Looking Back on Jane, the 1970s Underground Abortion Network

In Depth

Between 1969 and 1973, leading up to Roe v. Wade, a Chicago collective called Jane performed nearly 12,000 illegal abortions. These procedures were conducted by “medical nonprofessionals.” According to the New York Times’ new documentary on the subject, “they may have been the housewife next door, the college student down the block, the local schoolteacher,” when abortion was illegal across the country, and when the cost and danger of visiting a “back-alley abortionist” was high.

Considering the current administration, the recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite the many credible sexual assault allegations against him, and the fact that 90% of American counties still don’t have an abortion clinic, this story feels uncomfortably contemporary.

The Times looks back at Jane (formally known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation) with clients like Sunny Chapman, a then-19-year-old woman who became pregnant in 1969. She told the publication she first attempted to go through a back-alley abortionist but “had a conversation with the man on the phone, and just talking to him made me feel completely unsafe. He sounded like a gangster.” So she went to Jane, who she learned of through an advertisement that read, “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.”

Laura Kaplan, a member of the collective who wrote a book about her experiences in 1995 called The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service, explained the collective’s chosen alias: “Nobody in the group was named Jane, so it was an everywoman name. But we wanted to have a name because that way when we called somebody back, we could leave them a message that Jane called without giving anything away.”

The documentary is a brief and informative look into the Jane Collective, but if Hollywood’s more your speed, don’t worry: there are two Jane films under production right now.

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