Before Roe was decided in 1973, there was the Jane Collective

Pregnant Chicago-area women who wanted to end their pregnancies could turn to this group of women who risked their freedom and careers:

Into this moment, four years before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, came the Jane Collective, a grassroots organization of young women who provided access to terminations for women who had no other options. They saw what they were doing as an ethical imperative. There was “a philosophical obligation on our part to disrespect a law that disrespected women,” Jody Howard, one of the group’s leaders, says in an archival interview. (Howard died in 2010.) Some of them had had illegal abortions themselves. Many were also tired of being excluded or silenced by other activist organizations at the time, whose leaders seemed unconcerned about women’s rights and were hostile to members who tried to speak up about women dying on the reproductive front lines.

In its earliest days, Jane built on the work of its co-founder Heather Booth, who was a student at the University of Chicago when a friend asked her for help getting an abortion for his sister, who was pregnant and near-suicidal. Booth contacted a doctor she knew from the civil-rights movement, who agreed to perform the procedure, and subsequent others as word spread. As demand became too much for Booth to manage, she recruited other women; they named the group Jane for clandestine purposes, and because it was a “nice simple name,” one member explains. They left flyers around town reading pregnant? don’t want to be? call jane. Volunteers would drive patients to their initial consultations, and then to an apartment or a house where the procedures were performed. Patients paid whatever they could afford.

Jane was far from perfect. As time went on, its organizers became more and more demographically different from the women they treated. Few questions were asked about the medical credentials of the man who performed most of the abortions early on, a former construction worker who’d seemingly trained with a Mafia doctor and appeared largely in it for the money. (He was also “highly skillful and treated the women well,” one Jane member says, while another woman interviewed described her abortion, perhaps strangely, as “the best medical experience I ever had.”) Organizers were at times naive about the fact that they were operating in plain sight of the Chicago Police Department, who tended to turn a blind eye, likely because of the women’s middle-class credentials and the fact that they occasionally helped the cops’ daughters and mistresses.

But the lesson from The Janes is that, in the absence of justice and political power—and without any meaningful acknowledgment of the right that human life has inherent value worth preserving even after it leaves the womb—there’s enormous potential for collective action.

Now we have pharmaceutical abortifacients and “morning after” pills, but we might need a new Jane Collective to get them to women in states that make those medications — or even providing them — illegal. And, of course, to get pregnant women to medical providers who will give them choices after it is too late for pills.

(The HBO documentary The Janes is available now here.)

Members of the Jane Collective in 1972.

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