'Call Jane': How Chicago and suburban women defied authority to provide abortions in the 1970s

  • This 1972 photo shows members of "Jane," an underground collective of Chicago-area activists who provided illegal abortions to more than 10,000 women. A documentary about their mission will debut June 8 on HBO.

    This 1972 photo shows members of "Jane," an underground collective of Chicago-area activists who provided illegal abortions to more than 10,000 women. A documentary about their mission will debut June 8 on HBO. Courtesy of Martha Scott/HBO

  • Police mug shots show members of the Janes after they were arrested for performing illegal abortions.

    Police mug shots show members of the Janes after they were arrested for performing illegal abortions. Courtesy of HBO

  • Jeanne Galatzer-Levy

    Jeanne Galatzer-Levy

  • Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes and film participants Heather Booth and Judith Arcana attend a Q&A after the virtual premiere of "The Janes," an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

    Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes and film participants Heather Booth and Judith Arcana attend a Q&A after the virtual premiere of "The Janes," an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

  • A few members of the Jane collective hang out in August 1972.

    A few members of the Jane collective hang out in August 1972. Courtesy of HBO

 
 
Updated 5/9/2022 6:25 AM

Fifty years ago, Abby Pariser and Sheila Smith were caring for women undergoing illegal abortions at a secret Chicago location when homicide detectives came calling.

"Five big, tall men barged in and started yelling, 'Where's the doctor? Where's the doctor?' They were running to the window to see if the doctor was holding onto the window sill outside, which was 11 stories up,'" Pariser recounted.

 

But there was no male doctor behind the covert operation. Instead, there was "Jane" -- an underground collective of female activists that offered safe abortions for desperate Chicago-area women.

Police handcuffed Jane members and patients alike and brought them to the closest precinct.

"It wasn't like I was terrified in that moment," recalled Smith, then a University of Chicago student. "But I foresaw a bad future coming out of this,"

Performing an abortion was a crime in Illinois then, punishable by up to three years in prison.

Jane defendants were on tenterhooks until the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in the Roe v. Wade case on Jan. 22, 1973.

Now, however, a leaked document indicates the likelihood justices will reverse Roe.

Pariser, who lived in Wheaton in the 1970s, rallied for abortion rights last week.

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"We can't believe were still doing this," she said. "It's so ridiculous. None of us are at risk of getting pregnant anymore, but the fight goes on for our daughters and granddaughters."

A documentary about their mission, called "The Janes," will debut June 8 on HBO.

Purple pills

Abortion was banned across the U.S. in the 1960s with narrow exceptions.

"Therapeutic" abortions were permitted to save the life of the mother, "but women had to go through quite a horrific process to get one," University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign history professor Leslie J. Reagan explained.

The process included interviews with a committee of doctors, plus gynecological and sometimes psychiatric exams. The cost excluded all but wealthy women.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

To avoid detection, some clandestine abortion services would pick up unaccompanied women, blindfold them and drive to a secret location, a harrowing experience.

Frequently people tried their own remedies: "turpentine, Clorox, knitting needles -- all kinds of different things," Reagan said. A "purple pill" purported to end pregnancies burned vaginal tissue instead.

A Cook County Hospital special ward for victims of botched abortions served about 5,000 patients a year, she said.

'Call Jane'

In 1965, U of C student and civil rights activist Heather Booth tracked down a doctor to help a pregnant friend get an abortion.

"And someone else called, then another, then another. I told people when they called they should ask for Jane," Booth recounted in the Jewish Women's Archive.

Through word-of-mouth and discreet advertising, Jane (also known as the Abortion Counseling Service) grew.

"Pregnant? Don't want to be? Call Jane at 643-3844," a historical poster reads.

Jeanne Galatzer-Levy was 20 when she joined the collective. "Abortion was the front line. That was where women were dying," she explained.

At first, Jane organizers linked patients with doctors who would perform illegal abortions, but the fees of $500 were exorbitant. They negotiated with one practitioner for a lower rate but later learned that, although proficient, he wasn't a medical doctor.

"That brought a great moment of crisis," Smith said, but it resulted in Jane members' training to do abortions themselves.

The collective charged $100 but accepted less and never turned away a woman who couldn't pay.

Clients were screened by phone, then Janes provided counseling in their homes.

"We were trusting (the client) with who we were and where we lived. And she was trusting us with her life," Pariser recounted.

"I explained not only what we were going to do, but how we would do it," providing eye-opening sex education at a time when it was rare.

Jane operated out of rented apartments mainly in Oak Park and Hyde Park. The first stop was "the Front," where Janes checked patients in. Then women would be driven to a second location, "the Place," for the actual procedure.

Clients' stories

Jane is estimated to have provided abortions for more than 11,000 women, with no deaths.

Smith remembered a pregnant single mother of two who told her, "It took me years to get off welfare, and I don't ever want to go back on welfare."

"For her," Smith said, "it very much was an economics thing."

Jane member Martha Scott said the thing that sticks in her mind was "the ordinariness of the people who came through. I remember a woman that was in her 40s. She had four kids and said, 'I'm not going to do this again.' And she was not atypical."

Many clients were teenagers. One 16-year-old, who was deaf, came with her mother. They told Scott she had been raped. "She felt she didn't have any alternative," Scott said.

After New York legalized abortion in 1970, 13,000 Illinois women who could afford it traveled there for the procedure over 1971 and 1972, Reagan noted.

But clients with limited means -- Black women from the South and West sides, and white women from northwest Chicago neighborhoods -- kept calling Jane.

At the Front, Janes offered babysitting services and snacks for clients. At the Place, they used pretty bed sheets and held patients' hands.

"The whole point was to make it not terrible for people, to make it OK at some level," said Scott, who had four young children at the time.

Busted, handcuffed

The idea of getting caught "was subliminal," Pariser said. "It didn't occur to us that there would be somebody who was anti-abortion coming to us."

In fact, the Abortion Counseling Service was "an open secret" and counted police officers or their relations among their patients.

On May 3, 1972, Galatzer-Levy was busy at the Front. "There were seven or eight little kids running around the place," she remembered.

Someone knocked, and at the door "were some of tallest men I have ever seen in my life."

She told the waiting clients, "These are the police. You do not have to say anything."

"And they arrested me. It was a madhouse."

Over at headquarters, Jane organizers were fingerprinted and questioned.

In the holding cell, other arrestees scrutinized the Janes with curiosity. "They looked at us and said, 'What are you in for?'" Pariser recounted.

"We said, 'Doing abortions,' and they said, 'Get out!'"

Seven Janes faced multiple charges for performing abortions and conspiracy to commit abortion.

At her arraignment, a frightened Galatzer-Levy smiled nervously at the judge. "Do you think this is funny?" he barked.

After the Roe decision, all charges were dropped.

"It felt like a great freedom when Roe passed," Smith said. "The women who came were often so thankful when they got their abortions.

"I just find it horrifying 50 years later the Supreme Court is planning to take this right away."

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