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Gender + Sexuality

‘We Were Felons’

The Jane Collective provided grassroots abortion care in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. A new doc film on their work is grimly relevant.

Dorothy Woodend 17 Jun

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

If you needed an abortion in Chicago in the 1960s, you dealt with the mob. As Dorie Barron explains in the opening scene of a new documentary The Janes, abortion was very much a business that ran like any other crime syndicate.

Because abortion was illegal, people used coded language when arranging the procedure so they wouldn’t get busted by the cops. As Barron recalls in an interview, “They asked ‘Do you want a Cadillac, a Chevrolet or a Rolls-Royce?” The Chevy was the cheapest option at $500, and the prices went up from there. Barron chose a Chevy. “I wanted it over with and I didn’t care how it was done. I was that desperate.”

Barron’s story is one that is likely shared by many others. On the day of her abortion, she went to an anonymous hotel room, where another young woman was also present, and endured the procedure without any anesthetic. After it was the over, the people who performed the abortion left without a word, leaving her and the other woman alone. “Two young women out in the middle of nowhere in a motel, bleeding. If I had stayed in that room, I’d be dead,” she states.

Barron was lucky: she survived. Many other women did not.

The Janes is a film that you feel in your gut. The HBO documentary, which premiered on June 8, takes place in the years 1968 to 1972, prior to Roe v. Wade becoming U.S. law. Although the events documented in the film happened more than 50 years ago, the film couldn’t be more relevant or necessary to the present moment.

Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes started production in 2016. Even since that time, reproductive rights in America have gone precipitously downhill. With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade in the coming months, the story of The Janes is critical viewing.

'We Were Felons'

In the 1960s, women couldn’t have a credit card in their own names. Contraception (including birth control pills or diaphragms) was only available to married women. People who became pregnant were often fired from their jobs. In this period, often the only people helping young women were their peers. Heather Booth was one. When a friend asked Booth if she knew of any doctors who might be able to perform an abortion for her desperate, suicidal sister, she decided to help.

At the time, Dr. T.R.M. Howard had just opened a medical practice in Chicago. Booth put the young woman in touch with Dr. Howard, who performed the abortion. Soon, word began to spread and other people started asking Booth if she could also help them as well.

When the demand became too great to manage on her own, Booth asked friends and colleagues to help out. The Jane Collective came into being. Otherwise known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, the name Jane was chosen to reflect the experience of unwanted pregnancy that was as ubiquitous as it was stigmatized. In addition to sharing information by word-of-mouth, the Janes posted on bulletin boards and ran ads in underground newspapers and generally put the word out. Notices on community bulletin boards included a phone number and the message: "Pregnant? Don't want to be? Call Jane."

With her little round glasses and direct demeanour, one of Jane’s original members Judith Arcana states matter-of-factly, “We were ordinary women trying to save women’s lives, but we were criminals. We were felons.”

The Jane Collective members interviewed in the film are now mostly in their 60s and 70s. A number of the members have passed away and not everyone who was part of the group wanted to be included in the film. But as they recount to the camera what it was like when abortion was illegal in the U.S., the stories reverberate with radioactive levels of pain and suffering.

In Illinois, abortion was considered a felony homicide. But women still sought ways to terminate unwanted pregnancies, with an estimated 1.2 million illegal abortions happening annually in the 1950s and ’60s.

'Just a drop in the bucket'

Many of the people involved in the Janes had come out of the anti-war movement, the women’s rights movements and the civil rights movement. They were veteran activists, and they knew how to organize.

As an underground organization, the Jane members developed methods of helping as many people as they could. They rented locations across Chicago to provide services that ranged from counselling to babysitting. “The front” and “the place” referred to the two different sites where the Collective’s operations took place. At “the front” people would meet and be offered counselling before being driven to “the place” where abortions were performed.

The Janes also offered followup services, staying in contact with patients for a couple of weeks to ensure that there were no complications. Many of the people who sought help from the Janes were actually referred by their own doctors.

Although the collective was initially reliant on male abortion providers, who may or may not have had mob connections, Jane members learned how to do the procedure themselves. Within the span of a few years, they performed over 11,000 abortions, but as one member states, that was just a drop in the bucket in terms of what was needed.

The realities of pre-Roe America were especially grim for poor and BIPOC women. Although the Jane members were largely white, middle-class and college-educated, they helped a diverse range of women. Marie Leaner, the only woman of colour in the collective, brought critical knowledge of the interplay between race, class and socio-economic status to the group. Leaner, who emerged out of the civil rights movement, joined the Janes in order to bring ideals of social justice to women.

As the women fine-tuned their methods, they expanded their services to include things like pap smears. Unbeknownst to them, the Chicago Police Department, which had largely left the organization alone, was setting up a sting operation.

In 1972, cops from the Chicago homicide department followed one of the Janes to an apartment where the women were performing abortions. When the police kicked down the door, the women threw their medical instruments out the window. The place was full of Jane members who were counselling patients, performing abortions and cooking a pork roast for lunch. When one of the cops asked what smelled so good, one of the women answered, “Pig.”

Seven members of the organization were arrested and threatened with more than 110 years in prison. Jo-Anne Wolfson, the Jane’s powerhouse lawyer known in Chicago as “The Queen of the Hopeless,” stalled while the Roe verdict was coming down and the Janes were freed.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. The Janes is ostensibly about the past, but the present and future of reproductive justice in the U.S. are very much the focus of the film as well. In recent months, American states have passed some of the most restrictive and punitive abortion measures on record.

In some ways, it feels worse than 50 years earlier, when even the Clergy Consultation Service, a network of religious leaders across the U.S., not only spoke out about abortion rights and body autonomy, but also helped people with unwanted pregnancies.

The bigger question and one that many people are asking is “Why?” Given that most Americans (some 61 per cent) support access to abortion and reproductive rights, the idea of turning back the clock is not only retrograde, but dystopian on an epic scale. Cui bono — who benefits?

One of the clearest indications is a landmark study called Turnaway, which the Atlantic reported on this month. The study assessed the socioeconomic impacts on people who sought an abortion and were turned away. The consequences: poverty, desperation and suffering — for both pregnant people and their families.

A recent article in Scientific American puts it bluntly: “The study found that, compared with women who received an abortion, those who wanted the procedure but were denied it fared worse in numerous aspects of their life, including financial situation, education and physical and mental health.”

In contrast, the Atlantic essay indicates that people who were able to have an abortion when they needed one had very different outcomes:

“The Turnaway Study also showed that abortion is a choice that women often make in order to take care of their family. Most of the women seeking an abortion were already mothers. In the years after they terminated a pregnancy, their kids were better off; they were more likely to hit their developmental milestones and less likely to live in poverty. Moreover, many women who had an abortion went on to have more children. Those pregnancies were much more likely to be planned, and those kids had better outcomes too.”

The Janes is not without horror stories (septic abortion wards, young women resorting to desperate measures like carbolic acid to end their pregnancies), but the most affecting feature of the film isn’t the darkness and the pain, but exactly its opposite. The kindness, generosity and courage of the people who came together to help each other. The idea that this would have to happen all over again is extremely hard to countenance, but women will do what they’ve always done. Organize, fight back and carry on.  [Tyee]

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