Photos: Toronto skyline, circa 1973 ( Bettmann/Getty Images; Rotary phone ( Suleyman Orcun Guler/EyeEm/Getty Images); Looking for Jane
Looking For Jane
Heather Marshall’s historical novel about forced adoption in Canada explores the repercussions of restricting abortion, a reminder of what’s at stake in the fight for reproductive rights. / BY Nathalie Atkinson / February 25th, 2022
The idea for Looking for Jane, Heather Marshall’s historical novel about Canada’s restrictive 20th-century abortion laws, took root several years ago when she read a newspaper article about forced adoptions. Before her career in government and politics, the Canadian writer studied history and political science, so when she discovered the traumatic legacy of unwed mothers who were coerced into giving up babies in the years following the Second World War, it captured her imagination and stoked her indignation.
Although run by religious organizations, often with the cooperation of local hospitals and government, homes for unwed mothers were profitable and far from philanthropic. “Adoption mills,” the author says from her home near Toronto. “Babies were the commodities.” An estimated 95 per cent of women in maternity homes, often vulnerable and misinformed, surrendered their babies, and while there’s no official data, figures from a 2018 Senate Committee report estimate 600,000 children were born to unmarried Canadian mothers between 1945 and 1971 (recorded as illegitimate births). The more Marshall learned about what Canadian women with no recourse to legal abortion went through, the more shocked and appalled she got.
The book’s title comes from The Jane Collective, the code name for a real-life underground network of women in 1960s Chicago that provided safe and affordable abortion in the years before it was decriminalized by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Marshall’s novel imagines the stories of its clandestine Canadian counterparts before unrestricted access to legal abortion was granted in 1988 with R. v. Morgentaler. (Canadian abortion rights advocate Dr. Henry Morgentaler is indeed a character in the novel).
Beginning in the early 1960s, and toggling across storylines to the near present, the novel follows the perspectives of three women from different generations whose lives overlap in unexpected ways.
Although artistic endeavours aren’t created as tools of moral instruction, a compelling historical novel is admittedly a good medium for raising awareness. “The idea was to show the evolution of reproductive rights for women in Canada over those decades,” Marshall says of Looking for Jane. “Setting it in multiple timelines from multiple perspectives was the best way to do that.”
Even as Colombia becomes the latest Latin American country to decriminalize abortion and expand access, Looking for Jane arrives at a time when the anti-abortion movement is gathering steam. Women’s reproductive rights are once again under threat, particularly in United States, where the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade (which made access to safe and legal abortion a constitutional right) is in doubt as Republican legislators attack abortion rights and restrict it at the state level. Leni Zumas’s recent novel Red Clocks imagines a near-future society where abortion is outlawed. Given the current political climate, her examination of the systemic disempowerment of women no longer feels quite as speculative.
“It’s surprisingly timely given that I wrote it in 2019, before this was simmering to the extent that it is now,” Marshall says, although she admits that Looking for Jane’s publishing rights have yet to be picked up in the United States. The novel will be published internationally this spring, including in Brazil, where abortion is still a crime and permitted only “in incredibly limited circumstances,” she points out. “I think it’s a political statement for this publisher to be releasing it. It will be quite interesting to see what happens there.”
Aimee Wall’s lyrical Giller-nominated novel We, Jane, published last year, covered similar ground through the relationship between two women who move home to Newfoundland to work in the underground abortion movement in rural communities. Other recent novels, like Jennifer Haigh’s Mercy Street, tackle women’s reproductive freedom from a contemporary perspective; her novel chronicles, with nuance, the individual stories of staff, patients and those who protest outside a downtown Boston abortion clinic.
Amid the revived interest in the history and politics of safe and legal reproductive care, several new movies are broaching the subject. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, Happening, an adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s memoir about her efforts to get a then-illegal abortion in 1960s France, had its premiere alongside Oscar-nominated Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane. Due for theatrical release in the fall, Call Jane stars Elizabeth Banks as a housewife in 1968 Chicago who is unexpectedly pregnant, with Sigourney Weaver as a grassroots activist. The film’s credited consultant, Judith Arcana, is one of the real women behind the historic organization, and also appears in The Janes, an upcoming documentary about the Chicago group.
In contrast, the rabbit hole Marshall researched was, until recently, a lesser-known but equally shameful strand of Canadian history. She drew from archives, historical data and the work of activists like Judy Rebick, whose book Ten Thousand Roses is an important oral history of the Canadian women’s abortion movement. “She gave me a lot of insight,” Marshall says of the time she spent with legendary activist in 2019 while writing the novel. “And she was a riot to chat with!”
If we’ve learned anything from binge-watching The Crown, it’s how to follow along at home while madly Googling to separate fact from fiction. Since Marshall’s already done the work, she provides a comprehensive timeline comparing historical events and those of the novel.
In a potent scene, a group of activists solemnly deposit a coffin at the gates of the Prime Minister’s residence, for example, which was inspired by the Vancouver protest movement known as the Abortion Caravan. The group rallied on Parliament Hill in the spring of 1970 against Canada’s restrictive reproductive laws and travelled across Canada, as a convoy, with a symbolic coffin full of wire coat hangers strapped to the roof of one car.
The fictional stately home where pregnant women endured emotional and physical abuse is modelled after the real-life Bethany Home for Unwed Mothers, previously operated by the Salvation Army in a Victorian mansion that still stands in downtown Toronto. (Origins Canada, an organization that supports those separated by adoption, maintains a list of these historical maternity homes.)
Looking for Jane, which comes out March 1, quietly goes inside the lives of the ordinary women (often, teenagers) who were isolated from their families, and forbidden from sharing surnames or personal histories with one another. To craft these characters and authentically capture their range of experience, Marshall interviewed women of different ages, “some of whom experienced abortion in the era of the therapeutic abortion committees,” she says. “It was very eye-opening, it was heart-breaking, it was heart-warming. I did not want to exploit or downplay what these girls and women went through.”
As a result, the lived experience fairly trembles on the page – sorrows are visceral and palpable. “That’s what historical fiction does – it humanizes history in a way that a textbook can’t, Marshall says, “If you do it right, it can be incredibly powerful and eye-opening.” It’s an emotional rollercoaster about the lingering trauma and grief of adoption, but there’s uplift, too – and the journey doesn’t end on the last page.
The story is meant to continue in real life. Both the book and Marshall’s website feature background information on the Maternity Home Justice Project, a history of the coerced adoption system in Canada, even a link to the 2018 Senate Committee Report, “The Shame is Ours.” In addition to the usual reading group guide, there’s a call to action for strategic lobbying, complete with sample letters and emails to send to political representatives. While formal apologies have been made for similar forced adoption schemes in other countries (Australia in 2013 and Ireland in 2021), Canada has yet to do so.
“I’ve been very, very clear and open about this, that I absolutely have an agenda with this book and that is to put pressure on the government to issue that formal apology,” Marshall says. “ It’s the very least the government can do. It costs nothing. And it’s long overdue.” On a personal level, she hopes the book is successful, of course. “But my primary wish for this book is that it actually forces some measure of justice for these women.”