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How 1969 Changed America: The Amateur Abortionists of the Jane Collective

Editors’ note: 

In this occasional series we’ll look at some of the historical trends and events that occurred in America 50 years ago and consider how they still affect us today.

The Event: The Jane Collective was a group of illegal abortionists—many of whom were amateurs—that began operating in the Chicago area in 1969.

Why It Matters: The Jane Collective was a model for how illegal abortions were carried out before Roe—and shows how the atrocity will be carried out after that decision is overturned.

What Happened: Throughout the 1960s abortion was outlawed in almost every state (Colorado in 1967 became the first state to decriminalize abortion, allowing abortion in cases of permanent mental or physical disability of either the child or mother or in cases of rape or incest). In Illinois, where abortion was still classified as felony homicide, a group formed in 1969 known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation (ACS) and became part of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. The group was informally known as “Jane” or the “Jane Collective.”

The Jane Collective would post signs around the city and advertisements in underground newspapers that read, “Pregnant? Don’t Want to Be? Call Jane.” The ads gave a number for women to call where they would leave a message on an answering machine. As Claire Lampen says, “Women called the number, a ‘Jane’ collected their information and set them up with a counselor—also called ‘Jane’—and gave them the address where a doctor or, eventually, another ‘Jane’ performed the procedure.”

Initially, though, the abortionist was not a “Jane” but a “Jack.” The male abortionists were often guaranteed 10 cases a week to bring the price down to $500. Three years into their illegal operations, the Jane Collective worked almost exclusively with “Nick.” He was performing up to 20 abortions a day before they found he was not actually a doctor.

This revelation caused a split within the group, and many of the members left in disgust. But one member spoke up and said, “Well if he can do it, and he’s not a doctor, then we can do it too.” The collective not only retained Nick as an abortionist but had him train members on how they could do it themselves. These amateur abortionists of the Jane Collective began performing even more illegal procedures on women (because they did not keep records or provide adequate follow-up, no one knows how many women died or were injured because of their work).

For almost three years the Chicago police appear to have turned a blind eye to the illegal and dangerous operation of the collective. But in 1972, police raided an apartment where Jane operated. Three patients waiting for abortions were taken to a hospital, and seven Jane members were arrested. The “Abortion Seven” were indicted and released on bail. But before their case went to trial, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Because of the decision the charges were dropped. Soon afterward the Jane Collective disbanded.

What It Means Today: During their four years in operation, the group is estimated to have carried out 11,000 abortions. This makes the Jane Collective responsible for one of the largest number of serial homicides in modern American history. And yet if you’ve heard of them at all, it’s likely because they are praised as models of “women’s liberation.” (Amazon Studios is making a movie called This Is Jane)

This fawning admiration for Jane show that changing the laws on abortion—as necessary as that is—will not be enough to stamp out the moral horror of abortion. Already, Jane is being used as a model for how abortions will be performed in a post-Roe era. In a 2017 op-ed in The New York Times, Kate Manning wrote that “some activists are preparing for a modern-day service like Jane.” Manning quotes Elizabeth Ziff, a singer in a rock band and member of an “underground feminist group,” as saying, “They—this [Trump] administration—are coming for all of it, the morning-after pill, birth control, abortion, all of it. Women will suffer if we aren’t willing to take radical steps. And that includes learning how to perform abortions.”

Manning also quotes Paul Blumenthal, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University School of Medicine, who says, “You can train anybody to do just about anything. Would I figure out a way to have a safe house somewhere? Would I teach? I might.”

For now, the pro-life movement must remain focused on overturning Roe and abolishing the state laws that allow the killing of the most vulnerable humans. But we must also prepare for the struggle that comes next. We must always remember that the ultimate goal for Christian pro-lifers is not merely to make abortion illegal but to make it unthinkable. As the fans of the Jane Collective show, though, it will take much more work—and even more prayer—before that day comes.

Other articles in this series: 

The Stonewall Riots

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