These women ran an underground abortion network in the 1960s. Here's what they fear might happen today

The text tells the story of a group of women who provided abortions to over 11,000 women in Chicago in the 1960s. They offer advice for surviving the current struggle over reproductive rights.

These women ran an underground abortion network in the 1960s. Here's what they fear might happen today


The voice on the telephone in 1966 was abrupt and gruff: 'Does the Rolls Royce, Cadillac or Chevy appeal to you?'

The voice said that a Chevy abortion would be about $200 if you paid cash. The voice explained that a Cadillac costs around $500 and a Rolls Royce is $1,000.

You can't afford to buy more than a Chevy? The voice grewl. Go to this address and at this time. Do not be late, and do not forget your cash. The voice vanished.

Dorie Barron, a CNN correspondent, said she remembered staring blankly into the phone in her hands and being startled by its sudden empty tone. Then she realized that she had just agreed to an illegal abortion in Chicago with the Mafia.

"All of a suddenly they were gone"

She said that the motel Barron had been sent to was located in a part of Chicago she was unfamiliar with, a'middle-of-nowhere' which was a frightening place. She was instructed to sit on the bed in a certain room and wait. Three men and a female suddenly entered the room.

I was terrified. The only thing they said to me was three words: "Where is the money?" "Lie down and do what I say." Barron told him to get into the bathroom after the abortion. Then, all of a suddenly, they were gone.

Barron, who was bleeding profusely at the time, managed to hail a taxi to get her home. Her bedridden mother forced her to go to hospital when the bleeding did not stop.

Barron, 24, was caring for her mother who was ill and her daughter aged 2 when she found out she was pregnant. Barron said that her boyfriend, who lived with his parents and had no job, was 'freaking out'. She appears in an HBO documentary. Her boyfriend suggested that she have an abortion. She never thought of that option.

What was I supposed to do? Barron explained that his mother was watching my daughter in her bed, while I was at work. They would play games and read until I arrived home. How were we going to deal with a newborn?

Barron, a grandmother of 81 years, said: 'I realize now that I took my own life into my hands. It still gives me the chills. What would have happened if I died?

Women have few rights

Women of the 1960s faced restrictions that are almost unimaginable to women today. The so-called "fairer sex" could not be on juries, and they often couldn't get an Ivy League degree. Women were paid half as much and rarely promoted as men for the same jobs.

Women were not allowed to get a credit cards unless they had been married. And then, only with the husband's co-sign. Only married women could apply for birth control. Women with more experience shared their solution to the uninitiated. "Go to Woolworth and buy a cheap wedding ring. Wear it to your doctor appointment." Don't forget your smile.

Legally, marital rape was not considered rape. Women had no legal rights to end a pregnancy before 1970 when four states -- Alaska Hawaii New York Washington -- legalized it.

Illinois did not have such a protection, Heather Booth, an activist and strategist who has been a feminist for most of her life, told me: "Three women discussing abortions in Chicago in 1965 is a conspiracy to murder felony."

A group of young women, most in their twenties, many in college and some with children, banded together to form an underground abortion network in Chicago. The group was created officially in 1969 under the name 'Abortion Counseling Service of Women's Liberation'

After running ads in a underground newspaper, 'Pregnant! You don't want to? Each member answered the phone by saying 'Call Jane'.

Laura Kaplan, 75, said that she and the women who called her were conspirators. She published a book in 1997 entitled "The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service."

Kaplan stated, "We will protect you and we hope that you'll also protect us." We'll look after you, and we hope that you will take care us.

Jane began as a referral service for legitimate abortion providers. However, when members of Jane became proficient in performing abortions safely themselves, the service evolved into individualized care. Jane performed or arranged over 11,000 abortions between the late 1960s to 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade.

Kaplan said, "Our culture is constantly searching for heroes." But you don't need to be a superhero to accomplish extraordinary things. Jane was ordinary people who worked together. Look what we achieved, isn't it amazing?

The group provided abortions to women who were too poor to travel into states where abortion was legal.

I prayed a great deal. Marie Learner (80) said, 'I didn't want go to prison.' She allowed the Janes, who were performing abortions in her apartment, to do so.

Some of us had small children. Learner stated that some were the only breadwinners at home. It was fearlessness when faced with overwhelming odds,' Learner said.

Marie Learner welcomed women who were undergoing abortions into her home. She said that her neighbors were aware of the situation, but they did not inform police.

Abortion like it is 1965

Kaplan's biography of Jane is immortalized by numerous articles in print, a movie starring Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney, and a documentary that airs on HBO. HBO, like CNN, belongs to Warner Bros. Discovery).

The historical story of Jane is now a much more important one. After the Supreme Court's 2022 reversal of Roe v. Wade, and the Republican mid-term takeover of US House of Representatives in the US, conservative lawmakers and judges acted upon their anti-abortion views.

More than a dozen state ban or severely restrict abortion. Georgia has banned abortions beyond six weeks even though most women are unaware of their pregnancy at this stage. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, in mid-April signed a law that would ban the majority of abortions after six week. The bill won't take effect until the Florida Supreme Court reverses its precedent on abortion. Other states are also considering similar legislation. In some states, legal battles are being fought to protect access to abortion.

It's a horrible situation. Booth, who was a part of the Jane movement in college, said that people will suffer, and some might even die.

Booth, who is now 77, said: 'Women with no family support and without the necessary information may isolate themselves and harm themselves in an attempt to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, or they will be hurt because they went to a provider that was unscrupulous and illegitimate.

There are many medications available today for abortion

In 2022, 54% of Americans used medication abortion to end their pregnancy. The drugs are available by prescription or through the mail. They work in two ways: First, the person takes the mifepristone pill to block the hormone that is needed to maintain a pregnancy. The patient then takes misoprostol a day or two after the first drug. This causes contractions in the uterus, causing the cramping, bleeding, and pain of labor.

Early in April, a Texas district judge, US District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee vocally anti-abortion, suspended the US Food and Drug Administration approval of mifepristone, despite the fact that 23 years of data showed the drug was safe, even safer than Viagra or penicillin.

The Supreme Court froze Friday the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals' decision and the subsequent ruling at the Justice Department's request and that of the drug manufacturer. The Supreme Court's action will allow access to mifepristone for those states that have legalized it until the appeals process is completed.

Currently, 15 states restrict the access to medication abortions, including those sent by mail.

Heather Booth, a CNN reporter, said that the actions of anti-abortion activist, who are accused of 'judge-shopping' in order to obtain the decisions they desire, is an 'unprecedented attack on democracy' meant to undermine will of vast majority of Americans, who want mifepristone to remain available and legal.

She added, 'This is yet another weaponization of courts in order to advance the goal of banning all abortions.

Women in the past would not have risked their lives if they had been able to access medications that were safe to use at home, Dori Barron said, recalling her own harrowing abortion in a sketchy Chicago hotel.

She said: 'I am depressed watching indifferent, stupid men destroy the lives of women all over again.' I'm afraid that getting an abortion will soon be as it was in 1965.

Knowledge is Power

Heather Booth, a Chicago College student who had spent the summer in Mississippi working with civil rights activists, was asked to assist with another kind of injustice.

Another girl was contemplating suicide due to her pregnancy. Booth, who was both organized and bold, tracked down a doctor in the area and negotiated for an abortion. Word spread quickly.

Booth stated that there were 100 women who called for help every week, which was more than a single person could handle. Booth said that she recruited 12 people to help her with the counseling.

Counseling was an important part of this new service. Booth said that at the time, 'people barely spoke about sex or how women's body functions, let alone how they got pregnant'. Booth asked the abortionist about all aspects of the procedure to help women understand what would happen.

What do you do before? Is it painful? Will it be painful? How long does it take you to walk? You need someone with you to drive you home. They asked: 'How much bleeding can a woman expect, and is it something she can handle on her own? Is there an emergency number that women can call if there is a problem?

Jane's counselors were able to fully explain the procedure, even though few doctors provided details. The group published a brochure describing the abortion procedure, before the 1970 groundbreaking book Our Bodies, Ourselves began educating women about sexuality and their health.

Marie Learner spoke with many women who had abortions at her house.

"But after their abortions at Jane, many women told me that it was the best medical experience they've ever had."

Eileen Smith was one of them. She is now 73 years old. Jane made her feel as if she was part of a bigger picture. She made her feel that we were all on the same team. They helped me do an illegal thing, and now they call to check on my well-being? Wow!

It helped me fight the feeling that I'm a bad person and that "What's wrong? Why was I pregnant? Smith said, "I should have known better" voice was in his head. It was priceless.

Respecting the choices of women

Jane was joined by many women who had never had an abortion. Others saw the work as part of a growing feminist movement. Some viewed the service as a simple humanitarian health care. They all saw it as an opportunity for women to make their own choices.

Martha Scott, now in her eighties, said, "I was a mom who stayed at home with four children." We knew that the woman had to feel in control over what was happening. It was about her. It was all about her.

Dorie Barron experienced the Jane Difference first-hand after she became pregnant several years after having been aborted by the Mafia.

Barron stated that he had never seen such kindness. Jane not only held each woman's hands and explained every step of the procedure, but also gave them a large supply of maternity pads and antibiotics. "And I received a call every day for the rest of that week to check on me."

Barron began to volunteer for Jane, providing pregnancy tests for women at the back of an church in Chicago's Hyde Park.

Barron clarified that it wasn't only abortion. We also told the woman, "You might want to consider adoption" and provided referrals for adoption. If the woman decided to carry on with her pregnancy we told her, "Fine. Please by all means, make sure that you receive prenatal care and take your vitamins. Eat as well as you can." Women were helping other women in whatever way they could.

Jane's service helped women regain their footing, whether they were in an unhealthy relationship, already had children, or could not support themselves. Smith, like Barron had started working for Jane following her abortion.

We told them, 'This isn’t the end.' You can choose to continue living with your boyfriend, your husband, or to take care of your children. We were there to support them through this', said Smith who went on to become a homecare nursing.

Diane Stephens, who was 19 years old at the time of her abortion, says that she began working for Jane because of this experience. Diane Stephens was living in California when she had her abortion in 1968. California allowed 'therapeutic abortions' with physician approval.

Stephens, 74, said, "I had failed to use birth control and Planned Parenthood taught me how to fix it." 'I was forced to tell two psychiatrists and a doctor that I could not continue with the pregnancy due to its danger to my mental and physical health.

'I was in the psychiatric unit, but I didn't know it. I thought I was lying on a hospital mattress. Stephens, a nurse who went to nursing college with Smith, said that they had put her in psychiatric ward because she was "mentally ill". Then they took me to the abortion. I was under general anesthesia for two days and was then discharged. Isn’t that crazy?

Sakinah Shannon, who is now 75 years old, was among the few Black women to volunteer as a Jane counselor. She became a counselor after accompanying a woman who had been charged $50 for an abortion. Shannon stated that Jane's fee at the time was between $1-$100, depending on how much she could afford.

When I walked into the room, I thought, "Oh my god, here we are again." Shannon, a member of the Congress of Racial Equality and a social worker, said, "It's a group of White women who will save the world." The non-violent interracial activist group pioneered the 'Freedom Rides,' and organized the March on Washington of 1963.

Shannon said that what she saw and heard at the counseling session of her friend was so inspiring, it "changed my whole life." Her family and she opened and ran three Chicago abortion clinics over a 25-year period, using Jane's philosophy of respect and communication.

She said, "It was an amazing experience. I call the Janes sisters. It didn't really matter what color the line was. We all took the same risks.

We can look after ourselves

Soon, the women found out that a 'doctor" performing abortions on Jane was lying about his qualifications. In the HBO documentary he confessed that he had learned his skills through apprenticeship.