When Abortion Was Illegal, Women Turned to the Jane Collective

By: Kate Morgan  | 
Jane Collective
Heather Booth, who started the Jane Collective, was a student in Chicago in 1965 when she helped a young woman find a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion. She believed it would be a one-off "act of goodwill." STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

In 1965, Heather Booth became the first "Jane." Booth, then a student at the University of Chicago, helped a friend's sister find a safe abortion at a time when the practice was illegal — both federally and in the state of Illinois.

Her work sparked a movement and a group that became known as "the Jane Collective." It was their work to help women get care that inspired the film "Call Jane," released in the U.S. Oct. 28, 2022, and featuring Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver and Kate Mara.


The Frightening Days of Back Alley Abortions

Rainey Horwitz is an M.D. student and sexual health educator who runs the popular Instagram account @sexplained.med. She says that, before Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973, "getting a safe abortion was not something that was easy or accessible. This was pre-medication abortion, when only surgical abortion was available."

Those surgical abortions were sometimes performed by practitioners who were "these kinds of sketchy, underground, poorly trained, just-trying-to-make-a-quick-buck abortionists," says Horwitz, who wrote about the Jane Collective for Arizona State University's Embryo Project Encyclopedia. "There were also licensed, trained physicians who were doing abortions very secretly," she adds, "for a larger amount of money."


Those who had "back alley" or self-inflicted abortions were putting their lives at risk. In 1965, the year the Janes formed, illegal abortion accounted for 17 percent of all pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

College students and other young women who couldn't afford a steep fee turned to the Jane Collective. "It was an Everywoman name," Laura Kaplan told The New York Times. Kaplan is an original member of the group who wrote a 1995 book about the Janes, called "The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service."


"Pregnant? Don't Want to Be? Call Jane."

Women in need found the Janes through fliers and ads that read: "Pregnant? Don't want to be? Call Jane." The collective "would advertise in underground newspapers and by word of mouth, and give you a contact number that you could call, essentially a hotline, and ask for Jane," says Horwitz. "They would counsel you about this unwanted pregnancy and give you the option of coming to obtain an abortion that was at a much more reasonable price. The Jane Collective essentially made abortion way more accessible for people who could not afford it."

It was all very hush-hush, adds Horwitz. "Secrecy was important because this was in a pre-Roe v. Wade time where getting an abortion was extremely illegal and punishable by the law."


To ensure secrecy and protect the privacy of patients, the operation had a number of clandestine elements. "They would have the patients come to a location that they called the front, which was an apartment where they would check you in and family could wait," says Horwitz. Then, patients were transported to a second location. "That really added another layer of security because, should the front get raided by police, the location where the woman was actually getting the procedure would be somewhere else."

At first, the Janes acted as go-betweens, connecting women with doctors who were willing to perform abortions. But soon, they began receiving training to perform the procedure themselves.

"What was unique about the Jane Collective is that they utilized people who were not formally medically trained, and gave them training with a doctor who knew how to do abortions, like an obstetrician or gynecologist," Horwitz explains. "They would teach them how to do proper, sanitary abortions, because it's really a pretty simple technique and can be taught to people without a formal medical degree."

That allowed the Janes to help even more women and lower the cost of the procedure from $500 to $100. Still, it was a risky enterprise. In 1972, seven Janes were arrested and charged. They faced years in prison, but the charges were dropped when Roe v. Wade was decided, before they went to trial.


Though Under Attack, Abortion Is Safer Today

In many ways, says Horwitz, things are very different for women seeking reproductive care today. Though the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization reversed the Roe v. Wade ruling, and abortion access is limited or banned in a number of states, "we do live in a world now where medication abortion is an available option," she says. The Janes' work to get healthcare to every woman who needs it, she adds, continues today.

"The main obstacle is getting people access to this very well-tolerated and safe form of abortion," she says. "The ways that people are connecting and informing themselves about abortion now are through social media, instead of the word of mouth and underground magazine route the Janes used in the early 1970s. But advocacy groups are still doing a great job at spreading the word about why this is such an issue."


The story of the Jane Collective — including the fictionalized version now in theatres — is more relevant now than ever, says Horwitz. "History informs and sometimes guides the present; our past informs our future," she says. "It is definitely important for us to reflect on how things have been historically, to try not to make the same mistakes as in the past."