When Abortion Was Illegal, Chicago Women Turned to the Jane Collective

A new documentary spotlights the group that helped thousands seeking abortions in the 1960s and ‘70s

Members of the Jane Collective in 1972
Members of the Jane Collective in 1972 Courtesy of HBO

Before abortion was legalized in Illinois, one of the safer ways to find a provider was through the Jane Collective, a cohort of Chicago activists who helped pregnant women obtain abortions—and, eventually, performed the abortions themselves. Now, just weeks after the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, HBO’s The Janes tells the story of these women and the network they constructed to provide more than 11,000 abortions, the Guardian’s Adrian Horton reports.

Producer Daniel Arcana, whose mother, Judith, was one of the Janes, started working on the documentary after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

“The writing was on the wall,” Emma Pildes, Arcana’s sister and the film’s co-director, tells the Guardian.

Joined by co-director Tia Lessin, the trio set out to find Jane members and women who had used the collective’s services and were willing to talk on camera.

Some of the women in the documentary had previously spoken publicly about their experiences, but others are doing so for the first time—a decision Pildes describes to the Hollywood Reporter’s Hilary Lewis as “another act of courage.” Some of them hadn’t even told their families about their connection to the group.

The creators felt it was important to make the film quickly, not only because the subject matter was so prescient, but also because they wanted Jane members to be able to talk about their experiences firsthand. A number of Janes in their 70s and 80s passed away in recent years, Pildes tells the Hollywood Reporter.

The Jane Collective’s story started in 1965, when college student Heather Booth helped her friend’s sister find an abortion provider, according to NBC News’ Marcie Bianco. Booth reached out to surgeon and civil rights leader T.R.M. Howard, who agreed to perform the procedure. Howard continued to provide abortions for women she sent his way, and this informal network eventually grew into the Jane Collective.

Most of the collective’s members were white and middle- or upper-class. So were many of the women they served. But when New York legalized abortion in 1970, women of means could travel there from Illinois; at that point, the Jane Collective became a lifeline for women of color who couldn’t afford such an expensive trip, reports NBC News.

Mugshots of four women
Mugshots of four members of the Jane Collective who were arrested in 1972 Courtesy of HBO

The Janes eventually learned to perform abortions themselves, which allowed them to reduce their prices from $500 to $100 in the 1970s. In 1972, police arrested seven Jane members after being tipped off by the sisters-in-law of a woman who came to the Janes for abortion counseling. When police arrived at the location where the abortions were taking place, they were shocked to find that the women had learned how to perform the procedure. “Where’s the doctor?” they kept shouting.

Those arrested faced up to 110 years in prison for their abortion-related charges. But their lawyer, Jo-Anne Wolfson, was able to delay court proceedings, and with the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, all charges were dropped.

The history of underground abortion networks and practices is long; it includes people like New York City’s Madame Restell, who provided abortifacients (substances that induce abortions) in the mid-19th century. In a post-Roe world, women would once again have to rely on such networks, writes the Atlantic’s Jessica Bruder.

Today, 61 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, per the Pew Research Center. The Supreme Court’s final decision on overturning Roe is expected in late June or early July.