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The abortion underground and what lessons can be learned from the Jane Collective

Activist Heather Booth and the Jane Collective, an underground abortion service, provided thousands of women with abortions before <em>Roe v. Wade</em>. Here, she speaks in 2015 during the memorial service for civil rights leader Julian Bond.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
/
AP
Activist Heather Booth and the Jane Collective, an underground abortion service, provided thousands of women with abortions before Roe v. Wade. Here, she speaks in 2015 during the memorial service for civil rights leader Julian Bond.

What Sunny Chapman experienced roughly 53 years ago in a secret Chicago apartment while blindfolded exemplifies what life was like for women seeking an abortion before Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling guaranteeing the right to the procedure.

It was 1969 and Chapman needed an abortion. The then-19-year-old activist had been working for the Chicago Seed, an underground newspaper, when she spotted an ad that said "Pregnant? Need Help? Call Jane."

Jane was actually the Jane Collective, a group of activists who banded together in the 1960s to provide abortions to thousands of women at a time when the procedure was still outlawed.

"It's a fairly painful procedure, and on a bed in an apartment, and, you know, they did a great job, but this is not how it should be," Chapman told NPR over the phone. "Women should be able to go to medical clinics openly and go into a room after their procedure and be covered with a blanket and have a nice hot cup of tea. And, you know, it shouldn't be this crazy thing. I mean, can you imagine if you were a young woman doing something like this? Would you have the courage as a 19-year-old woman?"

Sunny Chapman was one of thousands of women who sought out the Jane Collective for an abortion in the 1960s and 1970s.
/ Sunny Chapman
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Sunny Chapman
Sunny Chapman was one of thousands of women who sought out the Jane Collective for an abortion in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chapman fears questions like this may soon consume countless women as Americans wait to see if the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe holds — it was published by Politico on Monday night and was confirmed by Chief Justice John Roberts as authentic Tuesday.

If the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe. v. Wade, a series of "trigger laws" would kick in and automatically ban or curtail abortion in 13 states: Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

⁠In the likelihood that Roe v. Wade is overturned, Heather Booth, the founder of the Jane Collective, has two pieces of advice: "We need to come together. We need to organize."

"My reaction is that the struggle continues," Booth told NPR over the phone Tuesday when asked about her reaction to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion. "That every tool we have, from protests to support for the people who are in need, who are looking for a full life and determining the most intimate decision of a person's life about when or whether to have a child or how many children to have, this decision needs to be sustained. So that includes service and support for those people in need, including reestablishing that underground that I was part of in the pre-Roe years."

A brief look at the abortion underground then and now

Booth was a student at the University of Chicago when a friend approached her in 1965 needing help getting an abortion, Rainey Horwitz wrote in her research paper "The Jane Collective (1969–1973)."

After helping her friend find a doctor willing to take the risk of performing the procedure, Booth was inundated with requests from other women needing help.

By the late 1960s, "the Jane Collective provided health care, counseling, and abortion services to thousands of women in Chicago" with the help of volunteers, Horwitz wrote.

At its peak, the Jane Collective was performing abortions four days a week and normally serving 10 women daily. In the seven years the group was active, it performed about 11,000 first- and second-trimester abortions.

As the Jane Collective grew, so did the number of law enforcement eyes on it.

"In the spring of 1972, police raided an apartment on the South Side of Chicago," states the Sundance Film Festival on its website in promoting the new documentary on the Jane Collective called The Janes. "Seven women were arrested and charged."

Roughly six months after the women were arrested, on Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in the United States with their decision in Roe v. Wade. The charges against the women were dropped.

Today, the abortion underground "is a very kind of rough and lumpy umbrella" encompassing numerous groups trying to get women access to procedures and pills used for self-induced abortions, journalist Jessica Bruder, who recently wrote an Atlantic cover story about the abortion underground, told NPR in April.

Heather Booth, the founder of the Jane Collective, in 2009.
Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images
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CQ Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images
Heather Booth, the founder of the Jane Collective, in 2009.

The groups range from activists in Mexico who have helped women get misoprostol, which is taken for stomach ulcers and can also induce abortions when used properly, and Aid Access, "which is a telemedicine service that provides the pills to women in all 50 states, regardless of whether a state has banned them," Bruder said.

Then there's the group Abortion Delivered.

"They recently bulletproofed two vans. So they're based up in Minnesota, but they're planning on using these vans just outside the Texas border to make it easier for people to access clinics who would usually have to travel maybe far out of Texas," Bruder added. "So one of the vans will be providing, basically, there'll be a doctor who is able to provide manual vacuum-aspiration abortions in that van. It will have a table and an ultrasound and all that. And the other van will have somebody who can prescribe and administer abortion pills."

What the future holds

Horwitz was not surprised to see the Supreme Court draft opinion on Monday evening.

Having grown up in St. Louis, where she is a medical student, Horwitz said the state has lived in a "post-Roe" world for some time.

There are very limited options for women seeking in-person abortion procedures in Missouri, Horwitz told NPR over the phone on Tuesday.

"It's just so interesting, because, I mean, it is really history repeating itself. The Jane Collective really did fill a niche that was not being addressed by the medical field, similar to what's going on today. And I think what the Jane Collective really exemplified is that abortions are not medically complex procedures, especially now in 2022, when so many people can have the option to undergo a medication abortion and have to completely eliminate those risks of those surgical abortions," said Horwitz, who also runs the popular sex-ed Instagram account sexplained.med.

These pills, which are "very safe," have helped lessen the need for underground groups, Carole Joffe, a sociologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies abortion, told NPR over the phone on Tuesday.

Abortion pills — not surgical procedures — made up 54% of abortions in 2020 and were the primary choice in the U.S. for the first time since the Food and Drug Administration approved the abortion drug mifepristone more than two decades ago.

The Supreme Court is expected to officially rule on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, a case that involves a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks, before the end of its term in late June or early July. The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization could overturn or greatly weaken Roe v. Wade.

NPR's Sarah McCammon and Terry Gross contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fernando Alfonso III
Fernando Alfonso III is a supervising editor who manages a team of editors and reporters responsible for powering NPR.org.