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Women of Jane: How a group of radical women ran an underground abortion clinic in the 1970s

The group was founded by Heather Booth when she was just 19 years old and a student at the University of Chicago.

Women of Jane: How a group of radical women ran an underground abortion clinic in the 1970s
Image courtesy: Chicago Police Department

"Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane,” read the advertisement of a covert group, followed by a phone number. Jane wasn't a single woman's identity but rather every woman. "Women of Jane," or "Jane Collective," were a group of women who ran an underground abortion clinic for four years in the 1970s. It is estimated they carried out 11,000 abortions, reported The New York Times. Abortion was illegal at the time and the women risked arrest to help other women who wanted to get an abortion. The police eventually arrested some of them and they were released after the Supreme Court made abortion legal in 1972. As leaks from the Supreme Court suggest Roe v. Wade could be overturned, we look back at a radical group of women who put their necks on the line to provide abortions to women who had no access to reproductive healthcare and sometimes even no money. During those times, many terminated or attempted to terminate their pregnancies in dangerous ways and in back alleys. Women of Jane were hoping to provide a safer option in Chicago and many of them who performed abortions were not medically trained and had simply learned how to do it from other medical professionals. It was still the safest option for many.  

(From left) Martha Scott, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, Abby Parisers, Sheila Smith and Madeline Schwenk were among the seven members of Jane arrested in 1972/ HBO Documentary Films

 

We called it 'Jane'
In 1965, when she was just 19 years old, University of Chicago student Heather Booth helped a friend's sister find a doctor who was willing to perform an abortion, reported NPR. Word got around and she was flooded with calls to help. "By the third call, I realized I couldn't manage it on my own," said Booth. "So I set up a system. We called it 'Jane.'" Initially, Booth and a group of women helped connect those who wanted abortions with doctors willing to perform abortions but as more and more women sought abortions, the group's members started performing abortions by themselves.



 

 

What started out as a favor for one of Booth's friend's sisters soon turned into an all-women network including students and housewives among others. Martha Scott was 28 at the time and she knew how crucial access to abortion was. She was a stay-at-home mom with four children and knew she could help provide a safe and inexpensive alternative to women. It didn't cross her mind once that it was illegal. "I just thought, if you really care about something, you have to act on it," said Scott.

Image source: Planned Parenthood

 

It was the best option for many women
She was aware that it wasn't the best option but for many women, it was indeed the best option. "It wasn't perfect, by any means," she said. "But we were dealing with women who really didn't have other options," she said. Abortion was very dangerous prior to the Roe v. Wade judgment. More than 2,700 women died from abortion in 1930 and that was only the official list. The introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s helped reduce the number of deaths from illegal abortions dropped dramatically. But, thousands of women were still being hospitalized for complications arising from illegal abortions.



 


Women of Jane started performing abortions

Doctors would often charge $500 to perform an abortion, which many women couldn't afford. The group was well aware of the problem and wanted to make abortion more accessible. Women of Jane got trained to perform abortions as a means to reduce the price and make the service accessible to not just the rich. As word spread, a lot of women seeking abortions were from marginalized communities. The members were honest with them about their credentials. "We told them up-front we were not doctors," said Galatzer-Levy, before adding that they charged $100 but settled for whatever they could pay. The money was used to rent apartments to carry out the procedure, buy supplies and cover other expenses. Galatzer-Levy said she can't remember the group turning anyone away.



 


"It was very clandestine and secretive," said Leslie J. Reagan, a professor of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the author of "When Abortion Was a Crime." The group had a well-oiled process that helped protect members of the group. Those who called the advertised number would hear an answering machine message requesting their phone number, name and the date of their last period. A member of Jane would call them back and set up a meeting to discuss abortion with them. The group always rented out two apartments, of which one was the front and it was literally called "The Front." The women who sought abortions first arrived here and were then driven to the other apartment for the abortion. Winnette Willis was a 23-year-old single mom who got an abortion with the help of a collective in 1971. "It felt very underground," recalled Willis. "But I remember looking at the people who performed the surgery, and I felt relief, that somebody was going to help me." There were many clandestine abortion services across America. 

Still from Ask for Jane, a film based on the Jane Collective/Level Film

 

 

Group busted by cops
After two or three years, the group was busted and multiple members were arrested for performing abortions, which was illegal at the time. Two Catholic women reported them to the police after learning that their sister-in-law was planning to have an abortion. When the cops arrived, they searched the home anticipating a doctor. "They came in and looked around and said, 'Where's the doctor?' Looking for the guy, but there wasn't any guy, there was just us," recalls Scott. They were all taken into custody and charged with 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. It was during that time that there was a national discussion and debate on abortion. Many states, including New York and Washington, had repealed their anti-abortion laws. On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court legalized abortion through its judgment in Roe v. Wade. Members of the Jane Collective were free to go after the charges were dropped. "I mean, we really thought, the fact that it was legal, it wouldn't be as political anymore, that it would fade a lot as any kind of a social issue," said Scott. "But we were wrong. We were wrong."
 

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