Politico

Inside the 1970s Abortion Underground


In 1965, Heather Booth was a student at the University of Chicago when a friend reached out to her for help: His sister needed an abortion.

Booth had never given abortion much thought — “I didn’t understand that even three people talking about providing an abortion was a felony,” she says today — but she wanted to help, so she found a physician who was willing to perform the illegal procedure, T.R.M. Howard, a major figure in the civil rights movement. Then she got another request. And another.

The calls kept coming, and Booth recruited more women to help, creating a system known by the anonymous name “Jane.” Called “The Service” by some members, Jane grew into an underground network of women who organized clandestine, illegal abortions in their homes and apartments — a safer alternative than those provided by the mob. Eventually, the women of Jane learned to perform the procedure themselves.

At its peak, Jane administered an estimated 100 abortions a week. From the time it was founded to the opening of the first abortion clinics in Chicago following the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, Jane completed some 11,000 abortions.

One of the women to join Jane was Laura Kaplan, who was 24 years old when she moved to Chicago from New York in 1971 and got involved with the network. She chronicled Jane’s work in her 1995 book, The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service.

“Multiple felonies every day that we worked,” Kaplan says now. “I mean, I’m in my 70s now, so I can laugh about this. But when I was interviewing people in the group — that was 15 years after we folded — people would say to me, ‘Did we really do that?’ Even just 15 years fast forward, it just didn’t even seem real. But it was very real.”

With Roe v. Wade on the chopping block, I called Kaplan to learn more about the history of criminalized abortion in America.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dylon Jones: How did you first get involved with the Jane network?

Laura Kaplan: Shortly after I moved back to Chicago, my dear friend, Alice, discovered that she was pregnant. She saw an ad in an underground paper that said something like, “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.” So she did that. And she had an abortion with Jane.

Afterward, she came over to my apartment, and she was so excited about the experience that she was almost literally bouncing off the walls. She said that it was about so much more than her abortion. It was about education. It was about her: She was the center of the experience.

The way Jane did things was, after you contacted them, then you would be assigned to a counselor, and you would go to that counselor’s home. The counselor would explain everything to you in advance, and then call you when you had an appointment and tell you where to go, and then keep in touch with you for like two weeks afterwards to make sure you were OK.

So Alice took me to meet her counselor, who told us that the group was starting a new counselor-training session. That’s how you entered the group.

A lot of the counseling was about education on how your body worked. Because women back then didn’t have that information. We didn’t know. You just trusted the doctor, or what your friend told you.

After you went through your three counselor-training sessions, then you were assigned a Big Sister, whose counseling sessions you sat in on so you could see how it actually went. And then you were ready to do counseling on your own.

Jones: Tell me how the process worked after you joined Jane.

Kaplan: We had women who wanted abortions go to a gathering place, which we called “The Front,” because it was a front. We weren’t real creative with names. And then from there, small groups of women, usually five or something like that — what we could fit in a car — would be driven to what we called “The Place,” which was the apartment or house we were using to do abortions. And so we explained who they would see, what they would hear, what was required of them in terms of: You take your clothes off from the waist down, and you’re going to be on a regular bed. And then what things would feel like.

And then afterwards, women were taken back to The Front. They were given post-abortion medication, and we explained how to take it and to keep in touch with their counselor.

Jones: Did anyone accompany the women to The Front or The Place?

Kaplan: To The Front, we encouraged people to bring someone. Bring a friend, bring your mother. Sometimes people brought their kids because they didn’t have child care. So The Front was like a big gathering of strangers. You know, the guys would be watching sports on TV. Then the driver would come drop off the women whose abortions were completed, pick up a new bunch and go back to The Place. So the driver drove all day, and the driver would collect the money in the car.

Jones: What was the charge?

Kaplan: Once we got rid of the guy who performed the abortions, because we learned how to do them, then we lowered the price to $100 or what you could afford. And we estimate that probably our average was $40 or $50 per abortion. Lots of women paid nothing.

Jones: And when you say you got rid of the guy, can you walk me through that? Heather Booth, who started Jane as a college student, initially referred women to a physician. Then the group worked with someone called Mike, who wasn’t a doctor. And then, finally, the women of Jane learned to perform abortions themselves, right?

Kaplan: Mike thought — and I think it was partly his pride in his skill and partly the fact that he was realizing this wasn’t going to be a money-making venture for him, because one of the key women in the group was constantly pressuring him to do women for free — it was getting to be more of a pain in the neck. And so it was a good idea to train us, and then he could go on to other more profitable avenues, let’s say.

Jody was the first woman to learn to do abortions from Mike. She told me that he said, “Here, why don’t you try this?” one day. And she was like, “No, I’m not picking up an instrument.” He had to sort of talk her into it.

When I interviewed people for my book, nobody remembered or was going to say how that transition from Mike to the women of Jane performing abortions themselves happened. But I think the point at which Jody was already learning was the point at which the larger group was informed that Mike was not a doctor. Because I think in her mind, she thought, if people are going to accept that we can do this ourselves, first they have to accept that the person we’ve been relying on — who’s extremely competent, and we have nothing but glowing reports from GYNs with post-abortion checkups — that he’s not a doctor. And in fact, at that meeting, it was like an explosion. People were flipping out. One woman said, “Well, if he can do it, and he’s not a doctor, then we can do it, too. And we could charge a whole lot less.”

Jones: What was the actual procedure like in the room?

Kaplan: First of all, we were working out of our apartments, friend’s apartments — occasionally we rented an apartment — or our friend’s houses. One of the members of Jane lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park, and so when we worked out of her house — and I think we just used it as a front — everybody wanted to work those days, because it was such a phenomenally beautiful place.

It was in regular rooms on a regular bed. We had plastic sheets, and we brought our own sheets as well to cover the bed. There were no stirrups. One of us sat with a woman by her head and held her hands and talked with her throughout. And we talked about anything she wanted to talk about. I mean, we could talk about her kids, we could talk about school, or we could talk about the procedure, what was happening.

We would say to women, “You can do anything but scream.” I remember having to say to a woman who bit me, “And you can’t bite me, either!”

Jones: What kinds of work did you do for Jane?

Kaplan: The first job outside of counseling that I did was what we called “Callback Jane.” I’m telling you, not very inventive with the names.

Mike had bought us an answering machine. And this was in the days when nobody had answering machines. This thing was the size of a suitcase, reel-to-reel, with beepers. So women would call, leave their contact information. And the Callback Janes called women back and got medical information and explained how we functioned — found out how many weeks pregnant they were, whether they had previous pregnancies, whether they had any allergies, how many kids they had and how much they could afford.

Then that information was put on 3-by-5 cards, and at meetings, those stacks of 3-by-5 cards got passed around the room. And then when I was counseling someone, I would call them and say, “Hi, my name is Laura. Jane gave me your name and phone number, and I’m going to be your counselor. Let’s talk about when you could come to my apartment so I can explain everything to you.”

Lots of women came along. In the later days of Jane, a lot of the women we saw were more poor women of color from the West Side and South Side of Chicago, because our information had really spread in those neighborhoods.

Jones: And by that time, wealthy women were able to travel to D.C. or New York or somewhere where they could get a legal abortion?

Kaplan: That’s right. It wasn’t just poor women who couldn’t travel: young women, women who were in relationships that were controlling and abusive, so they couldn’t leave town. I mean, there’s a whole panoply of different reasons why somebody couldn’t get on a plane, but for a lot of poor women, it was like, there’s no way. Going to the North Side from the West Side was already going to another country.

At some point, I took over the other administrative job, which was called “Big Jane.” Big Jane did the scheduling, and there was a long period of time when we had 300 women a week waiting for abortions. And we did about 100 a week. So the Big Janes would have to sit there with the 3-by-5 cards and try to figure out who needed to jump the queue because their last monthly period was getting to the cutoff point where a D&C [dilation and curettage] could be done.

Jones: And what was the cutoff point for a D&C?

Kaplan: For us, it was about 12 weeks.

Jones: Did any women have health problems through the procedure?

Kaplan: I only had one woman who got an infection that we dealt with. We had stockpiles of drugs in various people’s homes. So I called one of the central people, and I said, “My counselor just called me, and [the woman who had an abortion is] running a fever, what do I do?” And they said, “Go to so-and-so’s house and pick up…” I don’t even remember, I think it was ampicillin. “And you go to her house, and this is how you give the drug to her. And then you stay there until her temperature comes down. And if it doesn’t come down within X amount of time, she’s got to go to the hospital immediately.” So I went to her apartment, I had my little drug supply. And I stayed with her until her temperature was normal.

Jones: What steps did you take to prevent infection and injury? And did you have a plan in place if something went wrong?

Kaplan: We learned a lot from Mike. And we also had doctor friends who provided backup, either with information or sometimes they would be available to admit somebody to the hospital, because you would be treated better if you were admitted by a physician than if you just walked in. If you just walked into a hospital in Chicago with complications from an abortion, the police were going to be called in. And often you were told that you were going to die, even if you weren’t going to die. They wanted you to talk. They wanted to scare the shit out of you and get you to talk.

Jones: So you had doctors who would admit people on the down-low?

Kaplan: Yeah, that we could call on. I have someplace a doctor referral list. And it has notes by some names: “Don’t call him anymore. He’s getting too many calls from us.”

We would also get referrals from doctors. We would always ask women who called us how they heard about us. And so if a particular doctor was referring quite a few women to us, one of us would call him — and it was always a him in those days — and say, “This is Jane, you’ve been referring women to us, and we’d like to ask you for some assistance.” Nine times out of 10, they would say, “Don’t ever call me again.”

Jones: Can you talk about what other options women had other than Jane at the time? Obviously, abortion was illegal. We hear all these horror stories about back-alley abortions and women dying of sepsis. What were the sort of options that you were running up against that you were trying to address with this network?

Kaplan: Well, that’s exactly what we were trying to address. We started out as a referral service, and there were women’s liberation groups like ours all over the country that were doing the same thing. They were sussing out the illegal network in their communities, finding out who were the reputable people performing abortions, preparing women for those abortions, raising money to pay for them — because illegal abortions were very expensive.

But a lot of women went to somebody in their neighborhood and wound up in the hospital. Cook County Hospital, the large public hospital in Chicago, had a ward that was just for women dealing with complications from illegal abortions, and that ward was usually full. So if you talk to anybody who was a GYN at Cook County during those years, they will tell you the horror stories of things they saw and what people did to themselves or had done to them by somebody who was incompetent and didn’t know what they were doing. So the aim of all these women’s groups all over the country was to try to find out who were the reputable people and refer women to them so women wouldn’t die.

Jones: You all were committing felonies, right?

Kaplan: Multiple felonies every day that we worked. I mean, I’m in my 70s now, so I can laugh about this. But when I was interviewing people in the group — that was 15 years after we folded — people would say to me, “Did we really do that?” Even just 15 years fast forward, it just didn’t even seem real. But it was very real.

Jones: How much was that risk on your mind? Was that something that you worried about often?

Kaplan: Well, yes. But it was also the times. This is the late ’60s, early ’70s, and there was revolution in the streets, and it was a wild time.

And the other side of it is that we were a group with primarily white, middle-class women, and I think there was also lots of denial. We were privileged, and I’m sure lots of people thought, “We’re so good and we do such good work, we’ll never get arrested.” So how could we get busted?

Well, we did.

Jones: Tell me about that. What happened?

Kaplan: So a woman, I believe, brought her sister-in-law to a counseling session. The sister-in-law didn’t like what she heard, and she went to her local precinct and reported it. So on the day her relative was scheduled, the police followed the driver — they have the address of The Front from the relative — followed the driver to The Place a few times back and forth, and then they barged in at The Place. And they took everybody down to the station. So everybody at The Front — the boyfriends, husbands, mothers, children — there’s a bit of a zoo.

Jones: I think I’ve heard you say in other interviews that the police were looking for the man that they presumed was providing the abortions there.

Kaplan: Yeah — they were looking for the man and the money. And of course, there was no man, and there was hardly any money.

Jones: I’ve also heard you say that you actually got referrals from police officers. Can you elaborate on that a little?

Kaplan: We always asked people how they heard about us. So we knew we were getting referrals from police officers. This was a safe place. If somebody needed an abortion, they weren’t going to die. They weren’t going to get abused. They weren’t going to be sexually assaulted, which was fairly common with illegal abortions. They weren’t going to get ripped off financially. And they weren’t gonna get mistreated either physically or emotionally. So, yeah, we got referrals from police officers.

One of my favorite stories, and this happened to Eileen. She was living around the corner from me on the North Side in an apartment where the entrance was on the side. So it was not that easy to find. And one day, someone who was going to counseling, a young woman, was walking up and down the street trying to find this address. And a police car pulled up and [the officer] said, “If you’re looking for Eileen, she’s in the side entrance.”

So the woman thought, “Oh, of course, they’re illegal. They’re paying off the cops.” Of course that was not true. She went in and she told [Eileen], and Eileen was like, “Oh, they know where I live! They know my name!”

Some of the Chicago police at least knew that we were providing a service to the community. So we always worried that our phones were tapped, that we were being followed. There were times where somebody had seen police cars on the street we were working on, and so we would pack everything up and go out the back, down the fire escape and out, and get everybody out and try to relocate.

Jones: So, back to the arrest: Seven women from Jane were arrested in the police raid in 1972 and hit with 11 charges of abortion or conspiracy to commit abortion, each of which carried a possible 10-year sentence. (The charges were dropped after the Roe decision in 1973.) What happened after the arrests?

Kaplan: It was rough, because we had all these women waiting for abortions. And again, a number of our trained abortionists were now in Cook County Jail and were not coming back. So a couple of people got in touch with abortion clinics in D.C. and New York who were willing to do free abortions through Jane if we could get the women there. We had a whole system of meeting women at O’Hare Airport, buying their tickets, getting them to New York or D.C. And then within, I would say, two weeks, we started working again, in a very subdued manner. We would meet five women on a street corner, pick them up, take them to somebody’s apartment, do the abortions, bring them back to the street corner — it was horrible.

Jones: Did you personally know any of the women who were arrested?

Kaplan: I knew all the women who were arrested. They were my buddies from the group. Of the seven, four of them came back and started working with Jane again while the case was still pending, which I think took incredible chutzpah.

Jones: Why do you think they made that decision?

Kaplan:  I think partially because they didn’t want the Chicago Police telling them what they could and couldn’t do. What we did was so exhilarating on some level. When you go through the mirror, when you break that barrier, the whole world changes. Plus, we were solving women’s real problems multiple times a day, 30 times every workday. It was real satisfaction, and a real sense of accomplishment and that we were doing the right thing.

Jones: Tell me about the day Roe v. Wade passed, what was that like for Jane?

Kaplan: I remember we had a big party at Martha’s house, I think that night, with cheese and crackers, and all of us gathering to celebrate.

Jones: And was it a universally praised decision? I’m wondering how the group decided to shut down after that. Were there some who wanted to continue?

Kaplan: There were some. It was a difficult meeting. Because there were definitely women who said the service we provide is like no other medical service women get. The abortions we do they’re never going to get this quality care in a regular medical setting, where they’re going to feel their agency.

Jones: So some people actually felt that the service you provided was superior to legal abortion in a medical facility?

Kaplan: Yeah, because it was so woman-centered. And it was so educational. I mean, there was a point at which we got a whole bunch of drugstore mirrors to show women their cervixes.

I love telling this story. We initially would say to women, because we had headlamps and stuff, so we had light, and we had the mirrors, “Would you like to see your cervix?” And of course, most women said no. So then we stopped saying that, and we would say, “Here, look at your cervix,” because we really believed that this is information women needed to have about themselves. This was their bodies.

I’ve talked to people who had clinic abortions who talked about the nurse and the doctor talking to each other over the woman’s head. That would have never happened in Jane. We were completely focused on her. We would say to women, “We’re not doing this to you, but with you.”

After Jane, we did a lot of self-help clinics for women, and maybe even during the time of Jane, where we would meet with a group of women in their living rooms and teach them how to insert speculums and look at their cervix. And a local doctor, who was a friend, taught us how to do pelvic exams. Because we realized so many of the women we were seeing didn’t have any medical care. So we actually started doing pap smears on every woman who came to Jane. And actually, Mike bought us a teaching microscope under the misgotten impression that we could learn how to read the slides, which we couldn’t. We had a doctor friend who would send our lab work in with his.

Jones: So Jane was really like an underground Planned Parenthood. You’re not just providing abortions — you’re also providing education and other forms of women’s health care.

Kaplan: Exactly. And it was all based on what women needed. We spent a lot of time talking about birth control, because we didn’t want to see women a second time.

Jones: It does seem that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe. But things are a lot different than they were in the 1960s. How do you think a post-Roe America will be different from a pre-Roe America?

Kaplan: The resistance is going to be fierce. I mean, I’m old. It won’t be me. First of all, women aren’t going to go back. That’s just not going to happen. It’s not going to be 1950s barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. That is just not going to happen.

I believe that the anti-forces aren’t going to stop at abortion. Because according to this draft decision, it puts everything that women have counted on — birth control, everything, not to mention same-sex marriage, the rights of the LGBTQ community. Everything’s on the chopping block here. But people are not going to go backwards.

We live in a country supposedly guided by the rule of law. What happens when a significant segment of the population says, “I’m not obeying this law?” You can’t govern like that. I think that’s one of the reasons that Roe was originally decided back in the day.

There was mass disobedience, and there will be again.

Jones: What do you think young people who are horrified about the prospect of Roe being overturned would learn from your experience in Jane?

Kaplan: Well, you know, what Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn, organize.” So I’m sure this is happening. I don’t know. And wouldn’t tell you if I did know of what is going on.

But I know that women are not going to let other women suffer and die for a theocracy that is not of their making, and that doesn’t speak to any of their needs, concerns or issues — that doesn’t respect women and the sometimes very difficult decisions that women have to make.

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