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Before 'Roe v. Wade,' The Women of 'Jane' Provided Abortions For The Women Of Chicago

Jan 19, 2018
Originally published on January 24, 2018 11:33 am

In 1971, Winnette Willis was a 23-year-old single mom in Chicago when she became pregnant again. "I was terrified of having another child," she tells Radio Diaries.

Before the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade 45 years ago, abortion was illegal in most of the United States, including in Illinois.

Women like Willis who wanted to terminate their pregnancies had limited and often frightening options. She wasn't sure what to do. And then one day, while she was waiting on an L train platform, she saw a sign.

"The sign said, 'Pregnant? Don't Want to Be? Call Jane.' And a phone number," Willis remembers. "So, I called."

"If you really care about something, you have to act on it"

"Jane" was an underground network in Chicago that counseled and helped women who wanted to have abortions. The service was launched in 1965 by Heather Booth, then a 19-year-old student at the University of Chicago. Her friend's sister was pregnant and desperately wanted an abortion. Booth found a doctor who was willing to perform the procedure secretly.

More calls started coming in.

"By the third call, I realized I couldn't manage it on my own," Booth says. "So I set up a system. We called it 'Jane.' "

At first, Jane connected women with doctors. But eventually, the group's members started performing abortions themselves. With time, Jane grew into an all-women network with dozens of members, ranging from students to housewives.

Martha Scott was 28 at the time and a stay-at-home mom with four children under the age of 5. She was motivated to join Jane because she felt women who wanted an abortion deserved to have a safe and inexpensive option. The fact that it was illegal did not deter her.

"I just thought, if you really care about something, you have to act on it," Scott says.

The dangers faced by women seeking abortions in the pre-Roe v. Wade era are well-documented. In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women in the United States, though there were likely many more unrecorded mortalities. After antibiotics were introduced in the 1940s, the number of women dying from illegal abortions dropped dramatically. However, every year, thousands of women continued to be admitted to hospitals nationwide for complications of illegal abortions.

How Jane worked

The women of Jane ran a finely tuned operation. "It was very clandestine and secretive," according to Leslie J. Reagan, a professor of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the author of When Abortion Was a Crime.

When women called Jane, they would hear an answering machine message asking for their phone number, name and the date of their last period. A member of Jane would then call them back and set up a meeting to discuss the procedure.

"There were lots of points along the way where they could have said, 'No, I change my mind,' " says Scott. "I don't think anyone chooses to have an abortion lightly."

Jeanne Galatzer-Levy was 20 when she joined Jane.

"I hadn't had so much as a speeding ticket. But abortion really was the front line, it was where women were dying," she says.

Jane rented apartments all over Chicago, two at a time. One was called "The Front." That was the address given to women such as Willis, where they would await the procedure. At the appointed time, the women were driven to a second location, where the abortion was performed.

"It felt very underground," Willis says. "But I remember looking at the people who performed the surgery, and I felt relief, that somebody was going to help me."

Jane wasn't the only abortion counseling service that existed in the United States. "The thing that made Jane so unique was that they decided they were going to take the practice of abortion into their own hands," says Reagan. "That was a stunning decision."

The women of Jane were transparent with their clients.

"We told them up front we were not doctors," says Galatzer-Levy.

When the women of Jane got trained to perform abortions themselves, it meant they could reduce the price of the procedure and reach a larger, and more diverse, population. Doctors often charged $500 to perform the procedure. Jane charged $100 but took whatever the clients could pay, Galatzer-Levy says. They used the money they got from their clients to pay for supplies, rent and other expenses.

At their peak, Jane was performing abortions four days a week and typically serving 10 women a day. Galatzer-Levy says that to the best of her knowledge, the group never turned anyone away.

Usually, they gave their clients a muscle contractor and an antibiotic before performing a dilation and curettage surgical procedure, in which the cervix is dilated and a medical instrument is inserted to remove tissue from the uterus.

"By and large, we were dealing with healthy women pregnancies," says Galatzer-Levy. "We were not qualified to deal with somebody with real medical problems."

Scott says she performed hundreds of abortions. It's a relatively simple procedure, but she acknowledges that there were risks to what they were doing. Some clients ended up in the emergency room; some had to undergo hysterectomies.

"You're messing around inside somebody else's body. It's not necessarily given that you won't do harm," Scott says. "It wasn't perfect, by any means. But we were dealing with women who really didn't have other options."

In the seven years Jane was active, the group performed approximately 11,000 first- and second-trimester abortions. No deaths were ever reported of women who had abortions through Jane.

Busted by the police

For years, Jane operated under the radar of the Chicago police. But in 1972, two Catholic women walked into a police station, reporting that their sister-in-law was planning to have an abortion.

"To them, 1) it was a sin, and 2) they didn't want a child killed. That's how they felt," says Ted O'Connor, the then-31-year-old homicide detective who was put on the case.

O'Connor and his partner tracked Jane to an apartment in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. Scott vividly remembers when the police arrived.

"They came in and looked around and said, 'Where's the doctor?' Looking for the guy, but there wasn't any guy, there was just us," she says.

The policemen took all the women into custody, and they were charged with 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion.

Looking back, O'Connor has no qualms about arresting the women, who were breaking the law. But he says he can see both sides of the issue.

"My side is I don't want to see a life destroyed. That life is helpless, it has no choice in this. And that angers me," he says. "On the other hand, I've never been pregnant. And never will be. It's a tough issue."

The Supreme Court decides Roe v. Wade

The arrests occurred while abortion laws were being debated on the national stage. Beginning in 1970, Alaska, Hawaii, New York and Washington repealed their anti-abortion laws.

Six months after Jane was busted, on Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in the United States with their decision in Roe v. Wade. The charges against Jane were dropped.

Ultimately, Roe vs. Wade brought an end to Jane because women then had access to legal abortion providers.

"Roe v. Wade made such an enormous difference. It was a very important victory. At that point, we all sort of scattered, moved onto other things," says Scott, who went on to work at a women's health clinic and remained an activist.

Abortion continues to be one of the most divisive issues in American life and politics.

"I mean, we really thought, the fact that it was legal, it wouldn't be as political anymore, that it would fade a lot as any kind of a social issue," she says. "But we were wrong. We were wrong."


Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries, with Joe Richman and Sarah Kate Kramer, produced this story for broadcast. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Thanks to Laura Kaplan, author of "The Story of Jane." You can hear more Radio Diaries stories on their podcast.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE")

WALTER CRONKITE: Good evening. Tonight - the subject of abortion. The illegal termination of pregnancy has reached epidemic proportions in this country. The conflict between the law and reality has resulted in a national dilemma. Abortion will...

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Monday marks the 45th anniversary of Roe versus Wade, January 22, 1973. Before the Supreme Court's decision, abortion was against the law. In most of the country, women who sought out the procedure took risks.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In the 1960s, an underground network of women in Chicago took a different risk to try to give women seeking abortions a safer alternative. The group was known as Jane. And at first they connected women with doctors who were willing to break the law and perform the procedure. And eventually women in the collective trained to perform abortions themselves.

KELLY: We're going to hear firsthand accounts of what they did and why. These accounts include some graphic descriptions that listeners may find disturbing. Radio Diaries brings us the story of the group.

WINNETTE WILLIS: My name is Winnette Willis. When I was 23 years old, I was a single mom, and I became pregnant. It terrified me - the thought of having another kid by myself. I think I was kind of desperate, actually. I remember being on an L, on the train platform and seeing a sign. And the sign said, pregnant - and there was a question mark - don't want to be - question mark. Call Jane - and a phone number. So I called.

HEATHER BOOTH: My name's Heather Booth. I started Jane in 1965 when a friend of mine was looking for a doctor to perform an abortion. I made the arrangements. Then someone else called. Well, by the third call, I realized I couldn't manage it on my own. I thought, I'd better set up a system.

MARTHA SCOTT: My name is Martha Scott. I joined the group in 1969. I had four children under the age of 5. Many of us were stay-at-home moms, a bunch of housewives.

JEANNE GALATZER-LEVY: I'm Jeanne Galatzer-Levy. I was a member of Jane. I was 20 years old. I hadn't had so much as a speeding ticket, but abortion really was the frontline. It was where women were dying.

WILLIS: There was all kinds of stories out there - you know, people who had used a hanger to stick in themselves to kind of stimulate abortions. But I wasn't going to do that. So that's why I went to Jane.

BOOTH: Women would call an answering machine - were asked to give their phone number, their name and the date of their last period.

SCOTT: We met someone before they were going to do this. We gave them a chance to talk about it. And we told them what was going to happen. There were lots of points along the way where they could have said no, changed my mind because you do think about it a lot. I don't think anyone chooses to have an abortion lightly.

WILLIS: I remember the day of, I took public transportation to this apartment at Hyatt Park. There was, like, seven or eight people in there. And we waited. At the appointed time, we were put into a car, and we were taken to a second location where the abortion was performed. It felt very underground, you know? I remember looking at the people who performed the surgery, and I felt relief (laughter) that somebody was going to help me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE")

CRONKITE: Good evening. The facts are astonishing. Hundreds of thousands of pregnant women unmindful of what may happen to them secretly seek abortions. For them, there is a wide gulf between what the law commands and what they feel they must do.

TED O'CONNOR: My name is Ted O'Connor. I was a young homicide detective on the South Side of Chicago. This is a Catholic city. Abortion wasn't even discussed. And I knew nothing about Jane. The whole operation was totally under our radar.

LESLIE REAGAN: Jane was very organized and very clandestine and secretive. My name is Leslie Reagan. I'm a professor of history and author of the book "When Abortion Was A Crime." The thing that ultimately made Jane so unique was they took the practice of abortion into their own hands. They decided to learn and perform abortions themselves. And that was a stunning decision.

GALATZER-LEVY: We told them upfront we were not doctors. You know, doctors charged $500 a pop. So we would say, we charge a hundred dollars, but we will take what you can pay. We were doing four days a week, and we were typically doing 10 women a day.

SCOTT: We would rent apartments all over the city. We set up in two bedrooms and put linens on the bed and sterilized our instruments. So the person who was having the abortion would, you know, stretch out, and the person who was assisting would sit with them while it was happening - you know, hold hands and, you know - and then I would insert the speculum, administer the anesthesia that was delivered by four shots to the cervix. And then the cervix would be dilated, and then the instrument would be inserted into the uterus to remove the material. So that was the procedure.

GALATZER-LEVY: We gave every woman a little pill box with Ergotrate to help prevent bleeding and tetracycline, which is an antibiotic. By and large, we were dealing with healthy women pregnancies. I mean, we were not qualified to deal with somebody with real medical problems.

SCOTT: I probably did hundreds of abortions. I mean, the fact is abortion is a pretty easy procedure. But still, you're messing around inside somebody else's body. It's not necessarily given that you won't do harm.

There were problems. There were people who ended up in the emergency room, you know? It wasn't always perfect by any means, you know? We felt it was the right thing to do. But that doesn't mean anything when the police are actually at your door.

O'CONNOR: It was spring of 1972, and two female Hispanics walked into the police station. And they told us that their sister-in-law was going to have an abortion. Of course these women were Catholic, and to them, one, it was a sin. And two, they didn't want a child killed. That's how they felt. And so with two unmarked squad cars, we managed to follow our target, drove into the South Shore neighborhood, pulled up in front of one of the apartment buildings, rode up on the elevator.

And we saw a young woman, late-20s, extremely well-dressed. And she stopped momentarily and braced herself. She was pale, looked like the blood had drained out of her face. And my partner took her by the arm, in a very stern voice said, did you just have an abortion? She said yes, and he said, where? And she led us to the door. I really didn't know what to expect when I walked in there. The living room was filled with young women waiting for an abortion. It was - I was shocked to see it. And of course they were very surprised when we came in.

SCOTT: They were such Chicago cops, you know? They were burly. They spoke with South Side accents. They came in and looked around and said, where's the doctor, looking for the guy. But there wasn't any guy, you know? There was just us.

O'CONNOR: I remember one of the women asked me what I thought these women were supposed to do if they couldn't get an abortion, you know, what did I think was the right thing. And you know, I told her, listen; I don't have any opinions about what they should do. But you're breaking the law. That's all I know, and that's why I'm here. So we arrested everybody.

SCOTT: I remember being handcuffed to somebody, and we were all taken down to women's lockup.

GALATZER-LEVY: We were charged with 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion.

O'CONNOR: I remember thinking at the time, I can see both sides of this. It's a tough issue, you know? And my side is, I don't want to see a life destroyed. That life is helpless. It has no choice in this. And that's - that angers me. On the other hand, I've never been pregnant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite."

CRONKITE: Good evening. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court today legalized abortions. The majority in cases...

REAGAN: Six months after the arrests, the Supreme Court decided Roe versus Wade, and ultimately the charges that had been brought against Jane are dropped.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE")

CRONKITE: Antiabortion laws of 46 states were rendered unconstitutional.

REAGAN: Roe v. Wade brought an end to Jane because now there were legal providers. But the controversy didn't just disappear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEM TUCKER: Perhaps more than any other issue in American life today, the abortion question is loaded with the emotional arguments of life, death and morality, not the kinds of issues a court can finally settle.

SCOTT: Roe v. Wade made such an enormous difference. It was a very important victory. At that point, we all kind of scattered, went onto other things. I mean, we really thought the fact that it was legal would change things, that this wouldn't be as political anymore, that it would fade a lot as any kind of a social issue. But we were wrong. We were wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Jane performed approximately 11,000 first- and second-trimester abortions before Roe versus Wade. No deaths of women were ever reported in connection with the service.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: This story was produced by Nellie Gilles with Joe Richman and Sarah Kate Kramer. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. A special thank you to Laura Kaplan, author of "The Story Of Jane." You can hear this story and more on the Radio Diaries podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And elsewhere in the show, we will hear more about the current debate around abortion. Thousands of anti-abortion rights activists came to Washington today for the annual March for Life. It's been held every year since the Supreme Court's decision in 1973. President Trump delivered a speech to the crowd on video. Some protesters held signs that said make America pro-life again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.