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This is what it was like to perform abortions before Roe

A former underground provider explains the past — and possible future — of abortion in America.

Women demonstrate on a street corner to demand abortion rights in 1972. A sign reads, “Abortion is a woman’s right!”
Women demonstrate on a New York street corner to demand abortion rights in 1972.
Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Before Roe v. Wade, there was Jane.

Founded in 1969, the Jane collective was a group of women in Chicago who provided abortions when the procedure was still illegal in much of the country. People seeking abortions could call a hotline and leave a message for “Jane,” and members of the collective would meet her, counsel her, and perform the procedure themselves at a secret apartment they called The Place.

The Jane collective (or the Janes, as they sometimes called themselves) have long been known among people familiar with the history of abortion in America. But they’re receiving more attention now as a wave of restrictive anti-abortion laws sweep the country and abortion opponents seek to overturn the Supreme Court’s landmark abortion decision in Roe v. Wade. A scripted film based on the collective, Ask for Jane, premiered last week.

None of the near-total abortion bans passed recently in states like Alabama has gone into effect yet, and abortion remains legal in all 50 states. But with a possible challenge to Roe on the horizon, advocates on both sides of the issue are preparing for a future when that might not be the case. So I spoke with Judith Arcana, one of the original Janes, to find out more about what it was like to perform abortions when they were still illegal.

Arcana, now a writer living in the Pacific Northwest, did not go to medical school — she was a high school English teacher during her time with the collective. But, she told me, her experience learning to perform abortions with Jane changed her relationship to her own body and led her to consider midwifery.

It also led to her arrest in 1972. After Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the charges against Arcana and her fellow Janes were dropped. But if Roe falls, experiences like Arcana’s — and those of her patients — might become more common. I spoke to her by phone about how she trained to do abortions, what the procedure was like, and how she sees the slate of anti-abortion laws around the country right now. Our conversations has been edited and condensed.

Anna North

How did it feel to be performing abortions at a time when abortion was still illegal? Were you scared?

Judith Arcana

I don’t remember being scared, which is possibly to suggest that I was a dimwit. I don’t know. But I think part of the reason I wasn’t scared is that just wasn’t on my mind. That part was just not a concern. What we were doing, the lives of these women and girls, the need for abortion to be done with kindness and skill, for very little or no money, those were the things that I thought about all the time.

Also, I am not someone who thinks that because something is the law it is worthy of my respect. There have been far more laws in the history of this country that were disgusting and loathsome than laws that deserved respect. And although I can’t say that at the age of 27, 28, 29, I had done some kind of major analysis of this, it is certainly something I have thought a lot about since then; particularly because I’ve studied laws around slavery and Jim Crow laws and the other horrors that are literally in the bones of this nation, that are deserving of no respect. And I feel that way about laws against abortion. Any laws against the creation, delivery, and receiving of good health care, those are not laws to be respected.

Anna North

Given your work with Jane, what’s it like to see where we are now with abortion in America? Are we seeing a time when something like Jane is going to be needed again?

Judith Arcana

It’s already happening all over the country. In fact, it’s happening all over the world, and it always has been happening; it happened before there were stupid laws. They’re doing it while we’re talking right now.

And it wouldn’t have to have happened in that kind of covert way if the anti-abortion movement had not risen to such power and changed so much about the way we think and feel about abortion in the United States now.

Judith Arcana
Judith Arcana.
Courtesy of Judith Arcana

Anna North

How did you come to join Jane?

Judith Arcana

In the summer of 1970, I was one of many women on any given day in the history of the universe who thought I was pregnant. My period was very, very late. I thought, “I have to get an abortion,” because my situation was not one in which to make a person. I thought of this guy that I’d gone to high school with. I thought maybe he would do it, but he hadn’t been a medical student long enough.

The next day, he called me back and he said, “Everybody here says call this number and ask for Jane.” When he said here, what he meant was the University of Illinois Medical School. So I did.

First I had this wonderful long conversation with a woman who said, “Hello, my name is Jane. I’m returning your call.” But soon after our call, I got my period.

So I called her back, left a message, and she called me back again; we had another really long, great conversation. We talked on both occasions for at least 45 minutes, maybe an hour. She told me that they would be taking in new people in the fall. And she said, “You know, it sounds like you might be someone who would really be interested.” Though it had never entered my head prior to that summer, after those conversations and that experience, I thought, “Yeah, I might be.”

Anna North

Can you talk to me a little bit about what it was like to actually perform abortions as part of Jane?

Judith Arcana

The first thing that mattered to me when I started to learn the medical part of our work was the realization that this meant that I literally had the lives of these people in my hands. Therefore, I had to be extremely well-trained and had to perform out of that really good training whenever I touched someone’s body medically. I wasn’t somebody who wanted to go to medical school, [but] I did give a lot of thinking to the possibility of midwifery after my services [with Jane].

When I first joined the service, I had not yet put a speculum into my own body, much less someone else’s. I had never given a shot. All of these things as skills were not only fascinating but enormously important.

So the tools, the skills, and then about bodies: like most women under several centuries of misogyny and patriarchy, we really knew very little about our bodies and had a lot of embarrassment about our bodies.

Seeing all these bodies [made me see] my own body differently. Whether I was holding a woman’s hand because I was the Jane sitting beside the bed where she was having her abortion, or putting a speculum into her or giving a shot or whatever, that was also really important learning for me as a woman, as a human, to be able to deal with these things completely differently from that time on. I was having a real experience, not the misogynistic stuff that was in the culture at large all my life before that.

Anna North

What kind of counseling did you provide before an abortion?

Judith Arcana

I would tell you, based on how pregnant you were, what the procedure would be that we would be using and what the effects are on the body. And talk about the fact that this is illegal and that together we, both you and I and the others, we are all breaking the law. And know that you want to do this for sure. And for real.

Now, I’ve got to tell you that a lot of women really didn’t want to hear anything political. They just [said], “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do me and I’ll go home.” Who can blame them, you know?

But we felt this tremendous sense of responsibility to make clear what was going on and how that would matter in our lives and our time together.

Anna North

Can you walk me through an abortion procedure you would perform on a patient?

Judith Arcana

For a while, we had what we called “the paste,” which actually looked like a tube of toothpaste. It was a Canadian product. Naturally, it was illegal to have it in the United States. But for a long time, we were able to get it.

It would cause dilation of the cervix. So we would put in a speculum, squeeze some of the paste onto the woman’s cervix, and that would cause a miscarriage within usually 24 hours.

When we didn’t have the paste, we would put in a speculum, do a very slight dilation if necessary, depending on how far along the pregnancy was, and then break the amniotic sac so that the amniotic fluid would come out. The woman and the Jane sitting beside the bed would press down on her belly gently, but very firmly, to be sure that all the liquid came out. The idea is that the loss of the fluid will cause contractions, and then she miscarries.

And in the earlier days, [after the procedure] we would, if we could, be in phone contact with her, or tell her what she had to tell the people she was going to be with. Although, of course, as you may imagine, many women and girls did it alone. In secret. It was dire.

In the last year or so that the service existed, we had what we called the midwife apartment. There were a couple of Janes who actually lived there or lived there part time, shared the space. And when a woman would [begin to miscarry], we would send her there, unless she had other arrangements that she felt more comfortable with. And that Jane would midwife the miscarriage.

Anna North

I know sometimes you must have lost track of people, but how often did you hear about complications?

Judith Arcana

It’s hard to say how often. It wasn’t what I would call often. Sometimes there would be more bleeding than one would like after even a full D and C [dilation and curettage, a method of surgical abortion]. They would call us and we would talk them through it or, we always said to them in advance, think about what medical person you might call if indeed there is some reason. And sometimes there were doctors who were kind enough who would help them. What we did ultimately was create an internal list of the small number of local docs who were willing to help when a woman did have complications. Those guys were friends of the service, so to speak.

Anna North

Can you tell me a little about your training? Who trained you, how long did it take, and how did the training work?

Judith Arcana

The initial Janes learned from our main man, the abortionist that we wound up working with more than any of the others. He believed in what we were doing, and we leaned on him big time.

We started with simple things like inserting specula and giving shots. And then we learned how to do what we called long-terms, which is to say induced miscarriages for women who were too far along in their pregnancies for a D and C. D and C, while not particularly difficult, it’s definitely more complicated than inducing a miscarriage.

But anyway, we learned that first, and once we were feeling comfortable with that, we began to lean on him further. He was going to leave town, so he taught us everything, helped us get what we needed. And by the time he left, some of us had been trained in everything by him.

Anna North

Where did you get the equipment and medications and other things that you needed?

Judith Arcana

We only charged $100 or what you could afford. Which means, some people paid $15, some people paid $40, and so on. But there were so many of them that cash was coming in. And so we had money to buy both the drugs that we needed — antibiotics, etc. — and the tools that we needed. A Jane would go to a medical supply house and buy many bags of plastic speculums, and so on and so forth.

Anna North

Where did you perform the procedures?

Judith Arcana

We had two places which we referred to as The Front and The Place. The Front was almost always an apartment of someone who was what I like to call a friend of the service. If you and I were neighbors and friends, [and] I already knew that you were in favor of what we were doing, I would say to you, “Anna, do you think that you could let us use your place next week on Tuesday for The Front?” And you would say, “Sure.” So what people would do is they would evacuate their homes for the day. And we would use that apartment as the place where women were given an address and came to.

There would be coffee and tea, and soda and water, and maybe some snacks and someone there to answer questions. And they would be then driven from that apartment to somebody else’s apartment, what we called The Place.

The same thing happened to get those apartments, we asked our friends. And we arrived earlier so that we could set out all the equipment, be sure everything was sterilized, bring in our own sheets and cover them with plastic and so on.

But in the very last year, we had an apartment that we actually rented. So many women needed abortions that enough money was coming in to be able to do this. Three people could be doing abortions in these three bedrooms in this apartment, all at the same time. So that was much better for everyone.

That, unfortunately, came to an end when we were busted.

Anna North

Why the two locations, The Front and The Place? Was it so that the address of The Place wouldn’t get out?

Judith Arcana


Anna North

You mentioned being busted. Can you talk about what that experience was like?

Judith Arcana

Of course, it was shocking to get busted. We knew that for the most part, the Chicago police were not antipathetic to our work. We knew that the cops in our own neighborhoods, the places where we generally worked, knew all about us.

But these cops came from a different neighborhood, because the woman who called the cops on us was from a completely different part of the city. She was the sister or sister-in-law of a woman who was coming through the service, who had confided in her, but she didn’t think it was okay.

And so she rang them. The process itself was, first, many, many hours of their rounding up everybody, taking them down to the station. They had 40, 45 people there. It was a lot of tension. All of us had to call people. And then when they took us to the lockup and took our pictures and fingerprints, everything got much heavier.

The lockup itself, of course, is horrendous. It was filled with women who had been arrested for various things. Some screaming, some crying, some silent, some sobbing. We were luckily put — six of us, anyway — in cells next to each other. So we shouted back and forth among ourselves. But it was pretty frightening.

I was at the time a nursing mother of a baby, and he was 7 months old at that time. My most frightened thought was they’ll take my baby. They’ll say I’m an unfit mother.

Being in the lockup was no treat, but that one, it was my personal big one. And there were other women who were mothers as well.

Anna North

You mentioned that you thought about going into midwifery after this. How did you see that as related to what you were doing with Jane?

Judith Arcana

Well, there’s no question. Doing abortions was one of the tasks of midwives until the American male medical industry took it over. Until the beginning of the 20th century, midwives did childbirth, abortion. They did everything.

That is hundreds, I would say thousands of years old: that the community’s midwives, the wise women, the witches, they are the ones who dealt with birth and abortion and everything else connected.

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