2023 Sports, Health and Wellness, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

It was a secret road map for breaking the law to get an abortion. Now, ‘The List’ and its tactics are resurfacing

About the Project

Through interviews and archival documents, Jason Fagone and Alexandria Bordas tell the story of an underground abortion referral service that thrived in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure. The details of this effort became newly urgent last summer, as the country was thrust into a post-Roe world.

Long shrouded in secrecy, the referral service was coordinated from the San Francisco apartment of Patricia Maginnis, a former Army nurse who had seen women die from botched illegal abortions. She believed abortion should be a normal part of healthcare — a radical position for the time — and along with two like-minded feminist colleagues, she created a vast clandestine network to connect abortion seekers with doctors who were willing to break the law.

Essentially, Maginnis and her friends built a feminist health service from scratch. The network, which ultimately connected 12,000 pregnant women from across the United States with abortion providers, was similar in scope to the underground service known as “Jane” in Chicago.

But while Jane trained people to perform illegal abortions in the U.S., Maginnis’s group referred U.S. women to competent abortionists in Mexico and other foreign countries. While dodging police in multiple nations, these women recruited international abortion providers, checked their medical credentials, personally inspected their offices, then compiled that information into a packet known as The List, which guided abortion seekers and their partners across the border.

To shed light on this network and those who depended on it, Fagone and Bordas use a mixture of interviews and historical records, talking to women who once sought copies of The List and poring through the archives of Maginnis’s underground organization, held at the Schlesinger Library in Massachusetts.

By matching these documents to the recollections of those they interviewed, the reporters were able to track in detail the journey of one woman, Karen L., who sought a copy of The List when she was 24 and used it to obtain an abortion in Mexico. The story follows her into the underground, revealing what it was like for abortion seekers in an era when they had nowhere else to turn.

Now in her seventies, Karen L. said she views The List as a prototype for the kinds of networks that are forming today, as women seek abortions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision.