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Encore: Before Roe, the women of 'Jane' provided abortions for the women of Chicago


In the 1960s, an underground network of women in Chicago was formed to help women seeking abortions.


The group was known as Jane. At first, they connected women with doctors willing to break the law. Eventually, women in the collective trained to perform abortions themselves.

PFEIFFER: We're going to return to a story we first broadcast in 2018 that includes firsthand accounts of Jane, and this includes graphic descriptions that some listeners may find disturbing. Radio Diaries brings us the story.


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? Call Jane - and a phone number. So I called.


WALTER 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.

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.

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.

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. And then the cervix would be dilated. And then the instrument would be inserted into the uterus to remove the material.

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. 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: That 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. And so with two unmarked squad cars, we managed to follow our target, 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, looks like the blood had drained out of her face. And my partner took her by the arm. And a very stern voice said, did you just have an abortion? And she said, yes. And he said, where? And she led us to the door. The living room was filled with young women waiting for an abortion.

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.

CHANG: Six months after the arrests, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. The charges against Jane were dropped.


SCOTT: We all kind of scattered, went on to other things. I mean, we really thought the fact that it was legal would change things, that it would fade a lot as any kind of a social issue. But we were wrong. We were wrong.

PFEIFFER: The group, Jane, performed about 11,000 first- and second-trimester abortions before Roe v. Wade. No deaths of women were ever reported in connection with the service.

The story was produced by Nellie Gilles. You can hear more on the Radio Diaries podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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