'The Janes' before Roe v. Wade: HBO documentary on underground abortion activists

·7 min read

Before there was Roe V. Wade, there was Jane, and the HBO documentary The Janes (on Crave in Canada at 9:00 p.m. ET June 8), takes you inside an underground network of women providing access to affordable, safe and illegal abortions in Chicago, in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I wanted it over with and I didn’t care how it was done, I was that desperate,” Dorie Barron says at the beginning of the documentary, recalling her first abortion before the Jane network was created. “They said, 'do you want a Cadillac, a Chevrolet or a Rolls-Royce?'”

“Chevy was the cheapest, $500, a Cadillac was something like $750 and if you wanted the Rolls-Royce, we’re talking about the ‘60s here, it was $1000. That’s what the mob charged for an abortion.”

Barron goes on to describe the process of her abortion, the Chevrolet option, which occurred with another woman getting the procedure in the same room, both not knowing anything about what was going to happen to them.

“They spoke all of three sentences to me the entire time. ‘Where’s the money? Lie back and do as I tell you. Get in the bathroom,’” she recalls.

“Two young women out in the middle of nowhere in a motel, bleeding. If I had stayed in that room I’d be dead.”

Members of the Janes (Photograph by Courtesy of HBO)
Members of the Janes (Photograph by Courtesy of HBO)

'Women didn’t have the power to make decisions'

That’s the backdrop that Jane was created within, with an abortion considered a crime in much of the U.S., including Illinois, women were suffering, causing themselves serious injuries out of desperation for an abortion procedure, even leading to death.

Heather Booth, a member of Jane, recalls a friend of hers, a fellow student at the University of Chicago, who was raped at knife-point in her bed while living at off-campus housing. When they went to student heath, Booth’s friend was “given a lecture on her promiscuity, was told that student health didn’t cover gynaecological exams” and Booth was “outraged.”

“Women didn’t have the power to make decisions,” Jane member Judith Arcana says in the documentary.

“You had to be married to get a diaphragm. When the pill came in, you had to be married to get a prescription for pills. If you weren’t married, you were out of luck.”

Booth really became active in issues of abortion rights when a friend told her that his sister was pregnant and was suicidal, and was looking for a doctor to preform an abortion. Booth started asking around and was directed to T. R. M. Howard, a physician and civil rights activist, who would answer her calls and “take care” of the women Booth referred to him. When Dr. Howard was arrested, Booth had to look elsewhere for someone to perform these illegal abortions, leading her to a man named Mike.

By 1968, Booth needed assistance to handle the growing number of women seeking these illegal abortions in Chicago. As the Chicago Women’s Liberation movement blossomed, she would go to meetings and ask if anyone was interested in working on abortion. That’s the very start of the Jane group.

Members of the Janes (Photograph by Courtesy of HBO)
Members of the Janes (Photograph by Courtesy of HBO)

How did Jane work?

Essentially, how Jane worked was quiet and straightforward. Women could call Eleanor Oliver’s home line, specifically asking for Jane.

“If you have a message for the Olivers or for Jane, please leave your name and number and we will call you back. Like she lived there,” Oliver says in the documentary.

Each person’s information would be written on a card, to be matched with one of the Jane members who would counsel the woman, tell her what to expect and how the procedure would feel.

Each women started at “The Front” essentially a waiting room, before being driven over to “The Place” where the abortion would happen. They would follow up with each person for two weeks after the procedure.

In The Janes, members of the activist group flip through these cards, which read that women are “desperate,” scared that male members of their family would find out, and they would reveal how much money they could pay, even as little as absolutely no money at all. But Jane helped everyone who called.

“We had to charge because it costs money to do abortions and certainly in the days when the guy was doing the abortions,” Jane member Laura Kaplan says in the documentary. “He was only doing them for the money.”

Member of the Janes (Photograph by Courtesy of HBO)
Member of the Janes (Photograph by Courtesy of HBO)

When abortion became legal in New York state in 1970, most of the women who called Jane came from lower income households, mostly women of colour, because “white collar” women could fly out of state.

“They were providing services to women, in particular poor women who couldn’t afford an abortion, and I just thought that was such a revolutionary act, and I couldn’t see myself sitting on the sidelines,” Marie Leaner says in thee documentary, while other members of Jane, who were mostly middle-class white women, recognize they may have been “unintentionally” offensive with a lack of understanding on class issues.

Mike was previously a construction worker but admits he made “four, five, six times as much money doing money for less work," performing abortion procedures.

“It says in the bible a man is worthy of his labour and surely, that applies to abortions too,” Mike says.

But Mike wasn’t actually a doctor, he had just watched a doctor doing the procedure until he could go out on his own. While that certainly angered some Jane members, it's also what started them on the path to performing the abortions themselves.

“At that point, there was no reason why they couldn’t, then they could really do a lot of them for free,” Mike says in the film.

For Dorie Barron who had her second abortion with Jane, she said it was the “exact opposite” of her previous experience.

“The reassurance, the trust, the respect that I got, when I tell you they changed my life, they changed my life,” Barron says.

“I didn’t think that women gave a sh-t about women. When I saw women caring about women, not insulting them, not being sarcastic, not dismissing them, it was a whole new world for me.”

Members of the Janes (Photograph by Courtesy of HBO)
Members of the Janes (Photograph by Courtesy of HBO)

'It’s not a theological argument, it’s a put-up job'

On May 3, 1972, the Jane operation was raided, resulting in the arrests of seven Jane members, and women who were set to get an abortion that day.

Less than seven months later, all charges were dropped against the Janes when the Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the U.S.

Of course, the most frightening part of this documentary is that, as questions are raised in 2022 about the U.S. Supreme Court potentially overturning Roe vs. Wade, are we going to be forced back into the world of the Janes? And if so, how terrifyingly depressing is that reality, that we can’t learn from the circumstances of the Jane operation.

Between 1968 and 1973, Jane provided an estimated 11,000 safe and affordable illegal abortions.

“After Roe v. Wade, Cook County Hospital closed its septic abortion ward,” the text at the end of The Janes reads. “It was no longer needed.”

The fear is that the “it was no longer needed” part may not be the case in the near future.

“It’s not a theological argument, it’s a put-up job,” Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper, who worked with the Clergy Consultation Service in Chicago during the Jane years says in the documentary. “I’ve had two abortions and I felt that God was with me at my side,...that it was a God-given decision.”

“To exclude women from ethical agency excludes us from humanity and it turns us into powerless sinners against our own selves, and you can’t have that.”