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A Former Jane Weighs In on HBO's 'The Janes'

This acclaimed documentary on an underground abortion service is only 90 minutes — but Laura Kaplan lived it. Here’s more of what she remembers.

By Sabrina Crews
A photo collage of members of The Janes. Next Avenue
Members of Jane   |  Credit: Courtesy of HBO

When producers approached Laura Kaplan to participate in HBO's "The Janes," a documentary featuring the underground Chicago abortion service she belonged to in the early '70s, she balked at first. "Here we were fifty years later and I just thought, well, nobody's gonna remember anything," she explained.

Kaplan eventually relented, and she especially appreciated how the filmmakers avoided asking former members to go into exact detail about what the group, simply called Jane, did and how they did it. "They do such a good job," she said, "that when you watch the documentary, you probably don't even notice." 

"Here we were fifty years later and I just thought, well, nobody's gonna remember anything."

You don't. The specifics of the medical procedures or Jane's day-to-day operations hardly seem relevant upon learning what participants do recall, like when Crystal O. relives accompanying her friend across the city, at 14 years old, to get an illegal abortion. Listening to members of Jane explain the process, she said, "We lost it, we cried. Two little girls, we cried." 

If anyone is positioned to remember details about Jane, though, it's Kaplan, due to the many years of research she devoted to her book, "The Story of Jane, the Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service," which she describes as a collective memoir. "Jane developed at a time when blind obedience to medical authority was the rule," Kaplan writes. "Few women understood their reproductive physiology or had any idea where to get the information they needed."

Kaplan acknowledges that Jane had its weaknesses, particularly when it came to power dynamics within the group, as well as class and racial differences with those it served ("The women who came through Jane were very, very, very different from the women who were in Jane," she observes in the film). But the service ultimately provided women with agency — what she calls "that sense of 'Yes'."

In our exclusive interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Kaplan emphasizes how Jane changed the lives of herself and thousands of other women, and especially, history.

Next Avenue: You've explained that none of the women in Jane, which started as a counseling and referral group, originally expected to perform abortions themselves and that the work wasn't based on a medical model, but on how you yourselves wanted to be treated. How did you ensure that? 

Laura Kaplan: I don't know that it was all that conscious. Anyone who goes through medical school will attest to the fact that you get pretty brainwashed to look at things, at people, in a certain way. 

So, for instance, we didn't use drapes. You know how when you go to the doctor, especially to the OB-GYN, they drape you? They're only looking at what's between your legs. You're not the rest of you. We didn't use drapes because we didn't make any separation between one part of a person. We weren't trained to do that and we didn't do it because it didn't feel right to us. 

I mean, we were putting women in a very uncomfortable situation, getting an illegal abortion, and in the later days, getting an illegal abortion from women who were very upfront about the fact that we weren't doctors.

Our aim was to break stereotypes, to break assumptions, to get all kinds of different women to see themselves and see this experience in a different way. But it wasn't like we spent hours talking about it. It was sort of a natural reaction to our own change in consciousness because of our involvement with this group.

You wrote in your book that Jane taught you about more than abortion or women's liberation. It helped you understand personal power. 

Our attempt was for women to see themselves as partners with us and what we were doing. We would say, 'We're not doing this to you, but with you.' You're sort of partners in crime here with us because we wanted every woman to feel her agency, that she was making a decision and she was acting on her decision. We were just the instruments of her decision-making to reinforce, always, that this was about her and how she saw her life and her future and her choices.

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What were your first impressions of the service? What were the people like?

[Laughs] You know, it was fifty years ago … 

I know, I know, sorry.

It's hard! My friend had an abortion with Jane and came to my apartment afterwards, and was so enthusiastic, so excited, and had her little mind blown by this experience. I had just moved from New York where abortion had been legalized in the summer of 1970, so it wasn't a top issue for me when I moved back to Chicago. But I did want to get involved in the women's movement in some way, so this sounded really practical. This wasn't sitting around having political discussions. This was very concrete. So she took me to meet her counselor who told us they were starting a new counselor training session. So I went to it. 

What do I remember? Just a bunch of normal women sitting on the floor in somebody's living room. So that felt comfortable. I didn't know any of them. They didn't know me, which was a little hairy, because my friend was supposed to come. We were supposed to go together.

Oh, so you were by yourself?

There was a little bit of like, 'Who's she?' [Laughs] 

I was coming from New York and that's a very different — at least in those days — mindset from Chicago, where it's the Midwest and there's a very friendly and easygoing vibe. So that was a little surprising to me, all these sweet women doing this widely illegal thing. It was interesting enough to me that I stuck with it.

"All these sweet women doing this widely illegal thing."

It was just like one foot in front of the other. You went through your training sessions, and then you were on your own. Pretty soon after that I was approached by one of the central people in the group to take on a bigger role and do some of the administrative work for which I got paid. So that was great. I was looking for a job anyway. 

And my life just got more and more entangled. In fact, my friend whose abortion was how I found my way to Jane, watched it take over my life and said, 'Well, I don't think I want that to happen.' So she waited a while before she joined.

You said the other women in Jane were like you; they seemed normal, which is why it was important to you that someone from Jane, a central member, told the group's story. You didn't want people to portray you as heroes. 

Or Amazon warriors, or some, you know, larger-than-life creatures. I really wanted younger women to read the book and see the documentary and think to themselves, 'Oh, that could be me,' because true change happens when ordinary people get together and decide to do something.

But it seems like in some ways Jane might have replicated the systems and hierarchies it was trying to defy. What did that teach you about organizing?

Laura Kaplan's book, "The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service"
Kaplan's book will be re-released on Vintage Books this fall

It's difficult. I mean, you can have all these ideas about equal power within a group, but at least in my experience, that's not how most groups function. And the service was a good example. 

Our structure — and some of this was probably the result of working with illegal practitioners — was a series of concentric circles masquerading as group decision-making. So, the people at the very center knew everything and had most of the power because knowledge is power. 

If all you did was counsel and you were happy with that piece of it, you were on an outer edge. The leaders would get together around somebody's kitchen table before a meeting and pretty much decide what was gonna happen at that meeting. And then surprisingly, that happened at the meeting. [Laughs] 

How you equalize power is a tricky, tricky thing. And with us, there was a sense that our primary role was to get these women what they needed, to do the abortions, and anything else that anyone raised could be dismissed as taking away from that mission. It's just really difficult, especially in an illegal situation, where some things have to be kept quiet.

Well, Jane was contending with the Red Squad [Chicago Police Department] and the mob —

Yeah, I don't think the mob was interested. They were only interested in money. 

"In a phone conversation with somebody, our job was to get past the terror, help her get past the terror."

The police were another matter because we got a lot of referrals from officers. I'm sure in certain precincts there was an understanding that they didn't have to investigate women who died from illegal abortions if we were doing it.

It didn't prevent us from getting busted. It wasn't like we had friends who were cops. We didn't pay them off. We didn't want anything to do with them. If we were working at an apartment and somebody saw patrol cars driving up and down that street, we would vacate through the back door and try to find a new place to work. That happened more than once. And of course we thought our phones were tapped.

How did you maintain your peace of mind through that?

We were young and stupid, what can I say? 

[Laughs] 

No, some people would argue with me and say they were always very, very cognizant of the fact that we could get busted. And it wasn't like I was in denial. But maybe other people had that more in the upper part of their brain than I did. 

When the police raided us, they were looking for money. They asked, 'Where's the money?' Well, there wasn't any money.

So how did Jane sustain itself on a pay-what-you-can basis?

It was a lot cheaper to live in those days, for one thing. Some of the women in the group were housewives and lived off their husband's income. The younger ones like me, I was 24, could live on a very low income. Some people didn't take their salary because they didn't need it. And we didn't pay everybody. So even on a pay-as-you-can basis, we had enough money — enough to buy supplies and equipment, occasionally rent an apartment, pay phone bills and pay a few staff. 

We didn't keep a lot of records. People kept cash in their freezers. You knew who had the cold cash if you needed money for something. So, we didn't have a bookkeeper. 

But you kept index cards. Seeing those was one of the most evocative parts of the documentary — they listed how far along a woman was, what her name was, what she was feeling. One card had "terrified" underlined multiple times. Were those part of your process?

I filled those cards out. My first job was taking messages off the machine. It was probably the first iteration of an answering machine, as big as a suitcase, and it was reel-to-reel and we had beepers, you had to beep into it.

Wow, really? 

[Laughs] And then I called people back. Later on, that job was called Call-Back Jane. You'd call women back and you'd say, "This is Jane for women's liberation. How can I help you?" Of course you weren't Jane. None of us were. And so I'd fill out their information on those three-by-five cards — how much money they had, how many previous pregnancies, their name, address, phone number — and hand them over to the person we called Big Jane. I did that job for a long time, too. And the reason those cards exist is because Jody [Howard, Jane's co-founder] kept a bunch of them.

A woman with short curly hair smiling. Next Avenue, the janes, hbo
Laura Kaplan  |  Credit: Courtesy of HBO

You didn't keep them? 

Eileen [Smith, former Jane member] and I had been Big Janes for a very long time. We had stacks and stacks of those three-by-five cards. And when the service folded, I was living in an apartment with a fireplace and we burned those cards because we didn't feel it was anybody's business, what those women's names were, what their addresses and phone numbers were. It's private information. It was their lives, not ours. 

So we read the names to each other. I remember exactly: We put Bob Dylan on the stereo. We played Bob Dylan records and read the names to each other and then we tossed the cards into the fireplace.

When the filmmakers came along, Jody had been dead for quite a while. Her daughters unearthed them, and you're right. It was really evocative and really powerful. I think it centered many of the interviews, looking at those cards again. In a phone conversation with somebody, our job was to get past the terror, help her get past the terror. And some couldn't, you know? So they didn't show up.

The reviews that I've read about the documentary mention its uplifting, positive tone. Do you think that would've been different if the film had been made now, after Roe v. Wade was overturned? 

No. We took something that could be horrible for women and turned it into something that was empowering and life-affirming. And I think that possibility of transformation is there today as it was fifty years ago. In fact, I'm interested to see what young people come up with as a way to address our current situation. I know they're finding ways. And the technology has changed, so nobody has to do what we did, which were D&Cs and induced miscarriages.

I think the important piece from the documentary is that ordinary people working together can make a big difference in the world and change people's lives. I mean, we changed thousands of women's lives and no one can take that away. 

What Jane provides is that sense of 'Yes, you can make a big difference in the world.' You have to work with other people to make things happen, but every one of us has potential. It's the choices we make. It's the opportunities we're afforded. A lot of life is what you say yes to.

Sabrina Crews
Sabrina Crews 
Sabrina Crews is a digital editor for Next Avenue. She produces Next Avenue's twice-weekly newsletter, writes and copyedits lifestyle articles and works on grant-funded content initiatives.
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