The Underground Abortion Network That Inspired ‘Call Jane’
A new film offers a fictionalized look at the Janes, activists who provided illegal abortions in Chicago before Roe v. Wade
In 1965, Heather Booth, a student at the University of Chicago, got a phone call. Her friend’s sister was pregnant and needed help. Overwhelmed and suicidal, the young woman was desperately trying to procure an abortion. A political activist committed to a range of social causes, Booth knew she had to do something. She reached out to the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a national group dedicated to spotlighting racism and other inequities within the institution of medicine. The organization referred her to T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader and surgeon who secretly performed abortions in the city. Soon after, Booth began receiving calls from other women seeking assistance.
It was eight years before the passage of Roe v. Wade. Abortion was illegal in most instances in the United States. (Illinois, where Booth was based, only allowed “therapeutic abortions” under specific circumstances, including when the pregnancy placed the mother’s health in jeopardy.) Despite the risks, Booth couldn’t turn her back on the women coming to her for aid. She and a group of fellow activists began putting up flyers on bus stops and bulletin boards across Chicago. “Pregnant? Need Help? Call Jane,” the posters advised. And so the underground abortion network known as the Janes was born.
“I learned that sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority,” says Booth in The Janes, a 2022 HBO documentary about the collective. “And sometimes there are unjust laws that need to be challenged.”
Call Jane, a new film starring Elizabeth Banks as Joy, a fictional, right-leaning Chicago housewife, dramatizes the inner workings of the Janes. Directed by Phyllis Nagy, the movie introduces viewers to Joy as she tries to terminate her pregnancy. Suffering from a life-threatening heart condition, she finds out that giving birth will likely kill her. Though she appeals to the medical board for a legal therapeutic abortion, the physicians reject her case.
Left with few options, Joy sets up an appointment with the mysterious “Jane,” only to discover that a group of women run an abortion counseling service under the unassuming moniker. After Joy’s abortion, the Janes’ stalwart leader, Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), asks her to join the cause.
“What I loved about the script was that it did not revert to some of the tropes that I think other movies in the past which have dealt with women’s rights or even abortion have done, where we tend to see people suffering or women suffering,” Nagy tells Deadline. “We don’t see movies about women working together to solve a problem, and this was something that greatly appealed to me.”
From the early development of the Janes to the group’s eventual dissolution, here’s what you need to know about the true history behind Call Jane ahead of its arrival in theaters this Friday.
Is Call Jane based on a true story?
The film draws inspiration from the real-life Janes but is a heavily reimagined account of the Chicago-based collective, which operated from 1969 to 1973 under the official name of the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. Call Jane relies largely on fictional characters and situations to convey information about the historical Janes and the politically charged atmosphere of the women’s rights movement during the second wave of feminism. As Nagy explains to IndieWire, “I needed the story to be unpredictable and personal and seen through the eyes of someone who’s actually going through a procedure, or a hard time.”
Of the fictional Joy, Variety critic Peter Debruge writes, “[her] transformation—from docile conservative to active crusader for women’s reproductive rights—marks one hell of a character arc.” He adds that Call Jane has “astonishing true-story foundations, once again detailing the roundabout methods Americans must use to get the health care they need.”
Who were the Janes?
Unable to field the influx of calls coming her way, Booth started recruiting women at political meetings around the city, many of which were linked to the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Her efforts proved successful: Twelve or so women volunteered to provide abortion counseling to those in need. (Initially, this counseling mainly entailed supplying the names of reliable physicians willing to perform the procedure.)
One of the new members—Eleanor Oliver—agreed to host the group’s first meeting. To spread awareness of their service, the women circulated ads around the city via posters and underground newspapers. Oliver offered her home phone number for the listings but proposed using a pseudonym. “How about Jane?” she recalls in the HBO documentary. “Nobody’s called Jane anymore, and it’s a nice, simple name.”
At the time, reproductive services—as well as practical, detailed information about sex, pregnancy and contraception—were difficult for most women to access. In the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court struck down a state law that prohibited married couples from using contraception. But it would be seven more years before Eisenstadt v. Baird allowed single people to similarly obtain contraceptives.
Abortion, meanwhile, was only legal in select states under certain circumstances, including when a woman’s life was endangered by the pregnancy, if the fetus suffered life-threatening impairments, or if the pregnancy was the product of rape or incest. (Illinois, which criminalized abortion in 1867, allowed these so-called therapeutic abortions but otherwise banned the procedure.) Two physicians had to authorize requests for therapeutic abortions; overall, writes Laura Kaplan in The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service, fewer than 5 percent of women who sought legal abortions received approval. In 1965, 93 percent of the practicing physicians ostensibly in charge of this decision-making process were men.
“Historians of medicine traditionally call this midcentury period the golden age of the physician,” says Alexandra Lord, chair of the Division of Medicine and Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “And it’s primarily men who have an extraordinary amount of authority. So it’s a golden age for physicians—not necessarily for their patients. [They] are making decisions for their patients, and the idea of patient advocacy is not there.”
Women unable to secure legal abortions sometimes sought the help of illegal abortionists who practiced unhygienic, dangerous techniques. According to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, illegal abortions accounted for 17 percent of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth in the U.S. in 1965.
“Coat hangers were not just a metaphor. That was real,” says Carole Joffe, author of Doctors of Conscience: The Struggle to Provide Abortion Before and After Roe v. Wade. “I have interviewed doctors who told me about removing a coat hanger from a woman’s vagina. It was poor women, disproportionately women of color, who had the most injuries. And there were a lot of injuries. And there were a lot of deaths.”
What did the Janes do?
During the introductory phone call with a counselee, a volunteer described every aspect of the forthcoming visit. At the next group meeting, the Janes passed around index cards with the women’s info, sharing names, contacts, medical details and how much each could afford to pay. In 1969, the Janes counseled around ten women a week, according to Kaplan. By 1972, they were offering appointments three days a week and interacting with 30 counselees each time.
In The Janes, a member named Diane reflects on those who reached out to the group, saying, “They weren’t just cards. … You knew they were people, and I knew they were women like me.” From mothers of four to graduate students to teens to blue-collar workers struggling to get by, the women who approached the Janes came from all walks of life.
Providing abortions cost a significant amount of money, as the doctors the Janes worked with charged up to $600 (about $4,900 today) per appointment in 1969. To help with expenses, the Janes established a monetary fund, encouraging counselees with the financial means to pay the full amount for their abortions, as well as donate extra money to support the women who came after them. In later years, as the group found ways to offer lower-cost abortions, members instituted a sliding payment scale, allowing women to pay whatever they could, whether it be $1, $50 or $300.
Class and race played a huge role in the resources available to women seeking abortions. “If you were wealthy, you had access to information,” says Lord. “You had access, probably, to physicians who would give you information. You also had the opportunity to travel abroad to get a legal abortion as well.”
This stratification wasn’t lost on the Janes. The majority of the group’s counselors were white, college-educated, middle-class women. Though they tried to recruit collaborators from a more diverse pool, the racial and financial makeup of the group largely stayed the same throughout its existence.
In The Janes, Marie Leaner, the only Black member of the collective, says she considered its service a “revolutionary act” for poor and working-class women. “I couldn’t see myself sitting on the sidelines,” she adds. “When I opened the door and they walked through, I said, ‘I’ll take care of you.’ I felt really good being able to do that.”
When the Janes first started out, their counselees’ economic backgrounds varied widely. In 1970, however, New York passed legislation legalizing abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy. The Janes began directing women with the ability to travel across state lines to New York; after the law’s introduction, the group worked mostly with low-income women in Chicago who lacked the funds of their wealthier counterparts.
An area of disagreement among the Janes was their openly politicized approach to providing abortions. Some members argued that the group’s main goal should be to offer a safe, sterile space for a standard medical procedure. Others emphasized the importance of galvanizing counselees to action by frankly linking the right to abortion with full autonomy for women.
“The feminists really wanted women to pass a [metaphorical] test before they were able to get their abortion, and really [some] women just wanted a medical procedure and [thought] they shouldn’t have to go through that,” says Johanna Schoen, a historian at Rutgers University and the author of Abortion After Roe. “So that tension always exists, right? What is the role that abortion should play in a woman’s life, and is it okay if it’s just a medical procedure or … does it have to shape somebody’s consciousness and they have to emerge as a feminist butterfly?”
After the initial counseling session, the Janes provided an address for “the Front,” a secret site that functioned as a large waiting room. Women were allowed to bring their siblings, spouses or children for support. Usually, a group member supplied refreshments. The Janes tried to create a calm, unhurried, judgment-free environment. When it was the next counselee’s turn, members drove them from the Front to “the Place,” where the abortions were performed. (The collective’s two-step system helped avoid potential police raids.)
The Janes continuously updated the list of physicians willing to work with them. But the collective primarily collaborated with a man identified in the documentary only as “Mike.” He spoke to the women respectfully and described exactly what he was doing while performing the abortion. After the procedure, the Janes encouraged women to return for post-abortion checkups and passed out copies of The Birth Control Handbook, an illegal guide created by college students in Canada. Later, the activists also began sharing copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a revolutionary text that summarized the biology of the female body in clear, accessible language.
One of the volunteers, Dorie Barron, joined the Janes after obtaining her own abortion through them. “It seemed so odd to me that it was illegal, and yet it was the best medical experience I ever had,” she says in The Janes.
In the 1970s, however, a shocking revelation came to light: Mike admitted he wasn’t a real doctor. He had been trained by a physician but wasn’t a licensed medical professional. While some of the Janes, including leader Jody Parsons, had suspected he wasn’t a doctor and privately come to terms with it, others were completely unaware of the deception. Disillusioned by the truth, a few counselors left the organization. Others decided to stay and learn how to perform abortions themselves, enabling the group to provide more abortions at cheaper rates.
What happened to the Janes?
The Janes knew they were breaking the law—and that imprisonment was a realistic possibility. Even talking about performing an abortion was considered a conspiracy to commit a felony. Still, women kept coming forward to help.
To thwart the police and anyone who might be listening in on their phone calls, counselors changed the locations of the Front and the Place weekly, asking friends to volunteer their homes for the service. While driving women from one stop to the next, they often switched lanes and traveled down narrow side streets.
Law enforcement generally remained hands-off when it came to the Janes. As Kaplan notes in The Story of Jane, the group’s counselees included the daughters, wives and girlfriends of police officers.
But that all changed on May 3, 1972, when two women informed the Chicago Police Department that their sister-in-law was planning to get an abortion. At first, recounts Sergeant Ted O’Connor in The Janes, the officers were reluctant to respond.
“We weren’t involved in either side of the great philosophical camps that debated this,” he says. “I mean, we were just the guys stuck with the law.”
Despite their reservations, police tailed the women’s sister-in-law to her appointment, then followed the Janes back to their clinic. They arrested seven of the activists, charging the Janes with 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. Each woman faced a sentence of up to 110 years in prison.
Initially, the Janes struggled to find the right attorney to work on their case. Describing their cynicism with the legal process in The Janes, activist Judith Arcana says, “The men were, in different ways and with different tones, so condescending that it was impossible. How could we possibly hire guys to represent us when they couldn’t even see us?”
Leaner, who still had contacts from her work in the civil rights movement, reached out to Jo-Anne F. Wolfson, a defense attorney who had previously represented the Black Panther Party. Cognizant of the fact that the Supreme Court was likely to consider Roe v. Wade in the coming months, Wolfson delayed the case as long as possible with a flurry of legal motions.
Out on bail, the Janes waited for the nation’s highest court to hand down its ruling. On January 22, 1973, the court issued its decision on Roe v. Wade, effectively legalizing abortion in all 50 states. All charges against the Janes were dismissed.
What happened after the Janes?
Soon after Roe v. Wade’s passage, the Janes shuttered their service, citing lack of need. Over its five years in existence, the group had provided abortions to an estimated 11,000 women. But the fight was far from over.
The Supreme Court’s ruling asserted that restrictive abortion laws violated women’s constitutional right to privacy. While the measure legalized most abortions, it lacked concrete protections for female autonomy.
“[Women] didn’t get a positive right. They got a negative right,” says Schoen. “They didn’t get the guarantee that they could access abortion. Theoretically, abortion was legal if they could find an abortion provider who was willing to provide the abortion for them, and if they lived in a state where the legislature basically set conditions under which to access abortion.”
Forty-nine years later, this June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, sparking anti-abortion legislation across the country. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 22 states now harbor laws that, when successfully passed, would prohibit abortion. Some bans are already in effect. Per the Washington Post, one in three American women had lost access to abortion by late August, just two months after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization took effect.
In response to the current climate, the Janes are coming back.
Tamar Manasseh, a South Side activist who founded Mothers Against Senseless Killings, recently established We Are Jane, an organization that works with the Chicago Abortion Fund to help women locate safe reproductive services.
Speaking with Block Club Chicago, Manasseh says, “There are so many stories … where there is nowhere to go, no one to turn to. [Before Dobbs] you were able to make an appointment for an abortion, no questions asked. Now, the world has shifted under your feet.”