Crowd learns firsthand about Jane Collective, an underground abortion network in pre-Roe Chicago

CHICAGO (CBS) — In pre-Roe c. Wade, when abortion was a crime — and even spreading information about abortions in Illinois was a crime — emerged the most unlikely villains.

The Jane Collective was a group of Chicago women who formed an underground society and helped thousands of women access abortions in the 1960s and early 1970s. The roots of the Jane Collective date back to 1965, when University of Chicago student Heather Booth helped a friend find a safe abortion provider — and soon started getting calls from other women looking for the same thing.

HBO’s new documentary “The Janes” tells their story and screened for free Tuesday night at Holstein Park, 2200 N. Oakley Ave. in Bucktown. People got to hear first-hand from members of the Jane Collective – who shared their stories of why they felt compelled to break the law – and how their work is still relevant today.

“We provided illegal abortions in the city of Chicago,” said Jane Collective member Eileen Smith.

When he was 20 and living in Chicago, Smith found a phone number for Jane in an underground newspaper. “Jane” was the code word for the secret network of women offering abortions – officially called the Women’s Liberation Abortion Counseling Service.

“There was a message, ‘Pregnant? Don’t you want to be? Call Jane,'” Smith said. “So I called.”

Smith was one of more than 11,000 women who had illegal abortions in Chicago before Roe v. Wade did guarantee the right to an abortion in 1973. She then volunteered with the grassroots group.

Dorie Barron too.

“Nobody wants to break the law when they’re trying to help people, but we had no choice,” Barron said.

Tuesday night’s free screening of “The Janes” was hosted by members of the community, who say the Janes’ story is more relevant today than ever with the current Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“We’re back, you know? said Linda Kanoski. “We’re going back to where we were before Roe.”

“Anger, grief that we have to deal with these same issues again,” Smith added.

While abortion was illegal in Illinois before Roe, it now remains legal under state law in Roe’s absence. And in recent months, access to abortion has polarized parts of the country.

The Division of the Question on full screen during neighborhood movie night. Promotional signs were vandalized in the days leading up to the event.

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“I feel like cruelty has almost become the norm, and when I see it, I have to get up,” said screening organizer Jean Alan.

After all, standing up to authority and opposition is what the Janes choose to do. Seven of the Janes were arrested in 1972 after an apartment raid – Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, Abby Parisers, Judy Pildes, Madeleine Schwenk, Martha Scott and Diane Stevens. They were charged with 11 counts of conspiracy to commit an abortion – and each faced 110 years in prison, the documentary points out.

The charges were dropped after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

“It was an incredible lesson in brotherhood,” Barron said.

“People were hurting, and people were getting abortions anyway — and so to be able to do it in a way that was respectful to women,” Smith said.

Along with the screening on Tuesday evening, several women’s health organizations came to Holstein Park on Tuesday evening. The organizers we spoke with say more than anything, they hope the event was a learning opportunity.

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