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“The Janes”: Meet the Women Who Formed a Collective to Provide Safe Abortions Before Roe v. Wade

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Image Credit: Pentimento Productions

Editor’s Note: The Supreme Court overturned Roe. v. Wade five months after this interview aired. On July 27, 2023, “The Janes” received four Emmy nominations for “Best Documentary,” “Outstanding Social Issue Documentary,” “Outstanding Research: Documentary” and “Outstanding Direction: Documentary.”

As conservative justices on the Supreme Court threaten to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortions nationwide, we speak to the filmmakers and a subject of “The Janes” about life before Roe, when a collective of women in Chicago built an underground service for women seeking an abortion. Heather Booth, who founded the Jane Collective as a college student, speaks about adopting lessons from the civil rights movement and antiwar sentiments of the time. “You have to stand up to illegitimate authority,” says Booth. The directors of the film, Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin, speak about their motivation to encourage others to take action in the face of human rights under threat.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Saturday marked the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. Will it be overturned by this summer, as the Supreme Court signals its support for extreme restrictions? On Friday, thousands of people joined the annual anti-choice March for Life in Washington, D.C., and celebrated a possible end to the constitutional right to abortion. There were also counterprotests. During an overnight prayer vigil by religious groups Thursday at the largest Catholic Church in the country, the abortion rights group Catholics for Choice projected pro-choice messages onto its side.

JAMIE MANSON: Lift up the voices of the majority of Catholics in the United States who support abortion rights and do not want to see Roe v. Wade struck down. One in four abortion patients in this country identifies as Catholic. … We need to start listening to them. We need to think about the human toll of not having access to reproductive healthcare. And as people of faith, we need to be loud, and we need to be bold and take back the narrative from this right-wing, Christian nationalist, anti-feminist, white supremacist movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Whether Roe v. Wade will mark 50 years next year depends in part on a ruling expected this June from the Supreme Court in a case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which challenges a Mississippi law banning abortions starting at just 15 weeks of pregnancy. On Thursday, the Supreme Court rejected another attempt by abortion rights advocates and providers to block Texas’s six-week abortion ban. At least 26 states — more than half the country — have laws in place to immediately ban abortion if the court overturns Roe.

For more on what life was like before January 22nd, 1973, ruling in Roe that gave Americans the right to abortion, we’re joined by three guests. Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes are the directors of The Janes. It’s premiering tonight at the Sundance Film Festival virtually around the globe and will air later this year on HBO. It tells the story of the Jane Collective, which was formed in 1968 in Chicago when a college student and civil rights activist named Heather Booth sought help finding a doctor to help a desperate friend who needed an abortion. Heather Booth also joins us now. This year’s Sundance, which kicked off Thursday, is also featuring a dramatic film called Call Jane that stars Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, and also features a film called Happening about a woman getting an abortion in France in the 1960s — three films at this year’s film festival on choice, on abortion.

Heather Booth, let’s begin with you. You’re featured in The Janes documentary. Talk about how you ended up founding the Jane Collective.

HEATHER BOOTH: Amy, thanks for allowing us to talk about what life was like both before Roe and about what life could be like. And the key lesson we have is that we need to take action now. We need to organize. And if we organize, we can change the world.

Before Roe, I was involved in the civil rights movement. I went with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to Mississippi in 1964, when Northern students were recruited to support the courageous struggle for Black people in Mississippi for the right to vote. And I learned three key lessons from that. One is that even in desperate times, that when people come together and organize, we can change this world. In the civil rights movement, we won a Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act. The second lesson I learned is you really have to act on what is morally correct. You need to try and build a beloved community, work with compassion and caring for others. And the third lesson is that sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority.

It’s that background and those lessons that were, I think, operating for me when a friend asked me: Could I find a doctor to perform an abortion for his sister, who was pregnant and nearly suicidal, wasn’t ready to have a child? I found a doctor through the Medical Committee for Human Rights, the medical arm of the civil rights movement, a Dr. T.R.M. Howard, who himself had been a civil rights leader until his name appeared on a Klan death list in Mississippi, and he came to Chicago. I made the connection between my friend and that doctor, really just out of a wish to do a good deed — kind of the Golden Rule: You want to treat others as you might want to be treated. I’ve never faced a situation of needing an abortion myself or wanting it. And I didn’t really think much more about it until someone else called, because word must have spread. I made the connection again. And then someone else called. And so I set up a system and learned much more about what was involved. And after a while, Dr. Howard was no longer available, and I found someone else, whose name was Mike. And the calls kept coming in. More and more people were coming. And I was involved with — I was in grad school at that time. I was working full time. I was about to have my first child, out of a movement marriage that we’ve had for over 50 years.

AMY GOODMAN: You were married to the great labor organizer Paul Booth, before he died.

HEATHER BOOTH: Yes, he worked with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for over 43 years. And he had been a student leader. We actually met at a sit-in against the War in Vietnam.

And at that time, I realized we need to bring more people into this. I couldn’t still manage the counseling of the women who were coming through on my own. And I recruited other women and trained them in what I had learned about the procedure and how to support the women who were coming through. Over time, as more and more women were seeking this help on the most intimate decision people make in their lives, about when or whether to have a child or how many children to have, at that point the women found out that Mike wasn’t himself a doctor, and they realized that if Mike could do it, they could do it. And so, the women of Jane, which is what we called this building collective — the women of Jane ended up performing over 11,000 abortions between when I made that first contact in 1965 and 1973, when Roe became the law of the land. And Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes do an extraordinary job in documenting this in the remarkable movie The Janes.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Tia Lessin, you’re an Oscar-, Emmy-nominated filmmaker. You really, in this film, with Emma, bring together how the movements come together, how the Jane Collective, as Heather was describing, came out of these different movements, the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement — [T.R.M.] Howard, the doctor who was imprisoned several times for performing abortions at his clinic in Chicago, and he himself had fled Mississippi, targeted by the KKK. Can you talk more about that?

TIA LESSIN: Well, thank you, Amy. Yeah. I mean, Chicago at that time was the epicenter of so much turmoil, so much organizing. You know, it was the headquarters of the Young Lords. The Black Panther Party had an enormous chapter there. Martin Luther King came to the city in '65 and ’66 to wage the Freedom Campaign. And there was also a burgeoning women's movement. And, of course, in 1968, Mayor Daley’s thugs beat down the protesters at the Democratic National Convention.

And out of this context came so many of the Janes. You know, Heather, as she described it, was a volunteer at Freedom Summer. Patricia Novick, Reverend Novick, organized the marches in the Southwest of Chicago that were so viciously assaulted by the white supremacists who lined the streets. Marie Leaner was a paralegal for Bobby Seale as part of the Chicago 8 defense team. These women, forces of nature, were all the members of Jane, and many, many, many, many more. They came out — the women’s movement, the antiwar movement, the student movement, the civil rights movement, these were the training grounds for these women.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma Pildes, you are so key to this documentary in so many ways, aside from co-directing it. You were the family connection to the Janes. Talk about Judith Arcana.

EMMA PILDES: Well, she — you know, she’s an incredible woman that did an incredibly brave thing, as they all did. Like you said, I have this family connection to the film. My brother, actually, who’s a producer on the film, sort of looked around when Trump got into office and it seemed like he would likely pack the courts, and said, “We’re in trouble.” So, you know, I think part of the reason that these women spoke, certainly, was the family connection we had, but I think the real reason that they spoke was because they were feeling the same way that we were feeling, and they were seeing the same things that we were seeing, and they were terrified.

And so, you know, I feel like they were likely, perhaps, feeling called to duty again, as were we. You know, Tia and I are filmmakers. That’s the arrow we have in our quiver. And we knew that this was something we could do. We could bring this story of organizing, of bravery, of taking care of your sisters and brothers, and remind people that when things are feeling dire and you’re feeling out of control and it feels like the country isn’t valuing women’s lives, that there’s things that you can do. You know, Jody, in the film, says so beautifully, they felt the need to disrespect a law that was disrespecting women. So that’s always an option. And these women were incredibly brave and inspiring. So, we feel really lucky to have been able to make this film.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back two years on Democracy Now! when we interviewed Alice Fox, a former member of the underground abortion group Jane, who talked about her own experience calling the abortion collective when she found out she was pregnant.

ALICE FOX: At that time, there was no question of me remaining pregnant. I was in a new relationship, and abortion was already legal in New York, so I knew — I had enough knowledge to know that that was an option for me. And it was clearly — it was not a decision I had trouble making, that I needed to have an abortion at that time. Was fresh out of college myself. And interestingly — and I’m not sure I remember my thinking around that time — it didn’t really occur to me to come to New York. I really was in an independent state of mind and felt I could take care of my own life, and saw an ad about, “Pregnant? Call Jane.” And immediately, I felt confident, and from that initial interaction over the telephone —

AMY GOODMAN: What did you say? You called up, said you were pregnant.

ALICE FOX: I called the number.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did the person say? Who was it?

ALICE FOX: I think it was a message. The first one was “Please leave your name” and maybe the date of your last period. I don’t remember what the actual information was that I left on that time. But I was called back pretty promptly. I don’t recall being in a state of waiting very long.

And I then met with a counselor at that time, and she gave me all the information about what would happen. And I was in her home, with her young children running around. And I was — I felt totally comfortable, confident, not frightened. You know, I hear these stories of the worry and the fear that what lay ahead was some nightmare. I don’t recall feeling that for a moment. And I felt very proud of myself for taking care of myself. And —

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened? What did she do in this home with her kids?

ALICE FOX: So, she laid out to me exactly what would happen in the procedure, that I would be taken care of, that I would — exactly all the steps that would happen, that I would be driven to a place, that I would be safe and taken care of, that someone would be by my side the whole time, and that the procedure — she described the procedure itself, which at that time was a D&C — and that I would be — I think I was taken with a group of women so that I wasn’t by myself. There was a few women — maybe Laura can correct me, but that’s my memory, that there were a few people each time that a procedure was scheduled. And she described the procedure in detail, which, again, was an incredibly — I don’t think I had ever been described a medical procedure before by someone saying, “This is exactly what’s going to happen.” And I was prepared.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Alice Fox, a former member of the underground group Jane, and she’s referring to Laura, Laura Kaplan, another member, who wrote the book The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service. But the way, Tia Lessin, she talks about the procedure, Heather just referred to Mike, the so-called doctor — at least people thought perhaps he was a doctor at the beginning. But tell us this character, who you, amazingly, were able to speak. And then we’re going to talk about the arrests, and you got one of the cops who arrested the women, like Judith.

TIA LESSIN: Well, listen, I mean, you have to remember that at that time, you know, in the '60s, especially in the early ’60s, abortion was illegal in every state of the country except Hawaii. That changed, slowly began to change in 1970, when New York legalized abortion. But doctors or people who performed abortions risked arrest. They risked prosecution. They risked jail sentences up to 10 years per count. It wasn't simply performing an abortion that was illegal. It was actually advertising, circulating information about abortion. And so, there were many doctors who were just not willing to take this risk, even in the privacy of their own offices or clinics. And those that did, many that did charged exorbitant rates.

And, you know, frankly, women were subjected to all sorts of sexual exploitation, financial exploitation. And they couldn’t guarantee their own safety. So, women were risking potential injury, you know, infection and even death. Countless women ended up in the morgue. There were septic abortion wards in Chicago and every city of this country when abortion was illegal, because when abortion is illegal, it doesn’t mean that women don’t get abortions, it just means that women have a really hard time finding safe, affordable abortions. So, that —

AMY GOODMAN: Perhaps it means that women — 

TIA LESSIN: — that was the context that Mike came out of.

AMY GOODMAN: — women still get abortions, but they die.

TIA LESSIN: That’s right. They die. And so, the provider that Heather found, through doctor friends of hers, was quite skilled. He was born and raised in Chicago, and he was very adept at the procedure. He called himself Dr. Kaplan. And so, I think the women assumed, rightly so, that he was a doctor. And, in fact, he was not a trained medical professional, but he was trained by a surgeon. And he was a, you know, salt-of-the-earth, very good guy. And he certainly was in it for financial reasons, for financial gain, but the Janes were able to negotiate, charm him and also, you know, offer up some volume, and he discounted the procedure greatly. And so they were able to offer the procedure, which cost at that time the equivalent of thousands of dollars, for cut rates, safe, affordable, and also protected, in some cases, from police, until they weren’t.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Heather Booth —

TIA LESSIN: So, we were very — yeah. I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Heather, I mean, the power of when — realizing he was not a doctor, the women said, “Hey, then we could do this.” And the idea that there were 11,000 women who got the procedure, and no one died, unlike the rest of the country.

HEATHER BOOTH: In fact, there was a study that was done after Roe became the law, comparing how safe Jane was compared to procedures that were done in established medical facilities. And Jane was even more effective than the official establishment, because Jane was a women-centered collective. It was not done for profit. It was — as much of the medical system is done now. And it was done out of caring and concern and a moral commitment to the women.

And we should realize how common abortion is. One in four women now of reproductive age will have an abortion. So, if you see one in four — and you count one, two, three, four — one of them is likely to have or select an abortion in their lifetime. So this is not rare. It needs to be safe and legal and accessible.

And I want to go back to one thing that Alice Fox said on that clip that you played. She said that she didn’t think of going to New York, and so she found Jane in Chicago. But, in fact, people with means, people who were in middle-class or in more secure situations or had family or other support, finally could go to New York or Colorado or Hawaii or abroad to Sweden and find a way to get an abortion legally. But people who were poor, people who didn’t have means, who didn’t have support, they had almost nothing to turn to.

And we’re now facing that kind of situation, where women in Texas, at six weeks, not only would they be denied the ability to make this most intimate decision in their life, but it’s even worse than that. There’s now a kind of vigilante, bounty hunter rule in Texas that says that neighbor can report on neighbor and gain up to $10,000 as a bounty if you report on someone who’s actually trying to make an arrangement about getting or receiving an abortion.

And so, this disproportionately impacts people who are poor, who are less — have less healthcare options available to them and don’t have the kind of supports that would let them have a fuller life and full participation in the society.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma Pildes, I want to end with you and the arrests. What happened to the Jane Collective? I mean, the arrests didn’t end it, but, I mean, what the women faced? Heather was not among them at the time who got arrested. How many years in prison, accused of providing abortion or conspiracy to provide abortion?

EMMA PILDES: Yeah, so it was 11 counts each of abortion or conspiracy to commit abortion, with 10 years or the possibility of 10 years on every count. So, each of the seven women that were arrested that day were facing 110 years in jail. So, that was terrifying and a position they should never be put in. This shouldn’t be on their shoulders to be providing medical care, healthcare, basic healthcare, for women in this country and then possibly be facing jail time and being away from —

AMY GOODMAN: And then, explain what happened. Of course, the significance of what’s threatened today? It’s not that they went to trial and they were acquitted.

EMMA PILDES: Yeah. So, there is a — you know, listen, in addition to this being an incredible story and timely story, it’s just a great story. There’s a lot of natural drama. And one of those moments is, you know, there was a bust. They got busted. And they were waiting for — they were waiting for trial, but Roe passed, and so they were exonerated. And, you know, in this same moment that women across the country were freed, the Janes were freed. But, you know, it’s just heartache all around. You know —


EMMA PILDES: — the women — sorry, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we’re going to have to end, but I highly encourage people to see this movie when it comes out on HBO. Tonight it’s premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin are the directors of The Janes. Heather Booth is the founder of the Jane Collective as a student in Chicago. It will air later this year on HBO.

When we come back, we speak to the fiancée of Julian Assange. A British judge has ruled the WikiLeaks founder can appeal a December court decision to extradite him to the U.S. Stay with us.

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