Whenever abortion is difficult or impossible to access, you’ll find women like the “Janes,” who in the years before Roe v. Wade gave desperate women a safer choice.
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There’s a reason most people don’t know about the underground network of non-medical women in New York City who are volunteering their homes to help women living in states where access to abortion is severely restricted beyond the first trimester.
It’s the same reason most people living in Chicago in the late 1960s didn’t know about Jane, a group of roughly 100 women who in the years before Roe v. Wade used code names and street-corner pickups to arrange as many as 11,000 abortions.
It was a secret.
“An open secret, but a secret nonetheless,” said Judith Arcana, who like many of the other “Janes” was in her 20s and living in Chicago when she joined the all-volunteer group a half-century ago. “Even just helping someone plan to get an abortion was a felony, so people weren’t supposed to know about Jane until they needed it. Then they’d ask around and find us.”
Before the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, stories about early underground abortion groups like Jane were not generally part of everyday conversations. Today, however, it seems more and more people concerned about the escalating war against reproductive rights are looking to the Janes, and other pre-Roe activists, as a way to prepare for the reality that if Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed, Roe v. Wade could be reversed, allowing states to again criminalize medical providers and women who seek abortions.
If this were to occur, women in as many as 23 states would likely lose access to abortion in the weeks and months that follow, according to Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. In four of these states, “trigger laws” designed to take effect automatically in the event of Roe’s reversal would immediately make abortion illegal.
In Louisiana, one of the trigger-law states, the punishment for anyone who performs an abortion or aids a woman in having one would be up to 10 years in jail, and a fine of up to $100,000.
Yet for Bear Atwood, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in Mississippi, another trigger-law state, there’s “no question” Roe’s repeal would lead to a community of new Janes and under-ground networks even more extensive than the ones that already carefully and quietly exist in states like Texas, Ohio, Arizona, Michigan, Alabama and South Carolina, where abortion restriction laws have shut down many women’s clinics.
“Poor women, women of color, anyone unable or afraid to travel out of their state to seek abortion care—these were the women Jane helped, and [for whom] the overturn of Roe would have a devastating impact,” Atwood said.
“Here in Mississippi, it’s already bad enough. We have just one abortion provider, which is too far and too expensive for many women to [access]. Our other reality is that if Roe is repealed, Mississippi’s trigger ban would likely cause the immediate states around us to move to make abortion illegal, so Mississippi women who wanted an abortion would have to travel to Florida, Georgia or somewhere up north. That would make a safe, legal abortion an impossibility for poor women and for many in the middle class.”
“Poor women, women of color, anyone unable or afraid to travel out of their state to seek abortion care—these were the women Jane helped, and [for whom] the overturn of Roe would have a devastating impact.”
A desire to prevent a “nearly suicidal” friend in 1965 from using a coat hanger or knitting needle, or from having a potentially deadly back-alley abortion, was what motivated then-University of Chicago undergrad Heather Booth to start what would become Jane.
At first, she and the handful of friends who made up Jane simply referred women to medical providers they had screened and approved. But as the demand for both referrals and Jane’s membership grew, some Janes received medical training to perform abortions themselves.
The common procedure then was dilation and curettage, or D&C, which involved dilating the woman’s cervix and using a curette to scrape away the contents of her uterus. But, as Arcana notes, actually doing “the medical stuff wasn’t for everyone.
“Before any procedure [a woman and I] would just sit together and talk through the process,” Arcana remembers. “Counseling was a big part of what we did. But I was also taught by a skilled [abortion provider] and, when needed, induced miscarriages … It was an intense time.”
Statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization focused on advancing sexual and reproductive rights and health, estimate that 200,000 to 1.2 million women in the U.S. had illegal abortions each year, often in unsafe conditions, in the 1950s and ’60s.
The thousands who turned to Jane found women willing to risk arrest and jail time to help them.
“We provided safe, caring, but not legal abortions, because there was a need, and because we believed what so many others believe—that it’s a woman’s right to choose what to do and not do with her life, including deciding when it’s time to have a child,” said Booth, who today works as a political consultant for Democracy Partners in Washington, D.C.
“We provided safe, caring, but not legal abortions, because there was a need, and because we believed what so many others believe—that it’s a woman’s right to choose what to do and not do with her life, including deciding when it’s time to have a child.”
For 69-year-old Winnette Willis, a single mother of a toddler in the early 1970s, Jane provided “a lifeline.” She found the group from a flyer taped to the wall of an L train station. It read, Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.
“I can see myself back then, a 21-year-old walking around the kitchen in my apartment, being terrified. I already had one baby I was raising by myself. When I got pregnant again, I thought, Not only am I responsible for feeding and dressing my child, but for shaping who this guy is going to become. I was scared to do that for one baby. I knew I couldn’t do it for two.”
A police raid in 1972 led to seven of the Janes being arrested. In the police wagon, one Jane ripped up and ate the parts of index cards that listed the names and addresses of women who had asked them for help. The group made headlines as the “Abortion Seven.” But before the case went to trial, Roe was decided and, with abortion legal, the charges were dropped.
A police raid in 1972 led to seven of the Janes being arrested. In the police wagon, one Jane ripped up and ate the parts of index cards that listed the names and addresses of women who had asked them for help.
Ask for Jane, an independent film created by, produced by and starring actor Cait Cortelyou, a Planned Parenthood advocate, will illustrate the Janes’ work and arrest when it’s released later this year. Arcana, who served as a consulting producer to ensure historical accuracy, will make a cameo appearance.
“It’s these kinds of stories that teach women today how to be fierce,” said Katrina Maczen-Cantrell, executive director of Women’s Health Specialists (WHS), a women-run, independent feminist clinic in California that began in 1971 with a group of “speculum-passing hippies” sitting in a circle and examining their vaginas. “These early feminists taught us how to stand up and speak up for ourselves. They showed us through their actions that we have power over our bodies, and to determine our own futures.”
For Maczen-Cantrell, one of those inspiring early feminists is Carol Downer, who today serves on the WHS board. In the early 1970s, Downer was teaching women in California how to perform a menstrual extraction (ME) using a device made out of a Mason jar, some clear tubing, a syringe and a soft, insertable, hollow plastic tube called a Karman cannula.
Based on a device they saw being used by illegal abortion provider and Karman cannula inventor Harvey Karman, Downer and fellow activist Lorraine Rothman designed their ME kit to suction out the menses of a nonpregnant woman, or to clean out the uterus of a newly pregnant one. Their desire was that it be used by women, on other women, with a minimal amount of training and in the privacy of home.
A version of this suction device is what most clinics use to perform a first-trimester abortion today.
“The importance of menstrual extraction is that this knowledge is already out within the wider community of women, that it can be obtained independently and that it can be used independently,” said Downer, now 85.
“With an ME kit, a woman ideally doesn’t have to find an underground community to use it,” Downer adds, “because the knowledge already exists, demystifying the procedure and putting choice into women’s hands.”
The Women’s Health Specialists website provides instructions on how to make an ME kit, and an internet search shows that those working in today’s abortion undergrounds often use menstrual extraction, as well as herbal teas and tinctures. Herbal abortions call for ingredients like mugwort, cotton root bark, pennyroyal, blue and black cohosh and angelica. If measured wrong, some of these herbs are lethal.
“I worry about the young girls, especially, who turn to the internet and find recipes for herbal remedies that can be really dangerous,” Arcana said. “At the same time as an ingredient like pennyroyal can give you an abortion, a dosage that is too high can also kill you.”
“I worry about the young girls, especially, who turn to the internet and find recipes for herbal remedies that can be really dangerous. At the same time as an ingredient like pennyroyal can give you an abortion, a dosage that is too high can also kill you.”
A look at the history of abortion in the U.S. shows that women who are determined to end an unwanted pregnancy will go to extreme measures when necessary, swallowing lye, overdosing on vitamin C and even jumping off buildings.
It’s the commonness of this kind of desperation that Arcana finds particularly chilling when she thinks about the possibility of Kavanaugh, as a member of the Supreme Court, casting the decisive vote overturning Roe and having control over the laws that affect women’s and girls’ futures.
Unlike retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy—who in 1992 and 2016 upheld the core principles of Roe and cited abortion as part of the constitutional right to privacy—Kavanaugh has a record of speaking out against a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. In 2017, he ruled in the minority for the Trump administration, which was blocking the abortion of a 17-year-old immigrant who was abused in her home country by her parents before coming alone to the U.S. The girl had fled, she said, with the dream of becoming a nurse. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the administration on her behalf, she was finally able to get an abortion.
Booth—who remembers when former President George H. W. Bush was an active Planned Parenthood supporter and his father, former Sen. Prescott Bush, treasurer of the American Birth Control League—believes it’s important to recognize that not all Republicans are as anti-woman as those who make up the Trump administration. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted just after Kennedy’s retirement announcement shows that nearly three-quarters of American voters, including a majority of Republicans, do not want Roe overturned. That’s the highest percentage ever in the poll’s history.
“Attitudes have changed since the pre-Roe days,” Booth asserts, “and there are millions of people who share the view that keeping abortion legal and safe is of highest priority. We also need to vote [in November] for people who will keep it legal and safe. And while all this is going on, we need to continue to look for ways to support women and the positive choices they make for their lives.”
One of these ways would be to make the abortion pill mifepristone available over-the-counter, or at the very least more accessible than it is in the U.S. today.
Since being approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000, the use of mifepristone has quickly grown to make up 45 percent of early abortions in the U.S. It’s been proven to be an extremely safe and effective abortion method when used up to the 10th week of pregnancy. However, the restrictions on which doctors and clinics can administer it have made it as inaccessible as surgical abortions in many states.
Earlier this year, a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that since women can take mifepristone at home, rather than in the presence of a health care provider or at a health care facility, restrictions limiting its access should be lifted.
“Those in the underground are already illegally getting [this medication] and disbursing it, but it would be so much better and safer—so much more righteous—if women could obtain it legally and easily,” Arcana said.
One of the results of greater availability of mifepristone might be a lesser need for organizations like New York City’s Haven Coalition.
A nonprofit with no physical address or listed telephone number, the Haven is a group of 100 or so volunteers who provide free overnight stays in their homes to women who travel to New York for an abortion, often because it is the most accessible of the seven states in the Northeast in which a legal second-trimester abortion, up to 24 weeks, can be obtained. But a two-night hospital or clinic stay is generally required.
The Haven is often included in conversations about today’s current abortion underground. But whether the need for its volunteers wanes or grows isn’t one of coordinator Karen Duda’s primary concerns:
“We’re part of a movement that has the ability to make both an immediate and lifelong impact on women’s lives. We’ll be here even if there’s just one woman who needs us to help her get an abortion and take control of her life.”