What Did Abortion Look Like Before Roe v. Wade?

Heather Booth—founder of the Jane Collective—in the study of her home in Washington, D.C., on May 27, 2022. Booth was a student in Chicago in 1965 when she received a call from a friend in need. His sister, he said, was pregnant but not ready to have a child. She was “nearly suicidal.” Drawing on her contacts in the city, Booth helped the young woman find a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion—in what she believed would be a one-off “act of goodwill.” (Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

What did abortion look like, in the pre-Roe era? If you lived in Chicago, there was a number you could call—and a woman named Jane would answer.

On the newest episode of On the Issues podcast, Heather Booth—founder of the Jane Collective, which helped women find abortions in Chicago prior to Roe—joined host Michele Goodwin to unpack what we can learn from our pre-Roe past, in our current post-Roe era. (Listen to the episode here.)

“In 1965 a friend was pregnant and nearly suicidal and wanted an abortion. I was asked to find a doctor for her. I really didn’t know exactly how to approach it, but I went to the medical arm of the civil rights movement, the Medical Committee for Human Rights, and found a doctor, T. R. M. Howard, who I only learned later had been a great civil rights leader in Mississippi and came to Chicago when his name appeared on a Klan death list.

I didn’t know that at the time, but I contacted him, made the connection with my friend, the procedure was successful, and I actually thought that was the end of it. But then word spread to others, and I got another call, I made that connection with Dr. Howard, and word spread and I realized I needed to set up a system.”

Over time, Booth explained, demand grew so urgent that the women of Jane learned to perform abortions themselves.

“The women of Jane performed 11,000 abortions between 1965 and 1973,” Booth said. “And when people take action we can save lives, we can make a difference, we can change the laws and change the future. And we have to take action as these very precious freedoms are under threat right now.”

Word spread and I realized I needed to set up a system.

Heather Booth, founder of the Jane Collective

Here we are, more than 50 years later. In some ways we are back where we were: Women (and some men) helping women find safe abortions, albeit this time with the benefits of abortion pills and better communications technology. Nevertheless, that’s where we are again, given the Dobbs decision. 

And now, we are bracing for more states, as they start their 2023 legislative sessions, to try to require internet providers to block abortion pill websites; and zealous attorneys general and local prosecutors are working to bring charges against the networks of abortion pill providers—a conviction in Texas for this carries a life sentence.

But these elected officials do so at their own peril: The 2022 midterm elections proved that women—especially young women—condition their vote on a candidate’s position on abortion and women’s rights. Abortion rights advocates won all six ballot measures on abortion this year, in red states and blue states alike. And advocates are already planning for 2024, promoting similar ballot measures in states where voters can add measures to the ballot by collecting signatures.

Dive into the Jane Collective origins by listening to the episode below. Or head to the episode landing page for a full transcript, recommended reading—plus a special tribute to Dorothy Pitman Hughes.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.