In 1965, Heather Booth received a desperate phone call from a friend whose sister needed an abortion. Booth called around and eventually found a medical practitioner willing to perform the procedure, which was illegal across the country, in secret. As word of Booth’s actions spread, she began helping other women with unwanted pregnancies until the workload became too much for one person to handle. Booth reached out to other women’s liberation activists, and together, they formed the Jane Collective in Chicago. The Jane Collective worked to address unsafe illegal abortions by training themselves to provide women with safer and more affordable procedures. In its eight years of operation before Roe v. Wade codified the right to abortion across the United States, the Jane Collective would provide around 11,000 underground abortions, primarily to low-income women of color.
In the past year, the reproductive protections won by women in the 1970s and ’80s have come under greater and greater threat. As state-level legislatures have chipped away at abortion rights and access in states around the country, Roe v. Wade’s federal precedent feels more fragile than ever. The College Hill Independent took this opportunity to sit down with Heather Booth to reflect on her work and the legacy of the Jane Collective. We discussed the abortion rights movements of the 1960s and 2010s; resistance to the forces that control, harm, and even kill pregnant people; and how Booth took reproductive justice into her own hands.
Can you describe to me the path of a woman in Chicago who finds herself pregnant in the 1960s and is hoping to access an abortion?
Truth is, that’s not what we asked people. I can tell you what I suspect, but this isn't from personal experience. I'm sure many women found no option. They turned to friends and family, maybe there was a midwife. Amongst them, maybe there was a girl friend who suggested something that they do. Some probably inflicted harm on themselves. And many of them were those who didn't feel they were ready, and felt terror about the options. For those who were wealthier, they might have realized that there were other places they could go. You could go to other countries; at one point, you could get an abortion in New York, Colorado, or Hawaii. And they sought those options.
For those who were connected initially, it was through a college network at the University of Chicago. Then word was spread through a college network in the Midwest. People came from University of Wisconsin and other places in the Midwest. They might have seen advertising around it, or heard from friends, and so on, that there was a number to call “Jane.” Early on, it was my personal phone number. As soon as I picked up the phone, you could tell there was a sort of a pause, and they weren't quite sure what to say. And so it was pretty clear what they were calling about, and I’d say, “Are you calling for Jane?” They would say yes. “Are you calling about abortion?” They would say yes. At that point, I’d tell them that I'm there to help them and had a few questions to put them in touch with a physician and a doctor who could work with them and provide the procedure. I’d ask them some questions: How is their general health? How far along are they? Where do they live? Do they have any funding? I’d tell them what the dollar amount was, I tell them what the range of time was, what the details were in terms of pickup and arrangements. Then I’d give them the name of the doctor, and they could make the arrangements themselves. I made sure that they could call me if they had any questions, before or after, go through what I understood what happened during the procedure, and see if they had any questions and any issues that I felt I needed to raise to, initially Dr. Howard, and then to Mike [two of the first doctors to provide abortions through the Jane Collective]. And that was it—I’d give them the number to call and who they should ask for.
You mentioned when Jane first started, you used your personal phone number. I'm wondering how you thought about and dealt with the risk of what you were doing, and if you ever had moments where you were questioning whether or not it was worth that risk, and potentially that fear?
I don't recall wondering about that. I had been in Mississippi in the Civil Rights Movement, and we were taking actions that might even mean risking my life. I was arrested. I realized I might risk arrest, but it was for a cause that matters for improving the world and people's lives. So it was a risk I was willing to take. I wanted very much to live, I did not want to be arrested, I did not want to die or be harmed. I certainly didn't want to harm others. But I faced that situation where you take actions to challenge illegitimate authority and challenge unjust laws. I also hoped that it wouldn't be public, no one would know. So I tried to minimize the risk. I didn't focus on the consequences a lot.
And do you feel as though those sentiments were largely shared by the other women and the friends that you brought in?
You felt really as though the risk reversal was worth it, because you were fighting for something that mattered so much. One thing is, I didn't discuss it other than with my husband and with my closest friends. Even many close friends I didn't discuss it with, when I was involved with Jane. So I don't know what we were thinking about. It wasn't the focus. It was 1965 to 1969 when I was involved, a time of intense movement and struggle in the country: on civil rights, on the war in Vietnam, and the beginning of a women's rights movement. We were struggling against very powerful interests. And there will be risks involved with the horrors of what was going on, from massacre in Vietnam, the harm in division to our country, the selection of elected officials by elected officials, the unjust and murderous treatment of African Americans, the unjust treatment of women—but they were things that needed to be addressed.
How do you see today’s reproductive justice movement departing from the reproductive justice movement in the 1960s?
For the similarities, [the movement of the ’60s] was out of concern for women's health and women's role in society, and for the health of all people. And I think that's still true, that health and abortion are deeply tied to all issues. There are also a number of differences. Race, gender, and class analysis is much more seriously understood and embraced by people who are fighting on these issues. One portion of a movement around abortion came out of the eugenics movement, out of a white, privileged, upper-class interest in population control. There's a greater understanding now that all these issues are tied together: immigration reform, civil rights, healthcare overall, money in politics, human rights or international issues. I think there's a greater connection between the issues now than there was then.
There's a much more virulent right wing that is using abortion as a right-wing base-building issue, and it's become much more politicized. I think there's a new political divide on it. And then the rise of Planned Parenthood as a power force currently is quite different. At one point, people didn't know how to do abortions. Now, there's a whole generation of people who've learned how. There is a whole population that, number one, knows how to do it, and, number two, has the confidence that they can do it and the belief that they should do. So we have changed as a movement.
When folks call you nowadays and and tell you that there's a need in their community to form some some type of underground abortion network, how do you guide them? What kind of advice do you give?
More recently, I've been receiving an increasing number of calls from people who are interested in creating some kind of underground. I tell them what was involved, when I was involved, and raise certain things to consider. There's transportation, there's medical supplies, there's legal support. I understand there are new networks, but I haven't been tracking it. I wonder now if I should be tracking. With this decision about federal funding, if people give abortion counseling, it just means the services will be so much less provided. So legally, I think that the need will be even greater.
Beyond the technical cost and logistics and transport, do folks ever ask you for more personal guidance in terms of dealing with things, like facing the inherent risk?
I've tried to speak from experience, trying to be supportive of people who are looking for alternatives. I've really emphasized the need to focus on the fight, to keep it safe and legal. One in four women of reproductive age will have an abortion in their life. We have to fight to keep this legal. This is an essential part of the healthcare system. Current circumstances are such that I'm increasingly supportive of those who go on to restarting an underground, because the repression and oppression of women for full participation in the society of women's health is so serious right now.
It feels like the Jane Collective never saw legislation or legal protections as the true answer to full bodily autonomy—they literally took women’s health into their own hands. Do you still feel that same way today, or do you feel like the legal system and federal government can actually be the enactor of reproductive justice?
I believe that on this issue, and on all issues, to make democracy work, we need an engaged population. We need people to take action, we need them to be organized, to reach out and engage others for democracy to work. It needs to be in our hands. I do believe the government which represents us, if it is in our hands, should have laws to ensure that medical procedures that are necessary for people’s lives and quality of life are supported with full access.
MARA DOLAN B’19.5 and MIA PATTILLO B’20 will always pick up their phones.