abortion and the underground

Abortion and the Underground

by Cheryl terHor (This article about the play originally appeared in the September 1999 Chicago Tribune Online.)

(This originally appeared in the WomanNews section of the Chicago Tribune Online in September 1999)

In 1971, Susan was 21, in a dead-end job and a dead-end relationship, and she had just discovered her IUD birth control had failed her.

Although she wanted children eventually, she knew it wasn't a good time to have a baby.

So she called Jane in Hyde Park.

From 1969 to 1973, before the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision legalized abortion in the United States, thousands of women did just what Susan did. Jane, officially known as the Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, arranged and participated in more than 11,000 illegal abortions in Chicago and the suburbs in those turbulent years.

Some members of Jane, many of whom were college students, housewives and mothers, eventually learned how to perform abortions themselves--despite having no formal medical training--and did them in the bedrooms of various secret apartments around the city. The idea was to decrease the cost and increase the availability and safety of the procedure for otherwise desperate women.

Chicago author and freelance writer Paula Kamen became fascinated when she heard of Jane at a women's rights panel several years ago. The result is her play, "Jane: Abortion and the Underground," which opens this Saturday as a Green Highway Theater Co. production. In recent years, Jane also has been the subject of a book, "The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service" by Laura Kaplan, herself a member of Jane, and a documentary, "Jane: An Abortion Service," that aired on PBS in 1998.

"I was intrigued by these bourgeois housewives running an illicit abortion service between car-pooling to dance lessons," Kamen, 32, says. "Women of my generation have no idea--before Jane, it was just shocking what people had to go through. Cook County (Hospital) was getting hundreds of (victims of) botched abortions a month. Abortions were unsafe, they cost thousands of dollars, and many of the abortionists had mob ties."

Kamen built the play around case histories of the women involved in Jane, after interviewing dozens of Jane members and those who sought the service's help. The play originally debuted for a brief run in 1993, then was completely revised for its new run.

"Most of the work written about abortion is a debate on the issue," notes Janel Winter, producer and director of the play. "This is about women's lives and women working together to help each other."

Like other women who called Jane, Susan (who did not wish to be identified by her real name) was told an abortion would cost $300. She balked and was told that if she could scrape together $100, an abortion could be arranged.

Susan was directed to a house where a woman would counsel her on what to expect during the procedure. "While her kids were playing in the room, my counselor served me tea and told me what was going to happen," Susan remembers. "I was so impressed that someone with kids would help me have an abortion."

She was directed to go to what Jane members called "The Front," a dorm room at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, where she found a dozen other women waiting for abortions. From there, the women were driven in groups--Susan's driver was a happily pregnant woman a month away from delivery--to an apartment, where each was blindfolded as she entered the bedroom, to protect the abortionist's identity. Jane members called the apartment "The Place." (The locations of The Front and The Place changed frequently.)

"The women there were so warm, and they explained everything," Susan recalls. "Even the doctor was nice. (Susan later found out he was not a real doctor). And a counselor was with me the whole time. Afterward, I felt queasy because I hadn't eaten anything and someone made me an egg. A few days later, my counselor called to make sure I was doing OK.

"It was the best medical experience I ever had," she says.

The roots of Jane--or "the Service," as members called it--date to 1965, when a friend told Heather Booth, then a young University of Chicago student, that he was worried about his sister, who was pregnant and nearly suicidal. (The woman is now president of a college, Booth says.)

Booth, who was active in social causes and had spent the previous summer in Mississippi working in the civil rights movement, called around and found a doctor who would perform an abortion for her friend's sister.

"You see and hear about someone in need and you try to do something about it," says Booth, who went on to become a leader in the Democratic National Committee and now lives in Washington, D.C. "It's hard now to remember that that's what those times were like. You rose to protect those who needed it, even if it meant you went against the law."

Word spread that Booth could arrange abortions and demand grew. After several years, Booth knew she needed help arranging the service. She was pregnant, teaching, working on a master's degree and involved in other activism. She recruited a team. A handful of others joined the cause, and soon, Booth bowed out.

"It wasn't that we were for abortion," Booth recalls. "We were for women having the right (to) make this most personal decision."

The name Jane was selected for the group because it had an anonymous, everywoman sound to it, Kaplan writes in her book.

During that same period in the late 1960s, a group called the Chicago Women's Liberation Union formed. A few people at the organizing meeting suggested making abortion one of the union's causes.

Although some were opposed, the union agreed to make Jane a work group within the organization, Booth notes, under the premise that a woman having control of her own body was the most basic of rights.

Besides that, the members of Jane also note that women had far fewer options in those times. Single motherhood was taboo, and birth control was not widely available. It wasn't until 1965 that a Supreme Court ruling guaranteed the right of married people to use birth control, and not until 1972 that the justices affirmed that single people also could legally obtain contraceptives.

"A friend of mine at the time was raped at knifepoint and went to the university health care center, where she was told there were no gynecological services," Booth said. "And she was given a lecture on promiscuity."

"Getting pregnant in those days was a tragedy--it was the end of your life," recalls Sunny Chapman of New York City, who turned to Jane when she was pregnant at 19. "I knew people who had had botched abortions, and people died from illegal abortions. You really felt safe once you made contact with the Janes."

Jane's members grew in numbers. More than 100 women worked for the cause at one time or another during the four years it was in operation, according to Kaplan, and none of Jane's clients died as a result of the procedure.

Because Jane members counseled the women, told them what was going to happen, held their hands through the abortion, advised them on birth control for the future, and made the environment warm and friendly, "an abortion with Jane was a surprisingly positive experience, as many women expressed at the time," Kaplan wrote.

Most of the women in Jane were middle class and white. Those who used the service ranged from housewives to students to poor women, and ran the gamut of all races, recalls Eileen Smith, of Chicago, a member of Jane. "It was a mishmash of people in one room."

An African-American woman, one of the few who worked with Jane, recalls her race was one of the reasons she felt compelled to help out. "For African-Americans who walked in and then saw me, you could see their faces relax," says the woman, who did not want to be identified. "They had a fee structure set up, and didn't turn anyone away."

Even if she could pay only $10.

The African-American woman also had helped a roommate through an illegal abortion years earlier. "I didn't want anybody to ever have to go through that experience," she said.

Early on, the women of Jane constantly struggled to line up doctors who would perform the service and eventually almost exclusively relied on one abortionist. When they discovered in 1970 that he was not a real doctor, they continued to use him because he had proved to be well-trained (by a real doctor). The women of Jane also had persuaded him to instruct them in the procedure, and by spring of 1971, they were performing the abortions themselves, allowing them to lower the price to $100, according to Kaplan.

Although Smith didn't perform abortions, she assisted, giving the women shots of a drug to control the bleeding, and using some of the preparatory instruments.

"I felt like we (women) were all working together," Smith said. "We weren't doing this to them or for them. It was regular people making a big difference. It really shaped my life and showed me what's important."

While other services across the country referred women to practitioners for illegal abortions, Jane was unusual because it counseled the women and actually provided the abortions.

Word spread about Jane through listings in alternative newspapers--it was even listed in the phone book under "Jane Howe." There were also referrals from sympathetic doctors and even, as it turned out, from the police, who mostly looked the other way, the women say.

Smith recalls that one woman who had come to her apartment for pre-abortion counseling couldn't figure out which apartment was hers. As the woman stood out front looking confused, a police officer drove by and said she must be looking for Eileen's place. The police officer directed the woman to the apartment and drove away.

But in 1972, the police raided Jane after the sister of a Jane client lodged a complaint, and seven women were arrested. The case was continued into 1973, and dropped after the Roe vs. Wade decision. But Smith, who was baby-sitting for the child of one of the arrested women, remembers that after the bust, some argued that Jane should disband.

One of the main women insisted they continue. "We don't have a choice," Smith recalls her saying. Women needed the service.

After the Roe vs. Wade ruling, abortion clinics opened in Chicago and Jane did disband.

But nowadays, some of Jane's former members worry that abortion rights are slowly eroding, through parental consent laws, waiting periods, clinic violence and complacency, Booth says.

About 84 percent of United States counties have no abortion provider and the procedure is not taught at many medical schools, according to the National Abortion Federation, an association for abortion providers. There's general consensus that many abortion providers are near retirement age, Booth adds.

In today's political climate, Kamen says some of Jane's members told her they would be unable to do what they did in the pre-Roe days.

"Back then all we had to worry about was jail," one member said. "Now you have to fear for your life." 


"Jane: Abortion and the Underground" is no stranger to controversy, and not just because of its subject matter.

The play debuted in 1993, but its run was abbreviated because of a battle over authorship. Although the original director had claimed co-authorship with Paula Kamen, Kamen eventually was credited as sole author.

The play is back now, after being completely revised, Kamen says, and in the hands of a different theater company. Here are details:


  • When: 8 p.m. Saturday, and Thursdays through Saturdays thereafter until Oct. 23
  • Where: The Chopin Studio Theater, 1541 W. Division St. 
  • Tickets: $15
  • Contact: 773-334-6032
  • Benefit fundraiser: Oct. 10 will be a fundraiser for the Green Highway Theater Co., a non-profit group that focuses on women's voices and lives. A panel of former Jane members will speak to the audience afterward. Call for details.