Before Roe v. Wade, a secret group provided abortions. Two new films tell the story.
Before Roe v. Wade, Heather Booth started an underground network to help women obtain illegal abortions. Known as the "Jane Collective," it's the subject of two films at Sundance this year.
Months before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, seven women were arrested in a police raid of an underground illegal abortion service in two South Chicago apartments, and charged with counts of abortion or conspiracy to commit an abortion.
With Roe v. Wade declaring abortion a constitutional right, the charges against the seven women were dropped and the service they belonged to, the Jane Collective, dissolved.
Now, nearly 50 years later, the Supreme Court seems poised to possibly overturn or substantially change that decision. And this month's Sundance Film Festival is featuring a pair of films that focus on the clandestine organization — one a HBO documentary called The Janes, which interviews many of the arrested women; the other a narrative drama titled Call Jane, which stars Sigourney Weaver and Elizabeth Banks in a fictional account of a volunteer. Call Jane is still finalizing a distributor, but aims to be in theaters later this year. The Janes will air on HBO, also later this year. The two are part of a larger slate of films at the festival on reproductive rights, including Happening, the winner of the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival, relating the tale of a pregnant French university student in 1963 who risks prison to obtain an abortion.
The clandestine Jane network grew to around a hundred volunteer women, known as "Janes," operating with cloak-and-dagger machinations. Together, they helped provided an estimated 11,000 abortions, performed largely by non-medical professionals with no reports of death, in the years leading up to the Roe decision.
The organization started when a then 19-year-old college student named Heather Booth was asked to help a friend's sister arrange for a safe abortion in 1965. As word of that procedure spread, Booth was flooded with calls, and went on to recruit an initial dozen other women to help field the inquiries and negotiate bulk abortion rates.
Jennifer 8. Lee, a journalist and documentary film producer, caught up with Booth, who has since had a career of progressive activism ranging from positions as director of the NAACP National Voter Fund, training Director of the Democratic National Committee, and director of the AFL-CIO Health Care Campaign. The interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
When you first started, it wasn't an organization. It was just you.
A friend of mine told me that his sister was pregnant and nearly suicidal, and was unable to find someone who could provide an abortion. I hadn't thought about the issue before, but I said, I'll try and see what I could do simply as an act of caring. And I went to the medical arm of the civil rights movement, the Medical Committee for Human Rights, and I found a doctor, Dr. T.R.M. Howard. I didn't know it at the time, but he had been an extraordinary civil rights leader in Mississippi, and came to Chicago when his name appeared on a Klan death list after he was associated with a calling for an investigation about the murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager.
He provided the procedure for this friend of mine. And I didn't really think about it again, until word spread. Someone must have heard about it, contacted me, and I made the arrangement. And then word spread again. And as more people started to call, I realized I needed to set up a system. And that's the system that became called Jane.
What would you want a younger generation of women to take away from the Call Jane movie and [The Janes] documentary for a potential post-Roe America?
Call Jane and The Janes are two remarkable films that are even more remarkable seen in tandem. Taken together, I think the big lesson is that we need to take action, that if we come together, even against adverse circumstances, we can change this world. But it's up to us. It's not someone else who's going to save us. We need to save ourselves. As someone said, "We are the leaders we have been waiting for."
Do you think there was something about Chicago, in particular, that allowed a network like this to emerge?
There was a spirit and a history in Chicago of organizing. There had been organizing in the labor movement. There was organizing with the [Saul] Alinsky tradition and community-based organizing.
There was a lot of focus on getting on the media in New York that was very effective and very important for the rest of the country. In Chicago, in the early women's liberation movement, we had a focus on taking action.
So there was a history of both popular struggle and fight against that struggle by unaccountable authority. There is that history still in Chicago. We see it now with a teacher's strike, fighting for the students, for healthcare in the schools and for safe conditions in the schools. My son's a Chicago public school teacher. I'm very proud of him.
I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how the tools of activism may or may not have changed over the decades?
More is done by Zoom or online, and there are benefits of that—you can be much broader. Whereas before, if you could only meet in person, it meant only people in a geography who could physically get there could meet.
Before you were communicating by mail. You had to mimeograph something. We used to produce something and then circulate it and then had to mail it to people. People would physically be traveling — organizers go from one place to another. We usually had rotary phones, often on the wall, and you had to call people one at a time, just spread the word.
So there are many benefits about the speed, about the breadth, about the frequency of engagement. But there are also limits of it. It means that the human intimacy that you get in a meeting, the time to talk before and after the meeting — "How are you doing? How're your folks? How's your own health? We missed you at the last meeting, how come, what happened?" "I was ill. Someone in my family died." You might not even find out those facts when you're in a one-hour meeting on Zoom. It's not the same level of personal relationship.
[Call Jane] is a feature narrative film, so it's fictional. How reflective is it of the actual experience at that time?
Among the things that it did that were extraordinary is it captured a culture of the time and of women's roles. So, there's one meeting with an all-white men's medical board to determine if this woman can have an abortion because her own life is at stake — and she's not even listened to. It's treated as if she doesn't exist, that she's not even there. This is way beyond the question of abortion. This is about women's role in society. Women were often treated as if we were invisible, at least when decisions needed to be made even about our own lives. I also thought it accurately portrayed the caring and sisterhood community that the Jane Collective provided. There were some specifics that I think they took artistic license with. Many of the husbands and partners of the women in Jane were quite supportive, so that was an artistic license, I think, to show that the men didn't always go along.
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