An underground abortion group in the spotlight, 50 years later

Washington (AFP) – Heather Booth was a student in Chicago in 1965 when she received a call from a friend in need. His sister, he said, was pregnant but not ready to have a child. She was “almost suicidal”.

Drawing on her contacts in the city, Booth helped the young woman find a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion – in what she believed was a one-time “act of goodwill”.

“But the word must have spread,” the 76-year-old said in an interview from her home in Washington, more than half a century later.

This single act would become an underground network of women called “Jane”, whose members helped end thousands of unwanted pregnancies safely and without stigma – eventually performing 11,000 abortions themselves.

On January 22, 1973 – when the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, created a national abortion right – seven members of “Jane” were awaiting trial.

One of them was Martha Scott, who at the age of 80 – and with the court now expected to repeal that right – is defiantly reversing her decision to break the law many years ago. years.

“I had a very strong feeling … that we were doing this illegal thing because it’s important to do it, because it can’t be done legally,” Scott said in a video interview from his home in Chicago.

Before being caught and arrested, Martha Scott (2nd from left in this image courtesy of HBO) had learned to perform abortions, with the group eventually performing more than 11,000 of them. – HBO/AFP

“We were just ladies on the street,” she said, but “bad laws force you to choose to act in a way that can be a little risky.”

“Caring Community”

Booth and Scott, whose journey with the ‘Janes’ is highlighted in an upcoming HBO documentary, have vivid memories of the days before Roe – when desperate women hurt each other trying to end their pregnancies .

“Some would take lye (a caustic ingredient in soap), others would use a clothes hanger,” Booth said. “Some hurt themselves by throwing themselves down the stairs or from the top of a roof.”

The story of the Jane Collective will be told in an upcoming HBO documentary, which has taken on added prominence as <a class=the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. wade” srcset=”” sizes=”” loading=”lazy” class=”m-figure__img lazy”/>
The story of the Jane Collective will be told in an upcoming HBO documentary, which has taken on added prominence as the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. wade – HBO/AFP

Without alternatives, women sought abortions from illegal providers, many of whom were profit-driven or otherwise unscrupulous, with no regard for the women’s health.

Eleanor Oliver, another former member of the network, said that when she asked for an illegal abortion in Washington, she was told the doctor might want her to be “a little more comfortable and friendlier than just a patient. “.

Fortunately, said Oliver, now 84, “he was very professional, very official”.

As word spread that Booth could help women have safe abortions, more people started reaching out to her — and she recruited others to help her.

To be discreet, they told callers to leave a message for ‘Jane’ – and the group, established as a ‘caring community’, was born.

Eleanor Oliver, who was part of the
Eleanor Oliver, who was part of the ‘Jane’ collective and had an illegal abortion herself, said the doctor who ultimately helped her was “very serious”. Stefani ReynoldsAFP

After some time, the group found out that their abortionist was not a licensed doctor – a shock which led to some members leaving.

But others, Scott said, realized that if a man without professional training could learn to perform safe abortions, so could they.


In May 1972, the police burst into the apartment where the “Jane” collective operates.

“They kept saying, ‘So where’s the doctor?’… ‘Where’s the guy who does abortions?'” recalls Scott, who was in one of the bedrooms that had been converted into cabinets. .

“Well, of course, it wasn’t just any guy doing abortions…we were doing abortions.”

She and six others were arrested and taken to jail, where they spent the night – before being released to await trial.

Following Roe v. Wade, the charges against the “Janes” were dropped and the group disbanded.

Half a century later, however, their work seems relevant again, after a leak revealed that the Supreme Court is seriously considering a complete overthrow of Roe.

Scott was “furious, just furious” at the news – but “not surprised” either, in light of former President Donald Trump’s appointment of three conservative anti-abortion judges, tilting the bench decisively to the right .

If the national abortion right is overturned – leaving states free to enact “dangerous” restrictions – Scott expects a new generation of activists will have to step in.

“What we have to do is use all the tools at our disposal,” Booth echoed.

While conservative-run states would have to drastically restrict abortion rights if given carte blanche, it would remain legal in many other states — “islands in the storm,” as Booth calls them.

Some, like Illinois, have already decided to ease their abortion restrictions in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling.

Poorer women – less able to travel out of state – will be hardest hit, as seen in Texas where abortions after six weeks have already been effectively banned.

But new drugs can safely induce abortions up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy and – although still illegal – can easily be sent in the mail.

Heather Booth observes a quilt that documents the social campaigns she has worked on, at her home in Washington
Heather Booth observes a quilt that documents the social campaigns she has worked on, at her home in Washington Stefani ReynoldsAFP

Thus, Scott and Booth hope that the United States does not return to the dark days of clandestine abortions.

“Abortions won’t stop,” Booth said, citing data that shows one in four American women will end a pregnancy at some point in their lives.

“It’s not uncommon, and it must be safe.”

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