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Even when abortion was illegal, people obtained the procedure at rates that are similar to those of today. Some self-aborted, while others got abortions from licensed doctors or even non-professionals. In 1969, Heather Booth, a University of Chicago student, founded an underground abortion referral network. This group, which consisted of Chicago housewives and students, became known as the Jane Collective. The group began as a referral service for those seeking abortions but eventually grew into a network that provided counseling, abortion services, and in some cases, childcare to women of all races and socio-economic statuses. Women found out about the collective through word of mouth or advertisements in newspapers that read “Need Help? Call Jane.” In 1971, members of the collective learned that one of their doctors, who had been performing up to 20 abortions each day, was not a licensed medical professional. Soon after, members of the collective taught themselves to perform abortions. Performing abortions themselves allowed the Jane Collective to better control costs and offer abortions on a sliding scale. Throughout the four years that the collective was in operation, the group performed around 11,000 abortions—and with no fatalities. In 1972, police arrested seven Jane members after raiding the apartment where they operated. However, before the case went to trial, the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalized abortion and all charges were dropped. Fifty years later, the Jane Collective still has a great deal to teach us, especially in our new post-Roe landscape. To learn more about the Janes and see the kinds of activism they still inspire, check out this website about a production of Paula Kamen’s play Jane: Abortion and the Underground at Middlebury College in January 2020. Or watch The Janes, streaming on HBO.

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