Code Name Jane

The Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation

Legal abortion center, New York City, 1971
Legal abortion center, New York City, 1971. Bettmann / Getty Images

"Jane" was the code name of a feminist abortion referral and counseling service in Chicago from 1969 to 1973. The official name of the group was the Abortion Counseling Service of Women's Liberation. Jane disbanded after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalized most first and second trimester abortions in the United States.

Historical Context

Prior to the Roe v. Wade decision, abortion was illegal nearly everywhere in the United States, although women had been terminating unwanted or dangerous pregnancies for centuries.

 Thousands of women had died from illegal, "back-alley" abortions in the United States and around the world before the procedure was legalized. For women wishing or needing to end a pregnancy, options were scarce and gruesome: sketchy doctors in unsanitary conditions, risking being caught in a sting, or physical or chemical DIY abortifacients.

Underground Abortion Service

The leaders of Jane were part of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU). Women who called seeking help spoke to a contact code named "Jane," who referred the caller to an abortion provider. Like the Underground Railroad of the previous century, the activists of Jane broke the law in order to save women's lives. Jane helped an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 women obtain abortions without fatalities.

The group began in 1969 in Chicago, advertising with simple ads in alternative and student newspapers. At first, the Jane activists tried to find reliable doctors and arranged for callers to meet the abortionists in secret locations.

A caller would leave a message on the network's answering machine, and a "Jane" would call her back, collect the necessary information, and pass it along to a "Big Jane" who handled the logistical aspects. The patients would first be taken to one place for "counseling" before being secretly led to a facility for the procedure itself.

Eventually, some Jane women learned to perform abortions themselves. Since many of the male doctors who performed illegal abortions charged astronomical prices, the Janes learned medical skills and would charge as little as 10% or even less of a male doctor's fee.

As detailed in the book The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service by Laura Kaplan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1995), one of Jane's goals was to give women a sense of control and knowledge in a situation that otherwise made them powerless. Jane sought to work with the women, not do something to them. Jane also tried to protect women, who were often in difficult financial circumstances, from being exploited by abortionists who could and would charge any price they could get from a woman who was desperate for an abortion.

Counseling and Medical Procedures

The women of Jane learned the basics of performing abortions. They also induced miscarriages for certain pregnancies and brought in midwives who could assist the induced women. If women went to a hospital emergency room after inducing a miscarriage, they risked being turned over to the police.

In 1972, the worst did happen. Chicago police raided one of the apartments used as a base of operations for the Janes.

Seven women were arrested and charged for their roles in facilitating the illegal abortion procedures. Even then, the Janes worked to protect the identities and safety of the women who had trusted them. While in the police van itself, the arrested women ripped up the cards with their patients' identifying information and swallowed the bits of paper that contained the most crucial details. 

Jane also provided counseling, health information and sex education. Following the Roe decision, the network disbanded, as its services were no longer needed. In the 21st century, however, as local governments have chipped away at access to abortion services, similar networks of women helping women have popped up across the country, this time with access to modern medicine.

The Women Jane Helped

According to Jane by Laura Kaplan, the women who sought abortion help from Jane included:

  • Women who could not care for a child
  • Women who became pregnant even though they used contraception
  • Women whose male partners forbade them to use contraception
  • Women who thought they were no longer fertile
  • Girls who did not (yet) understand how reproductive biology works

Women who came to Jane were of various classes, ages, races and ethnicities. The feminist activists of Jane said they had helped females from age 11 through age 50.

Other Groups Nationwide

There were other small abortion referral groups in cities across the United States. Women's groups and clergy were among those who created compassionate networks to help women find safe, legal access to abortion.

The story of Jane is also told in a 1996 documentary film called Jane: An Abortion Service.

Sources:

Haberman, Clyde. "Code Name Jane: The Women Behind A Covert Abortion Network." The New York Times 14 Oct. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/14/us/illegal-abortion-janes.html.

Kaplan, Laura. The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.