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History of The Jane Collective & Abortion


the Jane Collective

Until Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, abortion was illegal. Despite this, women had abortions--and at rates similar to today. Some self-aborted, while others obtained 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 women 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 was not licensed, though he had been performing up to 20 abortions a day. Soon after, members of the collective taught themselves to perform abortions, which cut costs from up to $1000--equivalent to $6,500 today--to approximately $100. Performing the 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. The story of Jane continues to offer many lessons for thinking about abortion politics, reproductive justice, and women’s liberation-- and these lessons are shared in Paula Kamen’s play Jane: Abortion and the Underground. 

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How and Why Abortion Became “Wrong”

The Move Toward Legalization: A Snapshot

Since Roe

Contrary to popular belief, abortions were as frequent in the 1800s as they are today. Local advertisements for “clinics for ladies” where “menstrual irregularities” could be treated were common (Luker, 69). In 1871, the American Medical Association (AMA) found that 20 percent of all pregnancies were aborted. Women at this time did not believe that they were doing anything wrong because abortions that occurred before the “quickening”--the moment when fetal movement is first felt by the pregnant woman and typically occurs 13 to 16 weeks into pregnancy-- were morally blameless (*


In 1859, the AMA passed a resolution that condemned inducing abortions (Luker, 70). Physicians also published books to convince the public that abortion was medically and morally wrong by arguing that women were committing a moral crime (Luker, 70). Embryos were, as the public acknowledged at the time, alive but not as alive as the woman. 


Doctors tried to convince women that abortions were wrong because they saw themselves as in economic competition with so-called healers. Physicians tended to be wealthier and better educated than healers and sought a symbolic claim of their superiority. By way of asserting their moral and technical superiority, they claimed that abortion was wrong. Physicians also used racist anti-immigrant discourses to further such anti-abortion sentiment.  This control of white women’s reproductive rights was a reaction to increasing immigration at the time.


For more information, see Kristin Luker’s “Medicine and Morality".

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In 1970, New York and Hawaii became the first states to legalize abortion. Hawaii’s legislation only applied to Hawaiian residents. New York had no residency requirement and allowed abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy. In the first two years after New York passed the legislation, 60 percent of women having abortions in New York were from out of state (New York Times). In addition, within a year of legalizing abortion, New York City opened multiple low-cost abortion clinics that charged $100 for an abortion (Vanity Fair).

In 1973, in the case of  Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court officially ruled that it was legal for women to get first trimester abortions from medical professionals. 

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In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, blocking federal funding for abortions through Medicaid (globalfundforwomen). Anti-abortion activists also used many other direct tactics such as blocking and bombing abortion clinics’ entrances and even physically attacking and murdering abortion providers. 


Even more recently, many states have passed increased restrictions on abortion. For example, in 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that states can restrict pre-viability abortions. Furthermore, many states have implemented additional restrictions such as waiting periods, parental involvement, and biased counseling. 


Fortunately, there has been resistance and pushback. In 2000, in Stenberg v. Carhart, the court ruled that the Nebraska law, which banned so called “partial birth-abortion,” was unconstitutional. Additionally in 2000, the FDA approved mifepristone as an abortion care option for early pregnancy (National Abortion Federation). 


Today, the fight for unrestricted abortion access continues.

Click here for more information on current abortion issues. 

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About Jane Image: Getty Images

How and Why Abortion Became “Wrong” Image: Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty Images

The Move Toward Legalization: A Snapshot Image: flickr / Steenaire

Since Roe Image: Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty Images

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