Taking Direct Action to Reclaim Health Care

Posted on 5.18.2012 by Kelly

As someone who identifies as an anarchist, direct action is central to my philosophy of social change. But what exactly is direct action? Mainstream media portrayal of radical action often paints a picture of black-clad protesters breaking windows of corporate targets or locking themselves together in front of a bank headquarters. Indeed, property destruction and blockades are forms of direct action often undertaken by people who identify as anarchists, but I am not going to discuss either their merits or disadvantages here. Expressing dissent towards an unjust system and disrupting business as usual is important, but there are other forms direct action can take. As Wikipedia defines it, “Direct action occurs when a group of people take an action which is intended to reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue.”

While I see validity in the point Amy recently made about electoral politics having a direct effect on people's lives through the seemingly small things that impact access to reproductive health care, I am sick of giving control of my body to the whims of a bunch of rich, white, heterosexual men. Even with Obama as president, our profit-driven and hierarchical political and economic system continues to wage a war on the bodies of women and other people with uteruses, and its effects are amplified by race, class, citizenship status, sexual orientation, gender, disability status and other forms of oppression. To me, direct action means finding ways to provide community access, control, and self-sufficiency over fundamental human rights such as accessible and appropriate health care, food, and shelter.

“But what exactly does this look like?” you ask.

Great question! Let's look at a few examples of communities who have taken direct action to provide necessary health care services.


Between 1968-1973 a group of women from a diverse range of economic backgrounds operated an underground abortion service in Chicago, providing around 11,000 procedures. These women were known as Jane. Jane started as an abortion referral service, but soon the women became frustrated by the high prices and lack of compassion of many available abortion providers. Seeking full control of the procedure, the members of Jane (none of whom were doctors) learned how to safely perform abortions. Beyond providing medical care, Jane took time to listen to the people seeking their services and include them as fully as possible in their own care. As one member of the collective describes, “...we were not doing something TO this woman, we were doing something WITH this woman and she was as much a part of it, and part of the process as we were.” (*Jane Zine*)

Seven of Jane's members were arrested in conjunction with their participation in the group, but their charges were dropped in 1973 after the passage of Roe v. Wade. The group disbanded soon after, though legalization of abortion was never the goal of Jane or the proposed stopping point for their work. Many in the group recognized that cost would still be a barrier for many and that quality of care could not be assumed just because a procedure was legally allowed. This dedication to safe, affordable, competent abortion for all regardless of the procedure's legal status is part of what makes Jane a relevant direct action case study. As explained in the introduction of a zine about the group, “*Jane* is...worth examining today because of its impressive display of effective self-organization and self-activity, its disregard for Western medicine and morals, and its indifference toward legalization with an implicit class struggle politics.” For more about Jane, check out Jane Zine: Documents From Chicago's Clandestine Abortion Service 1968-1973 or The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service by Laura Kaplan, which is on my must-read list!

Santa Cruz Birth Center

The early 1970's were also a time of direct action on another part of the spectrum of reproductive choices, childbirth. Fed up with an increasingly medicalized treatment of pregnancy and labor and in part inspired by the philosophy of the back to the land movement, communities around the country started a midwifery revival. Learning what they could from sympathetic doctors and medical textbooks, these “lay” midwives were dedicated to the idea that childbirth is a natural life process, not an illness. Soon they began to organize study groups and publish their own home birth midwifery manuals such as Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin and Birth Book by Raven Lang. The latter was a member of a collective of 12 women who founded the Santa Cruz Birth Center in California, the first birth center in North America. As described in an article by Karen Hope Ehrlich, one of the midwives trained at the birth center, the group offered prenatal care, childbirth classes, films, and a lending library in addition to attending births at home. “Self-responsibility and self-health were key issues...All these services were offered at a low cost. No one was turned down because she could not pay. Frequently families performed services for the midwives in exchange for their care” (Ehrlich). In 1974, three of the midwives were arrested and charged with practicing medicine without a license. Eventually these charges were dropped as it was determined that midwifery was “not the practice of medicine because pregnancy and childbirth are not diseases” (Ehrlich). The birth center disbanded in 1976, but the foundation of midwifery care created by these women continues to be passed on today.

Common Ground Collective

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the people of New Orleans were left needing both emergency support and basic health and wellness services. This was especially true of the city's working class people and people of color, whose neighborhoods were among the worst hit in the storm. Government response to Hurricane Katrina was not immediate, and dehydration, lack of food and shelter, and illness plagued folks who were left in the wake of the storm. A group of street medics (lay folks with first aid training who provide basic medical care at political protests and other places where conventional medical services are unavailable) who came to New Orleans a few days after the storm joined with local community organizers to set up a basic clinic and approached residents to provide free health care. This group evolved into the Common Ground Health Clinic, a place where volunteers from around the country provide both allopathic and alternative health care services, and Common Ground Relief, a group providing both short term and long term rebuilding support. With a motto of “Solidarity not Charity,” these groups continue to work with the community to provide needed services.

These are just a few of the many inspiring groups of people who decided to stop asking the government to protect basic human rights and reclaimed control of the health care needs of their communities. At a time when restrictions on birth control, abortion access, and childbirth options seem to be ever expanding and the cost of basic health care is prohibitively expensive for many, it's up to us to learn from and honor these histories and to figure out what direct action must be taken to create the world we want to be living in.