Jane: Chicago’s Pre-Roe v. Wade Abortion Provider

Jane Chicago Women's Abortion Service Image: abortionfilms.org

Last year as I was setting out on a mission of self-education about all things feminism, I made my way through a couple of anthologies of historic and contemporary feminist and gender writings—but certain pieces, especially the more historic theories and stories, weren’t quite coming to life for me. I could appreciate the importance and groundbreaking nature of it all, but it was hard at times to relate on a personal level.

A few months ago, I went to see a screening of the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry and left the theater feeling completely invigorated. My excitement about doing feminist work felt renewed as I saw and listened to all kinds of different women with different opinions on the movement discuss their experiences. The film covered an incredible variety of topics—my favorites being a group jokingly called Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), class and sexuality politics within feminist collectives, and the story of an incredible group I’d never heard of called Jane.

Jane was a codename for the abortion counseling service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, which existed between 1969 and 1973. During this period of time abortion was illegal and many women with unwanted pregnancies were seeking to terminate by any means possible at the risk of injury, trauma, death and the penalty for “conspiracy to commit abortion,” which was a ten year prison sentence. Jane and its members risked their livelihoods day after day to arrange and participate in at least eleven thousand illegal abortions.

Jane began when Heather Booth, the group’s founder, had found a doctor who agreed to perform an abortion for her friend. When word got out, more and more women began calling her for help. From there it grew into a referral service and later evolved into a fully-functional abortion service provider when the Janes learned how to perform abortions themselves. Once this transition happened in the winter of 1971, they were able to lower the price to about $100 to keep their services relatively affordable, and continued providing abortions to women at any stage of pregnancy whether or not they could contribute funds.  

Due to the persistent threat of being raided by the police, the system they used was pretty intricate and risky. Patients were given the address of a house, “The Front,” to go to on the day of their procedure. It served as a sort of waiting room, provided an option for any last-minute counseling a patient might need as well as a place for anyone who might be accompanying the patient to wait for everything to be finished. Patients were driven by a counselor to “The Place” where the abortions were performed. The location of “The Place” changed daily.

The “abortion pill” we know today didn’t exist at the time, so they used the Dilation and Curettage method for early pregnancies (up to 12 weeks) and later term pregnancies were terminated by way of induced miscarriage. In all of the essays and articles I looked through, I only found one account of a woman who died after a procedure. It seems that her name has likely been fabricated, but a woman named Glenda Charlston had tried to self-abort before coming in for her procedure, leading to circumstances that were beyond the Janes’ control. The details of her story are harrowing, but the actions of everyone, even Glenda, are very understandable to me. If anything, I think her story reinforced my feeling of admiration for all the Janes who went to incredible and risky lengths to ensure that their practices were as effective and safe as possible given their legal standing and lack of resources.

In an interview for Broadly, Judith Arcana, a former Jane put it perfectly:

“Women have always been doing this, so the notion that a grand political happening in the world is required for women to take action, I think, is a little wrongheaded: too simple, too stark. It makes Jane and its members too different from other women and it’s been my experience—not only then but ever since—that there’s a lot of good stuff going on.”

Abortions aren’t an easy thing for most people to think about and I don’t believe the decision to have one is often made lightly. The fact is that they are a necessity, and as far as I’m concerned, a human right. As long as unwanted pregnancy is a possibility, the need for terminations will exist and people will find a way to get them at any cost.

Over the last several years, the United States has seen many states tighten restrictions on their abortion laws and force too many providers to close their doors. Unsurprisingly, these happenings are most likely to impact the lives of pregnant persons who have the fewest resources to begin with, and depending on the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, we may be seeing even more drastic changes in the coming years.

I truly hope there will never again be a need for an organization like Jane, but I am comforted by the proof that it has worked before and it can work again.

Madelaine Walker : Anthropology enthusiast, bookworm & couch potato. In search of a life I’ll be proud to recount in old age. New Motto: Do no harm, but take no shit.
Madelaine Walker : Anthropology enthusiast, bookworm & couch potato. In search of a life I’ll be proud to recount in old age. New Motto: Do no harm, but take no shit.