The Janes 1960s underground abortion network


CNN
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The voice on the phone in 1966 was gruff and abrupt: “Do you want the Chevy, the Cadillac or the Rolls Royce?”

A Chevy abortion would cost about $200, cash in hand, the voice explained. A Cadillac was around $500, and the Rolls Royce was $1,000.

“You can’t afford more than the Chevy? Fine,” the voice growled. “Go to this address at this time. Don’t be late and don’t forget the cash.” The voice disappeared.

Dorie Barron told CNN she recalls staring blankly at the phone in her hand, startled by the sudden empty tone. Then it hit her: She had just arranged an illegal abortion with the Chicago Mafia.

The motel Barron was sent to was in an unfamiliar part of Chicago, a scary “middle of nowhere,” she said. She was told to go to a specific room, sit on the bed and wait. Suddenly three men and a woman came in the door.

“I was petrified. They spoke all of three sentences to me the entire time: ‘Where’s the money?’ ‘Lie back and do as I tell you.’ And finally ‘Get in the bathroom,’” when the abortion was over, Barron said. “Then all of a sudden they were gone.”

Bleeding profusely, Barron managed to find a cab to take her home. When the bleeding didn’t stop, her bed-ridden mother made her go to the hospital.

At 24, Barron was taking care of her ailing mother and her 2-year-old daughter when she discovered she was pregnant. Her boyfriend, who had no job and lived with his parents, “freaked,” said Barron, who appears in a recent HBO documentary. The boyfriend suggested she get an abortion. She had never considered that option.

“But what was I to do? My mom was taking care of my daughter from her bed while I worked — they would read and play games until I got home,” Barron said.”How was either of us going to cope with a baby?

“Looking back, I realize I was taking my life in my hands,” said Barron, now an 81-year-old grandmother. “To this day it gives me chills. If I had died, what in God’s green earth would have happened to my mom and daughter?”

Women in the 1960s endured restrictions relatively unknown to women today. The so-called “fairer sex” could not serve on juries and often could not get an Ivy League education. Women earned about half as much as a man doing the same job and were seldom promoted.

Women could not get a credit card unless they were married — and then only if their husband co-signed. The same applied to birth control — only the married need apply. More experienced women shared a workaround with the uninitiated: “Go to Woolworth, buy a cheap wedding-type ring and wear it to your doctor’s appointment. And don’t forget to smile.”

Marital rape wasn’t legally considered rape. And, of course, women had no legal right to terminate a pregnancy until four states — Alaska, Hawaii, New York and Washington — legalized abortion in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade became the law of the land.

Illinois had no such protection, said Heather Booth, a lifelong feminist activist and political strategist: “Three people discussing having an abortion in Chicago in 1965 was a conspiracy to commit felony murder.”

Despite that danger, a courageous band of young women — most in their 20’s, some in college, some married with children — banded together in Chicago to create an underground abortion network. The group was officially created in 1969 as the “Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation.”

But after running ads in an underground newspaper: “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane,” each member of the group answered the phone as “Jane.”

Despite their youth, members of Jane managed to run an illegal abortion service dedicated to each woman's needs.
From left: Martha Scott, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, Abby Pariser, Sheila Smith and Madeline Schwenk.

“We were co-conspirators with the women who called us,” said 75-year-old Laura Kaplan, who published a book about the service in 1997 entitled “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service.”

“We’ll protect you; we hope you’ll protect us,” Kaplan said. “We’ll take care of you; we hope you’ll take care of us.”

What started as referrals to legitimate abortion providers changed to personalized service when some members of Jane learned to safely do the abortions themselves. Between the late 1960s and 1973, the year that the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, Jane had arranged or performed over 11,000 abortions.

“Our culture is always searching for heroes,” said Kaplan. “But you don’t have to be a hero to do extraordinary things. Jane was just ordinary people working together — and look what we could accomplish, which is amazing, right?”

Even after several members were caught and arrested, the group continued to provide abortions for women too poor to travel to states where abortion had been legalized.

“I prayed a lot. I didn’t want to go to jail,” said 80-year-old Marie Learner, who allowed the Janes to perform abortions at her apartment.

“Some of us had little children. Some were the sole breadwinners in their home,” Learner said. “It was fearlessness in the face of overwhelming odds.”

Marie Learner opened her home to women undergoing abortions. Her neighbors knew, she said, but did not tell police.

The story of Jane has been immortalized in Kaplan’s book, numerous print articles, a 2022 movie, “Call Jane,” starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, and a documentary on HBO (which, like CNN, is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery).

Today the historical tale of Jane has taken on a new significance. After the 2022 Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade and the mid-term takeover of the US House of Representatives by Republicans, emboldened conservative lawmakers and judges have acted on their anti-abortion beliefs.

Currently more than a dozen states have banned or imposed severe restrictions on abortion. Georgia has banned abortions after six weeks, even though women are typically unaware they are pregnant at that stage. In mid-April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would ban most abortions after six weeks. It won’t go into effect until the state Supreme Court overturns its previous precedent on abortion. Several other states are considering similar legislation. In other states, judicial battles are underway to protect abortion access.

“It’s a horrific situation right now. People will be harmed, some may even die,” said Booth, who helped birth the Jane movement while in college.

“Women without family support, without the information they need, may be isolated and either harm themselves looking to end an unwanted pregnancy or will be harmed because they went to an unscrupulous and illegal provider,” said Booth, now 77.

A key difference between the 60s and today is medication abortion, which 54% of people in the United States used to end a pregnancy in 2022. Available via prescription and through the mail, use of the drugs is two-fold: A person takes a first pill, mifepristone, to block the hormone needed for a pregnancy to continue.  A day or two later, the patient takes a second drug, misoprostol, which causes the uterus to contract, creating the cramping and bleeding of labor.

In early April a Texas judge, US District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk – a Trump appointee who has been vocal about his anti-abortion stance — suspended the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone despite 23 years of data showing the drug is safe to use, safer even than penicillin or Viagra.

On Friday, the Supreme Court froze the ruling and a subsequent decision by the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals at the request of the Justice Department and the drug manufacturer. The action allows access to mifepristone in states where it’s legal until appeals play out over the months to come.

However, 15 states currently restrict access to medication abortion, even by mail.

The actions of anti-abortion activists, who have been accused of “judge shopping” to get the decisions they want, is “an unprecedented attack on democracy meant to undermine the will of the vast majority of Americans who want this pill — mifepristone — to remain legal and available,” Heather Booth told CNN.

“This is a further weaponization of the courts to brazenly advance the end goal of banning abortion entirely,” she added.

If women in her day could have had access to medications that could be used safely in their homes, they would not have been forced to risk their lives, said Dorie Barron, thinking back to her own terrifying abortion in a sketchy Chicago motel.

“I’m depressed as hell, watching stupid, indifferent men control and destroy women’s lives all over again,” she said. “I really fear getting an abortion could soon be like 1965.”

Chicago college student Heather Booth had just finished a summer working with civil rights activists in Mississippi when she was asked to help with a different kind of injustice.

Heather Booth, 18, with civil rights heroine Fannie Lou Hamer during

A girl in another dorm was considering suicide because she was pregnant. Booth, who excelled at both organization and chutzpah, found a local doctor and negotiated an abortion for the girl. Word spread quickly.

“There were about 100 women a week calling for help, much more than one person could handle,” Booth said. “I recruited about 12 other people and began training them how to do the counseling.”

Counseling was a key part of the new service. This was a time when people “barely spoke about sex, how women’s bodies functioned or even how people got pregnant,” Booth said. To help each woman understand what was going to happen to them, Booth quizzed the abortion provider about every aspect of the procedure.

“What do you do in advance? Will it be painful? How painful? Can you walk afterwards? Do you need someone to be with you to take you home?” The questions continued: “What amount of bleeding is expected, and can a woman handle it on their own? If there’s a problem is there an urgent number they can call?”

Armed with details few if any physicians provided, the counselors at Jane could fully inform each caller about the abortion experience. The group even published a flyer describing the procedure, long before the groundbreaking 1970 book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” began to educate women about their sexuality and health.

“I don’t particularly like doctors because I always feel dissatisfied with the experience,” said Marie Learner, who spoke to many of the women who underwent an abortion at her home.

“But after their abortion at Jane, women told me, ‘Wow, that was the best experience I’ve ever had with people helping me with a medical issue.’”

Eileen Smith, now 73, was one of those women. “Jane made you feel like you were part of this bigger picture, like we were all in this together,” she said. “They helped me do this illegal thing and then they’re calling to make sure I’m OK? Wow!

“For me, it helped battle the feeling that I was a bad person, that ‘What’s wrong with me? Why did I get pregnant? I should know better’ voice in my head,” said Smith. “It was priceless.”

Like many young women in the 60s, Heather Booth often protested for civil and women's rights.

Many of the women who joined Jane had never experienced an abortion. Some viewed the work as political, a part of the burgeoning feminist movement. Others considered the service as simply humanitarian health care. All saw the work as an opportunity to respect each woman’s choice.

“I was a stay-at-home mom with four kids,” said Martha Scott, who is now in her 80s. “We knew the woman needed to feel as though she was in control of what was happening to her. We were making it happen for her, but it was not about us. It was about her.”

Some volunteers, like Dorie Barron, experienced the Jane difference firsthand when she found herself pregnant a few years after her abortion at the hands of the Mafia.

“It was a 100% total reversal — I had never experienced such kindness,” Barron said. Not only did a Jane hold each woman’s hand and explain every step of the process, “they gave each of us a giant supply of maternity sanitary pads, and a nice big handful of antibiotics,” she said. “And for the next week, I got a phone call every other day to see how I was.”

Barron soon began volunteering for Jane by providing pregnancy testing for women in the back of a church in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

“It wasn’t just abortion,” Barron explained. “We also said, ‘You could consider adoption,’ and gave adoption referrals. And if the woman wanted to continue with her pregnancy, we said, ‘Fine, please by all that is holy make sure you get prenatal care, take your vitamins, and eat as best you can.’ It was women helping women with whatever they needed.”

Most of the women who contacted Jane were unable to support themselves, in unhealthy relationships, or already had children at home, so the service was a way of “helping them get back on track,” said Smith, who, like Barron, had begun working for Jane after her abortion.

“We were telling them ‘This isn’t the end of the world. You can continue to leave your boyfriend or your husband or continue to just take care of those kids you have.’ We were there to help them get through this,” said Smith, who later became a homecare nurse.

From left: Eileen Smith, Diane Stevens and Benita Greenfield were three of the dozens of women who volunteered for Jane.

Diane Stevens says she came to work for Jane after experiencing an abortion in 1968 at the age of 19. She was living in California at the time, which provided “therapeutic abortions” if approved in advance by physicians.

“I’d had a birth control failure, and I was coached by Planned Parenthood on how to do this,” said Stevens, now 74. “I had to see two psychiatrists and one doctor and tell them I was not able to go through with the pregnancy because it would a danger to both my physical and mental health.

“I was admitted to the psychiatric ward, although I didn’t really know that — I thought I was just in a hospital bed. But oh no, ‘I was mentally ill,’ so that’s where they put me,” said Stevens, who later went to nursing school with Smith. “Then they wheeled me off for the abortion. I had general anesthesia, was there for two days, and then I was discharged. Isn’t that crazy?”

Sakinah Ahad Shannon, now 75, was one of the few Black women who volunteered as a counselor at Jane. She joined after accompanying a friend who was charged a mere $50 for her abortion. At that time, Jane’s fee was between $1 and $100, based on what the woman could afford to pay, Shannon said.

“When I walked in, I said, ‘Oh my God, here we go again. It’s a room of White women, archangels who are going to save the world,’” said Shannon, a social worker and member of the Congress of Racial Equality, an interracial group of non-violent activists who pioneered “Freedom Rides” and helped organize the March on Washington in 1963.

What she heard and saw at her friend’s counseling session was so impressive it “changed my life,” Shannon said. She and her family later opened and operated three Chicago abortion clinics for over 25 years, all using the Jane philosophy of communication and respect.

“It was a profoundly amazing experience for me,” she said. “I call the Janes my sisters. The color line didn’t matter. We were all taking the same risk.”

Sakinah Ahad Shannon and her daughters went on to open and run three abortion clinics in Chicago.

It wasn’t long before the women discovered a “doctor” performing abortions for Jane had been lying about his credentials. There was no medical degree — in the HBO documentary, he admitted he had honed his skills by assisting an abortion provider.

The group imploded. A number of members quit in horror and dismay. For the women who stayed, it was an epiphany, said Martha Scott. Like her, several of the Janes had been assisting this fake doctor for years, learning the procedures step by step.

“You’d learn how to insert a speculum, then how to swap out the vagina with an antiseptic, then how to give numbing shots around the cervix and then how to dilate the cervix. You learned and mastered each step before you moved on to the next,” said Laura Kaplan, who chronicled the procedure in her book.

By now, several of the Janes were quite experienced and willing to do the work. Why not perform the abortions themselves?

“Clearly, this was an intense responsibility,” said Judith Acana, a 27-year-old high school teacher who joined Jane in 1970. She started her training by helping “long terms,” women who were four or five months along in the pregnancy.

“Remember, abortion was illegal (in Illinois) so it could take weeks for a woman to find help,” said Arcana, now 80. “Frequently women who wanted an abortion at 8 or 10 weeks wound up being 16 or 18 weeks or more by the time they found Jane.”

The miscarriage could happen quickly, but it rarely did, she said. It usually took anywhere from one to two days.

“Women who had no one to help them would come back when contractions started,” Arcana said. “One of my strongest memories is of a teenage girl who had an appointment to have her miscarriage on my living room floor.”

The group also paid two Janes to live in an apartment and be on call 24/7 to assist women who had no one to help them miscarry at home, said Arcana, a lifelong educator, author and poet. “But many women took care of it on their own, in very amazing and impressive and powerful ways,” she said.

Judith Arcana learned how to do abortions herself and wrote about the Jane experience in poems, stories, essays and books.

Any woman who had concerns or questions while miscarrying alone could always call Jane for advice any time of the day or night.

“People would call in a panic: ‘The bleeding won’t stop,’” Smith recalled. “I would tell them, ‘Get some ice, put it on your stomach, elevate your legs, relax.’ And they would say ‘Oh my gosh, thank you!’ because they were so scared.”

For women who were in their first trimester, Jane offered traditional D&C abortions — the same dilation and curettage used by hospitals then and today, said Scott, who performed many of the abortions for Jane. Later the group used vacuum aspiration, which was over in a mere five to 10 minutes.

“Vacuum aspiration was much easier to do, and I think it’s less difficult for the woman,” Scott said. “Abortion is exactly like any other medical procedure. It’s the decision that’s an issue — the doing is very straightforward. This was something a competent, trained person could do.”

It was May 3, 1972. Judith Arcana was the driver that day, responsible for relocating women waiting at what was called “the front” to a separate apartment or house where the abortions were done, known as “the place.”

On this day, a Wednesday, the “place” was a South Shore high-rise apartment. Arcana was escorting a woman who had completed her abortion when they were stopped by police at the elevator.

“They asked us, ‘Which apartment did you come out of?’ And the poor woman burst into tears and blurted out the apartment number,” Arcana said. “They took me downstairs, put cuffs on me and hooked me to a steel hook inside of the police van.”

Inside the apartment on the 11th floor, Martha Scott said she was setting up the bedroom for the next abortion when she heard a knock at the door, followed by screaming: “You can’t come in!”

“I shut the bedroom door and locked it,” Scott said, then hid the instruments and sat on the bed to wait. It wasn’t long until a cop kicked the door in and made her join the other women in the living room.

“We tell this joke about how the cops came in, saw all these women and said, ‘Where’s the abortionist?’ You know, assuming that it would be a man,” Scott said.

By day’s end, seven members of Jane were behind bars: Martha Scott, Diane Stevens, Judy Arcana, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, Abby Pariser, Sheila Smith and Madeleine Schwenk. Suddenly what had been an underground effort for years was front page headlines.

“Had we not gotten arrested, I think no one would ever have known about Jane other than the women we served,” Scott said.

Top: Sheila Smith and Martha Scott.
Bottom: Diane Stevens and Judith Arcana.

An emergency meeting of Jane was called. The turnout was massive — even women who had not been active in months showed up, anxious to know the extent of the police probe, according to the women with whom CNN spoke.

Despite widespread fear and worry, the group immediately began making alternate plans for women scheduled for abortions at Jane in the next few days to weeks. The group even paid for transportation to other cities where abortion had already been legalized, they said.

News reports over the next few days gave further details of the bust: There was no widespread investigation by the police. It was a single incident, triggered by a call from a sister-in-law who was upset with her relative’s decision to have an abortion, they said.

“It wasn’t long after I was arrested that I came back and worked for quite a few months,” said Scott, one of the few fully trained to do abortions.

“I like to think I was a good soldier,” Scott said. “I like to think what did made a difference not only to a whole bunch of people, but also to ourselves. It gave us a sense of empowerment that comes when you do something that is hard to do and also right.”

As paranoia eased, women began to come back to work at Jane, determined to carry on.

“After the bust, we had a meeting and were told ‘Everybody needs to start assisting and learn how to do abortions.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’” said Eileen Smith, who had not been arrested. “But you felt like you really didn’t have much of a choice. We had to keep the service running.”

Laura Kaplan volunteered for the Janes, later immortalizing the group in her book,

The preliminary hearing for the arrested seven was in August. Several of the women in the apartment waiting for abortions the day of the arrest suddenly developed amnesia and refused to testify. According to Kaplan’s book, one of the women later said, “The cops tried to push me around, but f**k them. I wasn’t going to tell on you.”

It didn’t matter. Each Jane was charged with 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion, with a possible sentence of up to 110 years in prison.

As they waited for trial, the lawyer for the seven, Jo-Anne Wolfson, adopted delaying tactics, Kaplan said. A case representing a Texas woman, cited as “Jane Roe” to protect her privacy, was being considered by the US Supreme Court. If the Court ruled in Roe’s favor, the case against the Jane’s might be thrown out.

That’s exactly what happened. On March 9, 1973, three months after the Supreme Court had legalized abortion in the US, the case against the seven women was dropped and their arrest records were expunged.

Later that spring, a majority of Janes, burned out by the intensity of the work over the last few years, voted to close shop. An end of Jane party was held on May 20. According to Kaplan’s book, the invitation read:

“You are cordially invited to attend The First, Last and Only Curette Caper; the Grand Finale of the Abortion Counseling Service. RSVP: Call Jane.”

Today, most of the surviving members of Jane are in their 70s and 80s, shocked but somehow not surprised by the actions of abortion opponents.

“This is a country of ill-educated politicos who know nothing about women’s bodies, nor do they care,” said Dorie Barron. “It will take generations to even begin to undo the devastating harm to women’s rights.”

In the meantime, women should research all available options, keep that information confidential, seek support from groups working for abortion rights, and “share your education with as many women as you can,” Barron added.

As more and more reproductive freedoms have been rolled back over the past year, many of the Janes are angry and fearful for the future.

Abortion rights demonstrators walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York nearly two weeks after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

“This is about the most intimate decision of our lives — when, whether and with whom we have a child. Everyone should have the ability to make decisions about our own lives, bodies, and futures without political interference,” said Heather Booth, who has spent her life after leaving Jane fighting for civil and women’s rights.

“We need to organize, raise our voices and our votes, and overturn this attack on our freedom and our lives. I have seen that when we take action and organize we can change the world.”