When a secret group of Chicago women defied the law to provide 11,000 safe abortions

From June 8, the HBO documentary ‘The Janes’ takes viewers back to the pre-Roe v. Wade era, and a little-known underground movement that kept women out of septic wards and morgue

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Members of the Janes (aka the Service) in 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)
    Members of the Janes (aka the Service) in 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)
  • Chicago Police Department mug shots of two members of the Janes (aka the Service) upon their arrest in May 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)
    Chicago Police Department mug shots of two members of the Janes (aka the Service) upon their arrest in May 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)
  • Members of the Janes (aka the Service) in August 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)
    Members of the Janes (aka the Service) in August 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)
  • Chicago Police Department mug shots of two members of the Janes (aka the Service) upon their arrest in May 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)
    Chicago Police Department mug shots of two members of the Janes (aka the Service) upon their arrest in May 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)

In May 1972, seven young women were arrested by Chicago homicide detectives and each charged with 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. Had the women — some of them mothers of young children — been convicted of the felonies, they could have each faced up to 110 years in prison.

In 1972, abortion was still banned or severely restricted in most of the United States. That changed with the landmark January 1973 US Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which struck down many federal and state anti-abortion laws and provided constitutional protection to a women’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.

Despite knowing the risks involved, however, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the arrested women and some 20 other others defied Illinois law for several years to arrange for or directly provide illegal abortions to approximately 11,000 women in the Chicago area.

This secret group called itself “The Service.” A new documentary, “The Janes,” takes it title from the code name used by the group’s women. They placed ads in local papers and put up flyers with a phone number and the simple instruction: “Pregnant? Call Jane.” It didn’t take long for women and girls in desperate need of an abortion to catch on and pick up the phone.

Many of the members of the Service were Jewish, including its founder, Heather Booth, and three of the seven women who were arrested. The Service was an outgrowth of abortion counseling provided by Booth, who, spurred on by Jewish values of social justice, was already a civil rights activist. She later became a national organizer for other progressive causes.

The June 8 premiere of “The Janes” on HBO could not be more timely, as, according to a leaked draft opinion, the current US Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe and leave abortion rights to be decided by the individual states.

“No person with a uterus of childbearing age today was born during the pre-Roe era, so we have to rely on these stories and testimonies. These rights are taken for granted. The film paints a pretty stark portrait of who loses out the most, who is most disproportionately harmed when abortion laws vary from state to state,” said Tia Lessin, who directed the film with Emma Pildes.

Chicago Police Department mug shots of two members of the Janes (aka the Service) upon their arrest in May 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)

“The Janes” provides a chilling picture of the era in which countless women who were not in a position to continue a pregnancy resorted to self-induced or back-alley abortions. As a result, hospitals’ septic wards were constantly full and it was not uncommon for women to die from internal injuries or infections.

“I think that we show that when abortion is illegal, women don’t stop getting abortions. It just means that they stop getting safe ones. We need to take that in, no matter what side people are on. It’s just a fact,” the New York-based Lessin said in a recent conversation with The Times of Israel.

The film includes interviews with 17 of the Janes. Among others who appear are a couple of supportive husbands, a doctor and nurse who worked in the septic abortion ward at Cook County Hospital, and those who helped raise funds to cover the fees and expenses that the clients couldn’t afford.

“It takes a village to run an abortion service,” said Lessin.

The “talking heads” segments are interspersed with highly evocative archival stills and 8mm film footage from Chicago during the politically and socially volatile late 1960s and early 1970s.

Chicago Police Department mug shots of two members of the Janes (aka the Service) upon their arrest in May 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)

Lessin and Pildes chose to focus the film on the lived experience of people during the era, when the pill was very new and birth control was unavailable to unmarried women.

Booth, the originator of the Service, recalled in an interview with The Times of Israel that one night she came back to her University of Chicago dorm after evening curfew because she had been consoling a friend who had broken up with her boyfriend.

“I was searched for birth control pills. I was outraged that they thought that I would have birth control pills, and I was outraged that they searched me for them. It was a very different time,” she said.

Heather Booth (Emily Goodstein)

In 1965, a friend approached Booth, then an undergraduate student, for help when his sister was pregnant and suicidal over her situation. Booth reached out to the medical arm of the civil rights movement, which referred her to Dr. Theodore R. Mason Howard. Howard performed the abortion for the friend’s sister, and later for other young women who approached Booth after hearing about her through the grapevine. When Howard was arrested, Booth found other safe abortion providers.

In conversation with the The Times of Israel from her home in Washington, DC, Booth said she doesn’t remember how many women she helped in this way, and she never told anyone about it until much later.

“Because it wasn’t legal, I didn’t discuss it,” she said.

Booth said she didn’t want to be arrested, but wasn’t afraid of it, after having been arrested in Mississippi in 1964 while peacefully marching with a “Freedom Now” sign as part of a voter registration drive.

By 1968, all the work of intake, making referrals, and follow up was becoming too much for Booth to handle on her own. What began as “an act of kindness and caring toward another human being,” snowballed into a busy abortion service.

“It only dawned on me over time how big an issue this was,” Booth says in the film.

“I pulled back for personal reasons. I was in graduate school, I was having my first child, I was working full-time, and I had a very active movement life. It was too much, and more and more people were coming through. It was time consuming,” Booth said.

Booth recruited other women to take over, and by 1969, the Service was formed. These women weren’t interested in just publicizing the abortion issue, collecting data on it, or fighting for legalization. They wanted to get something done and make a direct and immediate impact on women’s lives. Some of the Janes had themselves undergone horrible illegal abortions and wanted to prevent other women from having to go through the same.

Members of the Janes (aka the Service) in August 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)

The Janes devised a clandestine system whereby they set up an intake and waiting room (“the front”) in one location, and an abortion procedure site (“the place”) in another. The always-changing locations were the women’s own homes, or those of their friends. The Janes took turns staffing the front and the place, and shuttling patients between the two locations by car.

The women kept a list of physicians they could call upon to perform the abortions or provide backup if there were medical complications. However, from the film it appears that the main abortionist was a man named “Mike,” who was initially recruited by Booth. The women of the Service assumed Mike, who was highly skilled and possessed a good bedside manner, was a doctor. They were shocked to eventually discover he was a construction worker who had trained to perform abortions by apprenticing a physician who came in from Detroit on weekends.

Mike, who was looking to get out of the illegal abortion business, was willing to train the women of the Service to perform abortions themselves. The women figured that if Mike, who wasn’t a doctor, could do it, they could too.

This ratcheted up the danger, but most of the women remained undeterred.

A member of the Janes (aka the Service) in August 1972. (Courtesy of HBO)

“I wouldn’t say they were reckless, but they were committed. They were mostly white middle class women who had a different conception of consequences. They understood. They weren’t dumb. They understood the potential for consequences, but they also understood in some ways that perhaps their white privilege might protect them. And as one of them says in the film, they had gotten away with it for so long that they got lulled into this sense of complacency,” Lessin said.

“It was hardcore, but it was of the times. They came out of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement and the student movement, and civil disobedience and resisting authority was a thing. They were breaking the law, but they were doing their part to save lives,” she said.

“The Janes” also introduces another group that defied the law to help women obtain safe abortions. The Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancies (CCSPP) was founded by the baptist Reverend Spencer Parsons, Dean of the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago, who joined with likeminded Protestant and Jewish clergy.

A member of the Janes (aka the Service) in November 1969. (Courtesy of HBO)

One member of the CCSPP, Rabbi Max Ticktin ended up in legal trouble. While Ticktin was on a trip to Israel in 1970, his office at the University of Chicago Hillel was raided by police. Ticktin was accused of conspiracy to to commit abortion for having referred a woman to a Michigan doctor. There was general outrage, and the CCSPP stood by Ticktin. Eventually the Michigan district attorney dropped the charges.

The story of the Service has been portrayed in two scripted feature films, “Call Jane” (2022), and “Ask for Jane” (2018). When asked about the advantages of covering this important story through documentary film, Lessin said that the story of the Janes was so compelling that it didn’t need to be fictionalized.

“It’s a great story. Aside from the politics of it, this is cloak and dagger… They had this tacit organization, they were sneaky, they were artful, they were infinitely resourceful. They could have been robbing banks or joining the Weather Underground. But here they were helping women in need,” Lessin said.

‘The Janes’ filmmaker Tia Lessin (Courtesy)

“It’s all about story — fiction or nonfiction. In this case the story was kind of written for us by real events. We didn’t have to embellish in any way. We didn’t have to invent characters. Truth can be stranger than fiction. All we had to do was get out of the way and use our craft to help tell the story in a compelling way,” Lessin said.

Half a century after Roe, a recent Pew survey found a majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Did the first Jane, Heather Booth, ever think that the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy would be in danger again?

“Initially I didn’t think we would still have this fight, but I also — as horrified as I am about it — am not shocked by it. Because I know there are partisan, religious faith-influenced political forces driving this and I know the struggle continues,” Booth said.

For more on ‘Roe,’ listen to this Times Will Tell episode:

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