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What’s It Like to Provide Safe, Illegal Abortions? Ask Jane, a Radical Group That Rewrote the Rules Pre-‘Roe.’

Before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, there existed a group of unlikely vigilantes. Frustrated with the dangers of most illegal alternatives at the time and the blatant disregard for women’s health and well-being, these outlaws—most of whom were white, middle-class women ranging in age from 19 to their 40s—built their own clandestine abortion network in the South Side of Chicago in 1968.

They risked their personal and professional lives to save women—particularly low-income women—from death, sepsis, sexual assault from predatory doctors, and other risks. They used code names, fronts, and safe houses, devising elaborate systems that evaded state legislation, the Catholic church, and even the Chicago mob. And then in 1972, when seven members were arrested and charged with multiple counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion, they faced up to 110 years in prison. The following year, Roe v. Wade legalized abortions and their charges were dismissed. With abortion clinics opened and their sacrifices no longer needed, the women disbanded.

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Mugshots of former Janes following their arrests in 1972.

Courtesy of HBO

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Seven members, dubbed the Abortion 7 by the press, faced up to 110 years in prison.

Courtesy of HBO

But if the group’s name is unfamiliar to you, that’s because most U.S. history textbooks don’t tell their story. We know ours didn’t. So allow us to (re)introduce Jane. Both the pseudonym of each member and the name of the network, Jane provided an estimated 11,000 safe, free, and low-cost illegal abortions (many of which they performed themselves, without medical backgrounds) between 1968 and 1973. And now, on the eve of the possible fall of Roe v. Wade, as suggested by the draft of a Supreme Court decision leaked last month, it’s time that we recognize their heroic work. And thanks to filmmakers Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin’s upcoming documentary The Janes, we can.

The film, which premieres June 8 on HBO, tells the vital story of how this game-changing network came to be and outlines the group’s practical model of advocacy, one as relevant then as it is today. For many of the former Janes, now in their 60s and 70s, this project marks their first time speaking publicly about their involvement.

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“We hope The Janes reaches young people who weren’t around to see for themselves the devastating consequences when abortion is made illegal,” Pildes and Lessin told Cosmo. “They are the ones whose right to basic health care and bodily autonomy are at stake, and their voices need to be at the forefront of devastating consequences when abortion is made illegal.”

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Some may call the Janes criminals, but we prefer courageous. As revolutionary writer and activist Alice Walker once said, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and the Janes are living proof of that. But now that we’re here, where to begin? How do we form our own trailblazing networks? How do we find allies? And how do we remain committed when frightened? To have the Janes tell their story in their own words, we brought three former Janes—Laura Kaplan, Eileen Smith, and Marie Leaner—together for the first time in decades.

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Marie Leaner, 80: As one of the few Black members, Marie joined because she felt that being part of Jane was a radical act of social justice. Born and raised in Chicago’s South Side, she offered her apartment as a “Place,” as in a place for the procedures.

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Laura Kaplan, 74: Laura Kaplan, author of the definitive Jane history book The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service, joined the network in the fall of 1971. After Jane disbanded, she founded a women’s health care center, worked as a lay midwife, and established a shelter for battered women.

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Eileen Smith, 72: Raised in an Irish Catholic family on the East Coast, Eileen attended college near Chicago. In the spring of 1971, the new transplant found her way to Jane with an unwanted pregnancy. Jane member Judith Arcana drove Eileen to the appointment, and “Mike”—the initial (presumed) doctor who eventually helped train the Janes—performed the abortion. Eileen joined Jane soon after.


What were your immediate reactions when you first heard about the Supreme Court opinion draft leak in early May?

Marie: I was actually very glad somebody leaked it and gave people an opportunity to respond and react. I’m proud of the people [protesting] in front of the Supreme Court, organizing demonstrations, and so on.

The only disappointment I felt was that the norms we’ve accepted about [reproductive justice and health care] are being overthrown. And I’m sorry that it took so long for people to get ready for this. I knew it was gonna happen at some point, that there would be some resistance to Roe v. Wade, to our work. It just took 50 years.

Laura: I don’t know why these Supreme Court justices think that they’re gonna stop abortions, because they’re not. Even when abortion was made illegal in the mid-1800s, that never stopped women. What it did was it put their lives and health in jeopardy. That is what we’re gonna see in these states that have these trigger laws: women dying, women being badly abused and mistreated, especially the most vulnerable women, poor women, young women, women of color. Nothing new for this culture. Fortunately, women have the model of what we did and know that it’s possible. There are groups all over the world that have found inspiration in the story of Jane and have done and are doing similar things.

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Abortion advocates rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 1989.

Getty Images

Jane laid such important groundwork for abortion rights, reproductive justice, and health care rights and access—work that we still refer to and draw from today in 2022. What advice do you have for people looking to follow in the footsteps of Jane?

Laura: Our work was really about letting women know they had agency in their own lives, that they were making the decisions. And we valued those decisions, you know? I think it made a difference in their lives.

Of course there were lots of women who just got the abortion and were like, “Let me outta here.” But there were women who really got what we were doing too. I always say you can’t empower anyone. All you can do is create the circumstances where someone can empower themselves, and I think we did that really well.

The experience a woman had coming through—and we always said “through,” not “to”—Jane was like no other [women’s health care service]. Eileen, you should say what you said to me so often…

Eileen: Getting an abortion from Jane was the best medical experience I ever had. When I went to Jane as a patient, everybody just treated me respectfully and explained everything calmly and consistently, like where I was gonna be going and what was gonna happen. The Janes were available to me. I never felt that I couldn’t get a hold of somebody. They called and checked up on me afterward.

This is an illegal abortion, and somebody calls me and says, “Are you doing okay? Are you taking your meds? You feeling okay? How much bleeding?” I’m like, “Who are these people?!” [Laughs.] That’s when I knew I wanted to work with them. ’Cause they were amazing. I’m like, I could do that. That’s pretty cool.

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Pro-choice campaigners at a March for Women’s Equality in Washington, D.C. on July 9, 1989.

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Throughout the doc, other Janes who also discovered the network through their own abortions echoed Eileen’s awe and appreciation for compassionate, kind health care services. But it wasn’t sunshine and flowers all the time when it came to getting along, was it?

Laura: To younger women—’cause this is a young woman’s game—working with others sometimes means working with people you dislike intensely, you know? Right, Eileen?

Eileen: [Laughs.] Yes. I didn’t like Laura at all in the beginning. I was like, “Go get outta here!” And now we’re best friends. Working together was the key.

Laura: Right? No one could do this alone. When I was interviewing us [for my book, The Story of Jane], one of the Janes told me, “Trying to do stuff alone is trying to start a fire with wet wood. You just can’t do it.” This isn’t about heroes. This is about ordinary people banding together because in our unity, that’s what makes us sort of superhuman in a way, not in our individuality.

What advice would you give readers who want to join the fight for reproductive justice and health care but aren’t sure how, when, or where to start?

Marie: Thoughts and ideals are wonderful, but it’s ultimately action, group action, that moves a movement forward. That’s what Jane represented, the idea that we needed to be in action about women’s reproductive health.

And you have to believe in your own sense of agency, because I certainly didn’t when I became involved in the movement. When I was a senior in high school, I went to a rally and had no idea where that would lead me. I was just a person who was following the footsteps of others. But that rally introduced me to advocacy and activism and eventually Jane.

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Laura: You always have to start with what you can do right here, right now. And find like-minded people you can work with, whether you like them or not. We started by raising money. Then we sought out safe medical practitioners who weren’t gonna sexually abuse women or botch surgeries or take money and not even perform the abortion, ’cause all these things [were common at the time]. We had not an inkling of how we would evolve. We didn’t expect to do abortions ourselves. Oh my god! We would’ve thought that was ridiculous.

Eileen: Start by supporting what you believe in. That’s how you meet other people who care about the same sort of thing that you do and wanna do it in the right way. And instead of just going, “Great idea,” give some more money, get involved, make a few phone calls. There are groups that help provide money. There are groups that help provide transportation to a state that is gonna continue to provide abortions, and there are ways you can support their trips, like making sure people have somebody with them.

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A collage of demonstrators advocating for women’s and abortion rights at various rallies and marches over the decades.

Khadija Horton/GettyGetty Images

We know that the fight for Roe v. Wade isn’t just about abortion rights. It’s about LGBTQ+ rights. It’s about interracial marriage and so many other social justice issues. Each of you has mentioned being scared. How do we keep going when the fight feels so overwhelming and terrifying?

Eileen: Remember you’re not alone. That’s the advantage of doing it with other people because then you’ve got a commitment to keep going forward, not only for the cause but for these other people too. [My commitment to Jane] kept the fear aside. It was still there, but you just figure, Oh well, this has to happen. The phone calls kept coming in, reminding you that somebody else was depending on you to answer this or do that.

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Laura: The work doesn’t make the fear go away, but it gives you a way forward. It gives you a path. I mean, we were all scared. It was a different time. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was so much going on, politically. It was almost like there was a river flowing through the country and we just stepped right in and did our own thing. But we were part of a much larger movement for justice and humanity. We need that again.

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A speaker at a pro-choice rally against the Hyde Amendment in Boston, 1977.

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Marie, you were one of the few women of color involved in Jane and the HBO documentary. How did it feel emotionally to be one of the very few in this group of mostly white, middle-class women?

Marie: I didn’t know whether joining up with a predominantly white group was going to alienate me from Black women’s rights advocates. Also, my family is heavily Baptist and very much against abortion. And my family was very important to me, so I couldn’t see alienating myself from them, even though they already thought I was an odd duckling because of my involvement in different social justice issues, even the Civil Rights Movement. Some family member thought I was doing all this stuff because I wanted to be white. I’m like, “Excuse me?” I didn’t know where to go. I really was lost. I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who I wanted to be.

But when it became clear to me that there were women, young women especially, who were dying because of back-alley abortions, I just couldn’t sit by and do nothing. It was not in my DNA to do nothing. And I wanted to be on the front lines when it came to advocacy for women. I remember saying, “I wanna be where the action is,” and to me, Jane was where the action was. So I eventually got involved.

Any advice for young Black women and women of color that you’d like to share?

Marie: Well, times are different. [Jane] was 50 years ago. I think young people now are much more enlightened and educated about the state of the world and the state of U.S. politics. I’m so amazed and impressed by you guys and what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and how smart you are and the questions that you ask, not only of yourselves but also of people like us. I’m just inspired by who you’re being in the world, how you’re being in the world, who you’re engaged with, and who you’re working with.

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A woman at a 1974 reproductive rights march in Pittsburgh.

Getty Images

I tell my daughter all the time, I’m just blown away by the maturity and by the sense that you all have. Maybe we were like that too; maybe older women would’ve seen us the way I see you guys. But maybe not. I don’t know ’cause I wasn’t talking to them [like this], you know? It was just me and a bunch of my friends who were out there doing things.

So basically, your advice for all young people is to keep doing what they’ve been doing? To continue being awesome?

Marie: Yeah, actually.

Eileen: What happened [the week after the leak] was exciting. Seeing people just get out there, posting things, writing things, organizing things. To me, that was very thrilling.

Marie: Yeah. It was so immediate too.

Eileen: Exactly! It felt so reassuring and also made me feel like, Okay, you can be pissed off. You can be upset. You can be depressed, but there are still things that you can do. It’s not what I did before, but I can do other stuff. Then I immediately thought, Hey, wait a minute. What about this? What about that? And it kind of put things back in motion, which was good.

Laura: It’s a different generation. It’s a different time. The activism is gonna take a different form. It’s exciting to see where people’s intellects and intelligence and creativity take them.

Eileen: The creativity is just thrilling to me. Even now while talking to you two, it’s like another little burst of creativity. It’s very wonderful. It’s exciting. By [being a part of] Jane, I realized that a lot of people do amazing things and then they go on with their lives. But if you’re lucky enough to meet up with them and start talking, you think, Whoa, oh my gosh! They did this amazing thing at a time when nobody was doing that, and they just went ahead and did it. There are a lot of interesting stories like the Janes that we have no idea about, so I like that they’re finally getting told. And there are even more stories to be written now too. More stories.

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Marie Leaner and Eileen Smith, along with several other former Janes, reunited in person at the Janes premiere at Doc10 in Chicago on May 19, 2022.

Jeff SchearHBO

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