The forgotten history of the women who performed illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade

Ask for Jane is a movie about "bravery and courage and empowerment because it is women doing it for each other."

Still from the 2019 film "Ask for Jane." (Credit: levelFILM)
Still from the 2019 film "Ask for Jane." (Credit: levelFILM)

This story contains spoilers for the movie Ask for Jane.

It’s common knowledge that before Roe v. Wade, people had abortions — they just weren’t safe, and sometimes deadly. In 1972 alone, 39 women who had illegal abortions died, according to federal data, and the actual number is likely higher. People of color faced greater risk of death. During the early 1960s in New York City, abortion accounted for one in two childbirth-related deaths among Puerto Rican women, as compared to one in four white women.

But what’s not widely known is the history of the women who tried to make illegal abortion safer. There was a secret network in the Midwest that connected women who needed abortions with willing doctors. Eventually, the Janes, as they referred to themselves, learned to perform the procedure themselves — and did it at a much cheaper price.

A new indie film that debuted in select theaters Friday tells the incredible story of the Jane Collective, which carried out thousands of abortions from 1969 to 1973 in Chicago. The release of Ask For Jane couldn’t be timelier as the country reckons with the possibility of Roe being overturned by the current conservative Supreme Court

“Women’s bodies are always in men’s hands — I always went to a male doctor. But this was us doing it for us,” said a Jane, played by Cody Horn, in the film. She had just performed her first abortion.


“You know what’s funny, midwives have probably been doing this for thousands of years, they just didn’t talk about it,” said another Jane, played by Cait Cortelyou.

The collective began with a few college students referring their classmates to a doctor who was willing to perform the procedure, as the film, which is based on true events, shows. Eventually, they organized.

“We believe in women’s liberation and we believe that women will never be fully liberated unless they can control whether and when they get pregnant,” said Horn’s character, as she pitched what would soon become the Jane Collective to other women.

The Janes found a doctor who didn’t overcharge or treat patients poorly and set up a de facto clinic. Anyone who needed to terminate their pregnancy would call a number, which they likely heard about through word of mouth, and leave a message. Eventually a “Callback Jane” would return their call for more information. Incorporating tactics and lessons from the mob, the Jane Collective would first take patients to a “front” for counseling, and then a driver would take them to another spot for the actual procedure, blindfolded.

The women who were part of the Jane Collective would later discover that their doctor, though skilled, didn’t have a medical license and that, thanks to the relative simplicity of the procedure, perhaps a license wasn’t necessary to do it. The doctor taught some of the Janes how to perform the procedure and they began doing so themselves, offering their services at a much lower cost.


ThinkProgress spoke with Judith Arcana, who was part of the Jane Collective, about what it was like to perform abortions at a time when it was illegal.

“Not that I thought it was simple or easy, but that I thought ‘Oh yeah, I can do this,'” said Arcana, who is now 76 years old.

“Frankly, it was just mind blowing to put in the speculum, whip out the flashlight in the mirror and say ‘wow, I am actually looking into my own vagina, I am looking at my own cervix’ and then doing it with other women and saying, ‘Okay, here’s what I see’ — that was amazing,” she added.

As the women who learned to perform first-trimester abortions would learn and as the film goes on to portray, the actual procedure itself isn’t very complicated. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, with some lawmakers believing it requires cutting into the uterus. But in reality, most abortions don’t require surgery. Indeed, abortion is usually safer than wisdom tooth extraction. That’s why, depending on the state, doctors aren’t the only ones performing abortions anymore — physician assistants and nurse practitioners can as well.

“It was both palpably and politically, intellectually empowering. It gave us information that had been kept from us all this time,” Arcana told ThinkProgress.

Cortelyou, who starred in and produced the film, said people who’ve watched it are constantly surprised the Janes did it themselves. As states legalized abortion, rich patients were able to access it, but lower income people still relied on the Janes for their significantly cheaper services, allowing patients to pay what they can.


“Ultimately, this is a movie about bravery and courage and empowerment because it is women doing it for each other — us doing it for us,” Cortelyou told ThinkProgress.

To a degree, groups like the Jane Collective still exist in the United States. There are grassroots, practical-support groups that drive women and gender minorities who need abortions to clinics that are inaccessible, thanks to TRAP laws that led to many clinics closing. There are also abortion funds because certain state laws restrict what insurance covers.

Workarounds have been, like in the past, laymen performing abortions themselves. Thanks to modern medicine, people can terminate a pregnancy up to 10 weeks by taking mifepristone and misoprostol 24 hours apart. A Dutch physician is actually sending medication abortion by mail to Americans who can’t access this health care in a clinic.    

Ask for Jane reminds us what happened before Roe, but with the recent abortion bans advanced in Georgia and Alabama, we’re also reminded of what could happen after. If abortion rights return to the states, the medical procedure will become dangerous for a lot of women and gender minorities who need it.