I Was in an Underground Abortion Network Before Roe v. Wade
In 1971, Laura Kaplan was 24 years old and a recent transplant to Chicago. Kaplan wanted to get involved in the women’s movement, and the city was awash in political activism. She found her way to a group of women who, officially, went by the name Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation—but, around Chicago, were more often known simply as “Jane.”
If you were pregnant and didn’t want to be, you called Jane.
Between 1969 and 1973, before abortion became legal across the United States, the 100-plus women who made up Jane—mothers, housewives, teachers, college dropouts—helped people procure abortions. They estimate that they performed more than 11,000 abortions themselves.
Saturday, Jan. 22, marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide and that led Jane to dissolve. But Roe may not see its 50th birthday, since the Supreme Court is now deliberating over a case that threatens to topple the landmark ruling. And if Roe vanishes, leaving states free to regulate abortion, 26 states are likely to ban the procedure.
In order to understand what this future may look like, VICE News turned to the past—to the stories of the people who’ve had front-row seats to the last half-century’s fight over abortion. Kaplan spoke to VICE News about her time in Jane as part of VICE News’ new series about the legacies left by veterans of the U.S. abortion wars.
This article, told in Kaplan’s words, has been edited for clarity and length.
All that most of us knew about abortion was that it was rare, and that every once in a while, a woman had an illegal abortion and she died from it. When women started talking to each other, they realized that lots and lots of women wanted abortions. Lots of them got them. In many cases, they weren't very pleasant experiences.
There were women who reported that they'd been demanded sexual favors in exchange for the abortion. There was no quality control. But there were some good practitioners. Groups all over the country—including Jane, when we started—sussed out the underground abortion network in their area and figured out who were the competent and non-abusive practitioners, and then helped the women raise money because they were expensive. An illegal abortion cost $500, and you could rent a decent one-bedroom apartment in Chicago for maybe $125 a month.
The original members of Jane realized very early on that just sending somebody off and saying, “Well, we've sent other women and they all come back alive” was not really the best situation for women. And so that earliest group said, “In order to give women power over this experience, we need to take control of this.” So they looked for a practitioner who was willing to work fairly closely with them. And they found somebody.
[Originally, the members of Jane thought that this practitioner was a physician. But some women eventually discovered that, in fact, the man wasn’t a doctor at all—he had just learned to do abortions from one.]
He was there to make money. He said to me, “I thought abortions were like mink coats. Lots of women wanted them, but only some of them could afford them.”
He became very close with one of the central people in the group, and she pushed him to allow other women to come and sit during the abortions. She told me that it was his idea that she actually pick up the instruments. At first, she just said, “No, I'm not doing this.” The idea of actually using instruments inside a woman's body was outrageous.
But in this instance, according to her, he talked her into it. When you break through the wall, it's like going through the looking glass. It's like landing in Oz. Suddenly it's in color and not black and white. It takes a lot of guts to do that. But it's exhilarating once you do it, once you break through that barrier that says, You cannot do this.
I came when the practitioner was leaving and the women were taking over. I first found Jane when one of my dear friends from the university discovered she was pregnant from a failed IUD and found her way to Jane. After her abortion, she came to my apartment and she was so excited by the experience. I mean, she just had an illegal abortion, she'd been blindfolded—and she was almost literally bouncing off the walls of my apartment in excitement from this incredible experience she had just been through.
So I signed myself up.
IN 1971, LAURA KAPLAN JOINED ‘JANE,’ A GROUP IN CHICAGO THAT PROVIDED ABORTIONS BEFORE THEY WERE LEGAL IN THE CITY. (PHOTOGRAPHY BY GILAD THALER, GRAPHICS BY RAQUEL REI, VICE NEWS GRAPHICS)
We had a number: 643-3844. That number really had gotten around the city of Chicago pretty good. If someone needed an abortion, she would call that number and she would get an answering machine. Answering machines were really rare. This one, our first answering machine, was the size of a suitcase.
A woman would call and she'd get a message that said, “This is Jane from women's liberation. If you need assistance, if you need help, leave your phone and your name and phone number and someone will call you back.” And then one of the members of our group, who was known as Call-Back Jane—very creative with the names here—would call that person back and say, “This is Jane, you called. What are you looking for?” We always waited for the woman to say what she wanted.
Her information was taken by the call-back person. It would be her name, her age, her address, her phone number, her last period, how many previous pregnancies, how many kids, how many miscarriages, any medical problems.
We would say, “We charge $100. If you can't afford that, what can you afford?” So those cards went to our main administrative person who we called Big Jane—again, creative names—and Big Jane did the scheduling, figuring out who was going to be scheduled on what workday.
Those names were then given to counselors. If I was a counselor, I would call the woman and say, “Hi, my name is Laura. Jane gave me your phone number and I'm going to be your counselor. Let’s pick a time when you can come to my apartment and I can explain everything to you then.” We would encourage women to bring someone with them—a sister or mother or their husband or boyfriend, whoever they wanted for moral support.
Women would come to our apartments and we'd make a pot of tea and and we would explain all the steps—not just what happened in the abortion itself, but what that day would look like and feel like and what they would see and what they would hear. We knew, for ourselves, the not knowing was the thing that made you most nervous. We wanted women to be as comfortable as they could be.
We never asked women what the reasons for wanting or needing an abortion. That was their business and not ours, and we certainly weren't into judging.
We would say, “So when you're scheduled, I'm going to call you and tell you what day it is, and I'm going to give you an address and this is a place we call the Front, where people just gather. And then in groups of four or five, you're going to be taken to another apartment where the abortions will be done. [The members of the group called this location “the Place.”] This is who you'll see there. This is what you will experience and what will happen afterwards. You'll be taken back to the Front. You'll be given post-abortion medications. We encourage you to bring someone with you. You'll go home and we’ll keep in touch with you for the next 10 days to two weeks to make sure everything's OK. Here's the kind of problems you could have. Here’s what we do about these kinds of problems.”
I don’t remember balancing my checkbook before that, but here I was doing this life-and-death thing.
The Fronts were mostly apartments around Chicago that belonged to us or our friends. So my apartment got used. You'd have a lot of people shoved together, total strangers. The guys would maybe be watching sports on TV, or there'd be a card game. There'd be food.
In the Place, we worked out of two rooms, so there were two abortions going on at the same time. We did them on regular beds, on plastic sheets that we wiped down with alcohol, with surgical equipment, forceps and curettes. We only used local anesthetic.
I would say to women, “You could do anything but scream, because we're in an apartment.”
There were usually two people in each of those rooms. One was a fully trained abortionist and the other one who was called an assistant and usually in training. [Today, people who support abortion rights don’t usually use the term “abortionist,” because abortion opponents sometimes deploy it like a slur.]
The fully trained person would be sitting with the woman and holding her hand and talking with her about whatever she wanted to talk about. At some point, the two women would switch positions—the assistant would then sit with the woman and hold her hand, and the other person would then do the abortion.
That switch was really quite critical. It was a way of saying, “We are all in this on the same level.” It's not like the doctor comes in and is in a special position. The switching of the roles was, I think, really key to give women the sense that this was a fluid thing and that we were there to support her. And that she, too, could get off that bed and join us and begin the process herself.
We would say to people, “This is not going to be comfortable. People have different levels of what's tolerable for them, so we can't tell you this is going to feel outrageous. It's nothing you can't handle.” We would say that to every woman: “You can handle this.”
LAURA KAPLAN WROTE A BOOK ABOUT ‘JANE’ AND THE GROUP’S WORK TO PROVIDE ABORTIONS FOR PEOPLE IN CHICAGO. (PHOTOGRAPHY BY GILAD THALER, GRAPHICS BY RAQUEL REI, VICE NEWS GRAPHICS)
You’ve got to remember that in those days, there were no shelves of books in bookstores on women's health. There was nothing. And women knew very little about how their bodies worked. So we saw our job as really educating women, because knowledge is power. So they would have some power over their own lives.
When we started out, we were just there for any woman who needed us. In the early days, it was everybody under the sun. Students. Housewives. Working women. Black women. White women. Young, older.
Once New York legalized abortions in the summer of 1970, you could fly to New York, get an abortion, and fly home the same day to Chicago for around $300. Our demographics really changed after that. We saw more and more women of color, more and more very young women, women whose circumstances were such that they really couldn't even leave for a day. A lot of women who'd never left their neighborhoods, so the thought of going to O'Hare Airport and getting on a plane and flying to New York was completely out of the question.
By the end, maybe 60 to 70 percent of the women we saw were poor women of color from the south side and the west side of Chicago. Here were women who were very, very different from the women who were in the group, who were coming to do something illegal and trusting—out of desperation, more than anything else—strangers with their lives. We would say to them, “We're trusting you with our lives as well. We're in this together. We're not doing it to you. We're doing it with you.”
Was the work emotional? Of course it was emotional. Doctors are trained to keep a distance. We were the reverse of that. Even though we didn't pry, some women confided in us. This is before the battered women's movement, before any talk about incest or sexual assault. Then you have some 14-year-old coming with her father for an abortion? Ding, ding, ding. We were brought into another level of reality.
Things could have gone incredibly wrong at any point, and they didn't. But the more you do, the more you start feeling it's just a matter of time. Even in the best of circumstances, when you're doing surgery, things go wrong.
We were committing multiple felonies every day. We're talking serious jail time here—not to mention practicing medicine without a license. But that was minor compared to felony abortion charges. In Chicago, typically, when a woman came in with a problem from an illegal abortion, the police were called in right away, and she was usually told that she was going to die, whether she was or not. And so they wanted some deathbed confession. Give up the names.
But the majority of the women in the group—not all, but a majority of us—were white, middle-class young women in our 20s. I think we were in denial a lot. We didn't think anything bad would happen to us. So it was kind of shocking when it did, when we actually got busted.
A woman came to us with her sister-in-law. Her sister-in-law didn't like what she heard, so she went to a local precinct. And the homicide cops followed the driver from the Front to the Place. They knocked on the door, and somebody opened. They wanted to know where the man was and where the money was.
They quickly figured out who was in the group and who wasn't, because the women in the group wouldn't give up their names. And then they went to the Front and took everyone— boyfriends, husbands, mothers, friends, children—down to the precinct. It was like a zoo. And the seven members of Jane were arrested and put in Cook County jail. They got bailed out and arraigned.
[The bust occurred in May 1972. The arrested members of Jane hired a female attorney, who gave them some interesting information.]
“There's a case that's making its way through the Supreme Court right now. We think it's going to go your way, and if it does, you're not going to serve any jail time.” Of course, that was Roe v. Wade, and that's exactly what happened.
In that period, four of the seven women who were arrested decided to come back to the group. I think those four women didn't want the Chicago cops telling them what they could and couldn't do.
We thought the cops were just going to keep busting us. But there was a point at which the attorney told them that if a certain lieutenant had not been on vacation, the bust would have never happened. So then we figured there wasn't a grand plan to get us. And pretty much went back to business as usual.
At the time of the bust, we had something like 300 women waiting for abortions. We did about 100 a week. So that meant whoever was scheduling—and in those days it was often me—had to play God, figure out who could wait, who had to go right away. There's no way to get a stack of 300 cards into 100 slots, no matter how hard you try. And let me tell you, I tried pretty hard.
[In January 1973, in a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe. Wade—and the justices’ decision legalized abortion nationwide.]
What I can remember, of when Roe v. Wade was decided, was this overwhelming feeling of relief, primarily. First, this was going to save my seven friends, who were waiting on their pending, criminal, multiple felonies. Second, we were only seeing a tiny sliver of the women who needed abortions. It wasn't like Jane was going to save the world. We were only doing what we could do in our little piece of it.
We waited till the first legal clinics opened in Chicago. Then we had a pretty contentious meeting about whether we should fold or continue on. There was a contingent that felt that the abortions that we provided were like no other abortions that women were going to get from a doctor. We didn't feel the medical establishment really respected women. In those days, there were very few women doctors—or women anythings, other than nurses and schoolteachers and secretaries and librarians. So that we wanted to continue, that sense that you are responsible for your own health care, that you make the decisions. To give women this different sense of what a medical experience could be like, where you were the center of it and not acted upon, not the object of it—that was educational and empowering.
Others felt like whatever protection we had, it's going to be gone once the clinics open. We’ll be taking money out of the hands of doctors. Nobody's going to come to our aid. Many of us were pretty fried. You know, it was a lot. It was our whole lives. It was all day, every day. So I think a lot of us were feeling it was time to move on.
I worried about Roe’s survival—maybe not from the very beginning, but certainly once the Hyde Amendment got passed.
[The Hyde Amendment, first enacted in 1976, blocks the use of federal funds for paying for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. People thus can’t use Medicaid to pay for most abortions.]
That was, in a way, the beginnings of a death knell, because one thing that was true pre-Roe was all women, whether they were rich or poor or white or Black or 18 or 40, faced the same or similar difficulties. Rich women could fly to other countries, they would have a sympathetic physician who would sign them in for an appendectomy, that kind of thing. But generally, we were all in the same boat, regardless of finances.
Once the Hyde Amendment passed, there was a sword separating women with means from women without means. For women in most of the country, it's as if Roe never happened. There's no access.
Until this current iteration of the Supreme Court, I used to say they'll never overturn Roe, but they'll accept every crazy, crucial limitation that any state presents to them. But given who's on the court right now, I think these people have enough hubris that they may very well likely just overturn Roe. The fact that they let this Texas law, which is so clearly in violation of Roe, stand, tells you where they are.
So is it going to make it worse? Yes. Are women going to suffer? Yes. Are women probably going to die? Yes.
It's important to realize the desperation that women felt, to go through an underground network of women who didn't look like them, whose backgrounds were so different from theirs. Think of that: How desperate you must be. Your life is at stake. Those of us who were in Jane did everything we could to make women feel comfortable. But the difference in those later days between us and so many of the women we counseled—not all of them, but so many of the women we counseled—was so vast.
When I think about it now, all I can think of is how desperate they must have been. They'd heard, “You can trust these women.” But still, they had in their minds the crumpled bodies in the alleys, the news stories of women who had been butchered.
I don't think that can be underestimated, to tell you what lengths women will go to, to do what they feel they must. For other people judging them and saying, “Oh, well, this isn't so bad, you can do blah blah blah”—it shows such cruelty and lack of compassion that it's kind of horrifying to me.
Women are not going back. I don't know what form the resistance is going to take. But the resistance will be there.