others. For that reason I give this article space in my blog.  

The pioneers who struggled for legalization in the 60s are seeing the same battles being fought all over again.

by Laura Barton

The telephone sat in the dormitory hallway, and when it rang it might have been for any of the residents – young women in their teens and early 20s, all students at the University of Chicago. Calls came from family and friends and boyfriends, from colleagues and classmates and clubs. But sometimes the voice at the end of the line would ask for “Jane”.


Laura Kaplan was part of ‘Jane’ and wrote a history of the underground abortion service. Photograph: Reed Young/The Guardian

This was 1965, and in Chicago the social justice movement was gathering pace – a new era that encompassed civil rights, student rights, women’s rights and resistance to the war in Vietnam. Among those involved was Heather Booth, a 19-year-old social sciences student from New York. Booth had spent the summer of 1964 in Mississippi, volunteering as part of the Freedom Summer project, an attempt to register as many African American voters as possible. It was an experience that had galvanised her and taught some valuable lessons: “One is that if you organise, even in what seem like the most hopeless circumstances, you can change the world,” she says. “Number two: sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority.”

Back in Chicago, her reputation as an underground organiser now well-rooted, she was approached by a friend with a quite different problem: his sister was pregnant, not ready to have a child and nearly suicidal. She wanted an abortion, which was then illegal across the US. Booth was startled. “I hadn’t ever thought of the issue before,” she recalls. “But I said I’d try to find a doctor for her.”

Booth approached the medical committee for the civil rights movement and identified Dr TRM Howard as potentially sympathetic. A former civil rights leader from Mississippi, he had relocated to Chicago after his name appeared on a Ku Klux Klan death list. They talked over the phone. “I found out the terms and made an arrangement, and didn’t really think much more about it,” she remembers. “But then word must have spread, and a little while later someone else called, and then a little while later someone else. And I realised there was a far greater need than I had appreciated.”

For three years, Booth ran a one-woman illegal abortion service – first from her university dormitory, and then from her Chicago apartment. Keen to keep the process as anonymous as possible, she told prospective callers to ask for Jane, choosing the moniker simply because “it was a very common name, nondescript”, she says. “And then the name stuck.”

Pregnancy in the 1960s brought a number of limitations and complications for women’s lives. “At the time that Jane started, you still could be fired from some jobs if you were pregnant,” Booth explains. “There were jobs that wouldn’t hire you if you had children. There certainly were families that would throw out their kids if they were pregnant and not married.” Many resorted to extreme measures, paying for backstreet abortions, or attempting to perform the procedure themselves “using coat hangers or lye [sodium hydroxide] or throwing themselves off a building or ‘falling’ downstairs”, Booth says. “Because they couldn’t imagine going on, even if it meant risking their life.”

As her service grew, Booth’s ambition was for something different. “I decided that we needed to create a system,” she says. “A women’s culture, reflecting what the women needed, and said that they wanted.” She came to an agreement with Dr Howard, negotiating his fee from $500 for a single procedure to two or three abortions for the same price. She also introduced a counselling element, talking to the women beforehand about what they might expect, and afterwards to see how their experience had been. Booth herself had received no sex education, and had no experience of pregnancy or abortion; in the late 60s, women across America were increasingly coming to know and understand their own bodies.

If she was concerned about the illegality of what she was doing, or by the rapidly growing number of women, Booth tried not to let it be a deterrent. “Life at that moment was filled with so many engagements and movement activities, and so many unexpected things. It was as if democracy and society was becoming more alive in many different arenas. I probably was also somewhat scared and frightened. But in so much of what I’ve ever done in my life, I was sort of scared and frightened – at the start at least. And I think it’s true for many people, especially young women, who wonder, ‘Will I know enough? Will I be good enough? Can I do just what’s needed?’”

By 1968, the need had grown unmanageable. By then working, studying, newly married and expecting her first child, Booth elected to transfer “Jane” to a group of volunteers she knew from her political work. She coached them in her counselling methods before handing over her contacts.

Jane changed substantially from this point. Howard was no longer involved, replaced by another practitioner named Mike, and the clientele had begun to shift, too. As abortion became legal in Colorado, New York and Hawaii, the wealthier, white college students who had been the mainstay of Booth’s service began to travel for their procedures. In Chicago, Jane increasingly catered to poorer, predominantly African American communities on the west and south sides of the city.

“Word of us spread throughout the city,” recalls Laura Kaplan, who joined the group at this time, and later authored The Story Of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service. “Because once we took over, we lowered the price to $100, or what you could afford, and we never turned anybody away.” The group kept no records, no paper trail of names or numbers, but Kaplan estimates that over the course of four years, Jane performed 11,000 procedures, averaging payment of around $40 to $50 per abortion.

The organisation became more efficient: with a large network of volunteers, they were able to set up a hotline, putting up posters in dorm rooms and phone booths that read “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane” and the phone number 643-3844. They procured an answering machine “the size of a suitcase, reel-to-reel” and set it up in the home of a volunteer. They established a “front house”, which served as a reception for clients who would then be driven to a different apartment for the abortion.

What happened next seems radical now, but for the women of Jane it felt more like an evolution. “Over time, several things happened and coincided,” Booth explains. “Number one: so many women were coming through, Mike couldn’t really handle it all himself. Number two: the women were watching the procedures being done, and they saw how it could be done. Number three: Mike was willing to teach them how to assist or even do the procedures. And four: Mike told the women that he wasn’t actually a doctor.” Mike, it transpired, had simply learned how to perform abortions from a doctor who worked for the Mob. By 1971, the doctor model had been abandoned and the women of Jane had begun to perform the abortions themselves. It was cheaper and allowed the experience to be more woman-focused.

But in early May 1972, the sister-in-law of a woman who had come to Jane for an abortion reported the group to the local police, and they were duly raided. Officers followed the driver taking women from the front house to an apartment in a high rise in the Chicago neighbourhood of South Shore. “And they got off the elevator, homicide squad guys, giant men in trench coats and shiny shoes,” Kaplan says, “looking for ‘the man and the money’. And there was no man, and there was not much money, either.”

The group scrambled to bail out the seven members who were arrested, and to cater to the 300 women still waiting for abortions. They contacted clinics in New York and Washington, which agreed to perform the procedures for free, with Jane covering the women’s transport.

The following January, with the ruling of Roe v Wade and the legalisation of abortion across the US, the charges against the women of Jane were quietly dropped. “It was about three months later that we decided to disband,” recalls Kaplan. “Quite frankly, we were burned out and we were lucky – we hadn’t killed anybody, so let’s get out while the going is good.”

Kaplan is 69 now and still politically active. At her home in upstate New York, where vegetables push through the winter ground and her dog, Gilda, snores by the fire, she talks about her current causes – immigration and the local library among them. It was her involvement with Jane that set her on this path. “It changed my life completely,” she says. “I had always seen myself as a political person, but the thing about being in Jane, for all of us, is that we really learned we were competent people. We created the world we wanted to live in. And it was separate from the real world. We were like a feminist Wakanda.”

Booth, too, has pursued a life of political organising. At 74, she has had a career encompassing the role of strategic adviser on a national campaign for immigration reform, the campaign to pass Barack Obama’s first budget, and director of the NAACP National Voter Fund, which in 2000 helped increase African American voter turnout by more than a million. Today, she is fighting to lower prescription drug prices, going up against the big pharmaceutical companies. Her role in every instance, she says, has been “supporting others who were in the leadership, helping them find their voice, their confidence, to stand up, speak up”. Now, with a presidential election just months away and the recent erosions of US abortion law, women who are fighting battles that Booth hoped had been won in the 60s are asking for her help again.


In 2019, seven US states took action to effectively ban abortion, and others severely reduced access. In Alabama, where 93% of counties have no abortion clinics, the governor signed a law that meant practitioners could face life imprisonment. Six US states have only one abortion clinic, and 27 cities and much of the country’s rural areas qualify as “abortion deserts” where women would need to travel more than 100 miles to reach a clinic.

Texas is one of these deserts. Across west Texas and the Panhandle, home to over a million people, the nearest clinic is now 250 miles away. In 2013, the state introduced House Bill 2, resulting in the closure of more than half of its abortion clinics – before the key provisions were struck down by the Supreme Court three years later. Today the state – the second largest by both geography and population – has just 22 abortion clinics for 29 million people.

Find yourself unable or unwilling to continue with a pregnancy in Texas today and your options are limited. Even if you can find a way to make a 500‑mile round trip and take time off work or school , a 2017 law bans private insurance companies from covering the cost of an abortion. State law also requires that before a termination a woman must undergo a transvaginal ultrasound, then 24 hours must elapse before her procedure. Both should be performed by the same physician. Anti-abortion campaigners maintain that this brings it into line with regulations governing other surgeries.

Initiatives such as Plan C, which helps women buy medication online safely for a self-managed termination, bring their own risks (infection, an incomplete abortion). And that option is unavailable to the many women who do not possess a credit card, or who cannot securely receive a parcel through the mail. A 2015 study found that some 100,000 women in the state had, in a variety of ways, at one time tried to induce an abortion.

On a warm Sunday afternoon in San Antonio, five of the members of the Lilith Fund gather around a table outside a branch of Starbucks. That morning, they held a fundraising event at the home of a local supporter – discussing their work in reproductive healthcare over coffee and baked goods. The event was busier than they had expected – 35 people in all, though in recent times they have noticed a steady increase in supporter numbers. “Unfortunately, it does sometimes take horrible things happening in our political climate,” says Amanda Beatriz Williams, the group’s executive director. “People say, ‘What can we do?’ And luckily we have a lot of answers.”

The Lilith Fund is the oldest abortion fund in Texas, serving the state’s central and southern regions. Founded in 2001 by a group of Austin-based activists, it was initially funded by a series of garage sales that raised $10,000 to open a hotline. Now it is funded through a combination of grants and donations, and was able to assist 26% of the 6,050 women who called the hotline in 2018. Women call only once their abortion appointment has been made; and it is often the clinic that encourages a woman to call once they know the cost.

“They leave a voicemail,” explains Shae Ward, the hotline coordinator. “And if we’re able to fund them, we’ll call them back that same day.” The daily budget is $2,500. The average caller is 13-14 weeks pregnant. A second trimester abortion costs $800-1,200. “And so I have to determine who we can fund, and who unfortunately we’re not able to.” They weigh up factors such as domestic violence or homelessness, alongside gestation and appointment date. “If your procedure is the next day, we’re gonna try and get you in,” Ward says.

The fund operates a voucher system, redeemable at the clinic, but they have become accustomed to that fact that only a fraction will redeem the vouchers. “It’s for a number of reasons,” explains Williams. ”We can only afford to cover partial costs – so they’re often left to come up with the rest. And some are able to, and some aren’t. Or they couldn’t get to the clinic, or whatever barriers they couldn’t overcome.”

It is a heavy responsibility. There is the pressure of deciding women’s fates, the need to fundraise, and the constant heel-nip of new anti-abortion legislation. In some east Texas cities, they tell me, the fund has been called a “criminal organisation”. The volunteers rely heavily on one another for emotional support.

But they remain hopeful. All are under 40, and see reason for optimism in the younger generation’s support for reproductive rights. “Something I’ve noticed a lot in this past decade is people sharing their abortion stories,” says Williams. She has come to see storytelling as a fierce strategy in the fight; the more women share their personal experiences of termination, the more she feels people will connect on a human level.

Williams herself had an abortion at 19, and it was part of what motivated her to work in reproductive healthcare, though it took nearly seven years of working in the movement before she felt confident enough to share her experience. “I actually shared my story for the first time publicly on the steps of the Supreme Court during one of the big rallies in 2016,” she says, recalling the successful campaign to overturn House Bill 2. “There is a YouTube of it. I was full of tears. It was hard for me, but what really changed my life was the outpouring of support I got.”

She keeps a photo on her desk from that day, which shows her on the courtroom steps, wiping away her tears. “And there’s a bunch of people behind me, and… ” her voice catches, “it’s just the literal image of people behind me that’s everything. And of course the Supreme Court is behind me, too. And we won.”


The City Hall stands in downtown McAllen, a community of some 142,000 at the point where Texas butts up against the Mexican border. On a hot midweek afternoon the street is quiet; cars slide by slowly, and sunlight blinks off shop windows displaying tuxedos and fancy dresses and party paraphernalia. Until 1993, the same spot was occupied by the city hospital, where in 1977 a young woman named Rosie Jimenez died following complications from a backstreet abortion – the first woman to die after the introduction of the Hyde amendment, which barred the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. Today, McAllen is home to the only remaining abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley – a low, unassuming building almost opposite City Hall. A few mornings each week, protesters stand outside its doors, waving banners and shouting at the medical staff and women arriving for their appointments. “They harass women going there, throwing out statements like, ‘Abortion gives breast cancer,’” says Iris Reyes, community organiser for the local branch of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “Or, ‘Your womb will become used to you having an abortion so you won’t be able to parent later in life.’”

The Latina Institute plays a crucial role here, turning up in schools and homes and community centres to discuss smear tests, mammograms and abortions, lobbying to improve the lives of women in the valley. The average annual household income here is about $40,000, though some work for just $2 an hour, and many, particularly female domestic workers, fall victim to wage theft. It is strongly religious, mainly Spanish-speaking, and many of the residents do not have US citizenship papers.

All of this creates a unique set of barriers to women who find themselves pregnant in difficult circumstances. A clinic abortion costs about $500. While documented women might be able to head over the border for the cheaper option of buying abortion pills in Mexico, this is not a risk the undocumented can take. Beyond McAllen, the nearest clinic is in San Antonio, four hours’ drive and an immigration checkpoint away. Little wonder that some women seek abortion pills available under the counter at some of the region’s flea markets, unregulated and unmanaged. The clinic is only licensed to perform abortions up to 16 weeks, which is too late for some. There is no public transport and many women cannot easily get to a pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test. “By the time [some] women go to the abortion clinic, they’re often past 20 weeks,” explains Samantha Herrera, who works as a freelance translator in the RGV area. For undocumented women, there are other deterrents: immigration force vans often park up outside the clinic, and a new law requires women to show ID before they can access abortion

There is another, more sinister obstacle nearby, too. Just a block from the abortion clinic stands the McAllen Pregnancy Center – a similar low-level, anonymous building. Herrera tells me it is in fact a “false clinic” staffed by anti-abortion campaigners, who will from time to time walk up the street to the real clinic wearing “white coats as if they were doctors, showing up in scrubs, pretending to be medical people. But they’re just regular volunteers with no medical background.” Their purpose is to convince women to go to the McAllen Pregnancy Center. “They will say things like, ‘This isn’t where you made your appointment, it’s over here, we’ll walk you over…’” Inside they will perform a false ultrasound “that shows they are more advanced in their pregnancy” and therefore unable to have an abortion.

This is one of a number of Crisis Pregnancy Centers across the US – buildings that mimic medical clinics, and are designed to attract women seeking low-cost abortions. Their funding comes in part from the millions of federal dollars directed into abstinence-only sex-education programmes. In July 2017, President Trump halted funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention programme, and allocated $3m to CPCs.

CPCs are not illegal, though their status is complicated, and many argue that they are unethical. As they are not medical practices and do not charge for services, they are not subject to regulation. Legal action taken against CPCs has largely focused on false advertising practices.

For the staff and volunteers at the Latina Institute, meanwhile, the work is relentless: the previous day they provided training at a community centre; this evening they will hold a meeting in Alamo; they have a presence at every rally, on religious radio stations, on television, and often head to Austin to lobby the state government. “Our organisation is not only pro-choice,” says associate director Lucy Ceballos Félix, “we’re pro-women.” Their aim is to increase the number of clinics in Texas, but more urgently simply to keep this one open. “If the clinic closes here, there is no access,” says Herrera. “Women cannot go south to Mexico and they can’t go north. And then there’s nothing left but home remedies, and they end up in hospital.”

Around the table, the three women look exasperated. On her laptop, Ceballos Félix scrolls through a list of proposed Texas legislation that would further impede abortion access, reading out the names of the bills and explaining each one in increasingly rapid Spanish. She pauses and exhales. “I’m very passionate about this,” she says. “We can’t continue to live just with our arms folded. We mobilise. We educate ourselves. We fight for our rights.”


Last year, Heather Booth headed from her home in Washington to Georgia to tell, once again, the story of Jane. It was a disheartening moment, to consider that more than 50 years after she began her underground abortion service in Chicago, America might once again be returning to a more repressive time. Many fights are having to be refought. “There are more than 200 members of Senate and Congress, Republicans, who’ve just signed a statement saying they want the Supreme Court to revisit and potentially overturn Roe v Wade,” she says. That means vigilance and action from everyone, in and outside the government, who wants to defend it.

Booth talks about the restrictions to abortion access, and the cuts to funding for Planned Parenthood – brought about because the organisation continues to provide information about abortion. “It’s limiting reproductive health in the US,” she says. “And pregnancy-related deaths increase when reproductive health is restricted.” Increasingly she is asked to give talks, to lend her support to campaigning groups, to stand up, speak up once again. “It is a very intense, almost knife-edge moment,” she says. “So many things are at stake.”

This article was amended on 27 January 2020. An earlier version wrongly implied that Samantha Herrera worked with Texas’s National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Herrera is an independent translator.