A Brief History of the Jane Collective

As we prepare for a post-Roe America, we can learn from the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation and its Jewish founder, Heather Booth.

In 1965, a Jewish woman named Heather Booth got a call from a friend, asking if she could help the friend’s sister get an abortion. Booth had a history of activism, and had been active in championing voting rights, but this was new territory. Upon learning that her friend’s sister was on the verge of being suicidal, Booth decided that even though what she was doing was considered illegal in the United States, she was doing the right thing. As she put it later, she knew her actions would save the woman’s life. Soon, more people began reaching out to Booth for help, prompting her to form an underground abortion network.

Booth was at the forefront of my mind on May 2, 2022, as the leaked draft of the Supreme Court opinion aiming to revert this country back to pre-Roe v. Wade times made the rounds. Roe v. Wade was the landmark case in 1973 that ensured a woman’s right to privacy, as enumerated in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States’ Constitution. This clause, ratified a little more than a century prior to the ruling, protects those living in the United States against the arbitrary deprivation of life, liberty, or property by the government. Repealing a person’s right to an abortion, the court ruled, deprives them of their liberty.

The security of Roe v. Wade has felt precarious for several years. When the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett went through in October of 2020, I saw the writing on the wall and knew my worst fears would soon come true. Threats to the health of people assigned female at birth would become more dire than they already were, and more deadly for those willing (or feeling forced) to terminate their pregnancies by any means.

Our very recent history has shown the implications of overturning the 1973 decision. Prior to the Roe v. Wade ruling, most people didn’t have access to safe abortions, so many would resort to using wire hangers and throwing themselves down flights of stairs in an effort to terminate their pregnancies. Despite the fact that abortion has a lower death rate than deliveries, abortion opponents did not and still do not want to provide access to a safe procedure. Whether consciously or subconsciously, opponents of abortion are more preoccupied with controlling the bodies of anyone who has the potential to be pregnant than they are with safety. This is the world we might be returning to, and the one in which Heather Booth operated.

Jane Collective
Members of the Jane Collective; via HBO

Between 1969 and 1973, Booth founded the group officially known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation — more colloquially known as the Jane Collective (or Jane for short) — which operated in Chicago. The Jane Collective was a clandestine group of women — some married, some unmarried; some with children and some without — that helped women access safe abortions. The process was both intricate and simple. Ads were published in newspapers that read: “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane,” along with a phone number that women could call. When women called the number, they would be connected with a member of the group who would ask what she could do for the caller — the rule was that women had to specifically ask for an abortion because the point of Jane wasn’t to promote abortion, but to help those determined to get one, do so in a safe manner. During this initial phone call, the Jane member would collect medical information and then inform the caller that a counselor would call them back in a few days to explain the rest of the process. At the counseling sessions, the first order of business was to confirm that a woman was completely sure of her decision to terminate her pregnancy. If she was certain, the next step was describing how the day of the procedure would go and what to expect during the procedure itself. (At the time, there was far less discourse surrounding women’s health, and many women didn’t know very much about their own bodies. One way Jane aimed to decrease fear surrounding the procedure was by empowering these women through information.)

If a woman was able and could afford it, Jane either sent her to London, where abortions were legal, or to Puerto Rico or Mexico where they knew doctors that performed illegal abortions under safer conditions at hospitals and clinics. For the majority of women that contacted Jane, leaving Chicago wasn’t feasible, so they relied on the small network of physicians within the city willing to perform the procedure.

Eventually doctors started hiking up prices for their services, and the cost became prohibitive. The women of Jane didn’t let this stop them. They knew they were saving lives and livelihoods. Instead, they took matters into their own hands and had a physician teach them how to perform the procedure and began providing the abortions themselves, at an affordable rate. If a woman couldn’t afford a procedure, she was never denied Jane’s services.

The fight for abortion access may seem like it’s only about autonomy on the surface, but it’s about so much more: equality, equity and helping people break out of cyclical poverty.

The brave work done by the women of the Jane Collective not only gave women a choice and options, but played a central role in their flourishing and well-being. Lack of access to abortions is not only detrimental to people who can become pregnant — it is detrimental to society as a whole. States with higher restrictions on abortion have higher rates of poverty and lower education levels among women, as well as larger gender-based wage gaps. Ironically, these are also the states that spend less money per child on things like education, welfare, and foster care. The evidence is indisputable: when women succeed, everyone succeeds; when women are punished, everyone is punished.

As people prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for what is likely around the corner, I hope they remember Booth and the rest of the Jane women. Let them be a lesson that no matter how hard or tyrannical things get, we must all dig deep, be brave, and band together to protect each other’s bodies, rights, and freedoms.

Nicole Friedberg

Nicole Friedberg (she/her/hers) is a writer, actor, and activist who was born and (mostly) raised in New Jersey. She earned her BA in English writing at the University of Pittsburgh and currently lives in Los Angeles. You can read more from Nicole at https://nicolefriedberg.com/writer or follow her on Instagram @nicole.friedberg17.

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