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New Initiative 'We Are Jane' revives a 1960s network that helped women access safe abortions

A doctor checks the documents of a young woman from Poland awaking from anesthesia after she underwent an abortion. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A doctor checks the documents of a young woman from Poland awaking from anesthesia after she underwent an abortion. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Chicago in the 1960s was not safe for people seeking abortions, albeit illegal. But there was a group that could help: The Jane Collective, an underground, volunteer-led network of mainly young women dedicated to providing access to safe, albeit illegal, abortions.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in June, abortion access became scarce again in many parts of the country. While the procedure is still legal in Illinois and protected in the state’s constitution, surrounding states such as Missouri and Kentucky passed trigger laws making abortion procedures completely illegal. Others including Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa have no protections in place, leaving abortion access vulnerable and making Illinois a safe haven for reproductive health care.

The Jane Collective’s mission, needed once again, has been rebooted under a new name: “We Are Jane.”

“We really want people to be able to make choices, to plan their families, to be able to make the choice,” says South Side activist Tamar Manasseh, who launched the initiative.

Manasseh also founded Mothers Against Senseless Killing, after a Chicago mother was murdered on a city street corner. The next day, Manasseh and other group members brought chairs and a grill to that corner and started barbequing for local families and watching out for women and children in the area.

“The work that I’ve done there has kind of prepared me for this work,” Manasseh says. “We do that because there aren’t enough other resources in the community that provide that.”

Manasseh said the Janes will work specifically in neighboring states with limited abortion access. They’ll wear T-shirts or other markers to identify themselves to those seeking reproductive care and will provide information about Illinois’ resources.

“I’m disseminating all of this information to young women in other places that may not have access. They may not even know how to get access,” Manasseh says. “But it’s really easy: If you see someone walking down the street or sitting next to you in a classroom or in the grocery store or your next-door neighbor with a Jane shirt or a Jane bumper sticker, that is an ally.”

Manasseh recalls an encounter she had with a woman in Mississippi while wearing her Jane T-shirt. The woman was pregnant and her fetus was seizing in her womb. But because of Mississippi’s restrictive abortion laws, there was nothing medically she could do in the state.

“From what I understand, her doctor wanted to actually do an abortion. But then Roe was overturned so the doctor couldn’t,” Manasseh says. “It’s a horrendous story that we’re going to keep hearing over and over again. You keep hearing about all of these women who were almost bleeding to death and hemorrhaging because they were having a miscarriage.”

The original Janes operated in a time before legal abortion. Doctors taught these volunteers how to perform early-stage abortions themselves. The new group won’t practice this, Manasseh says, but the modern-day Janes will work closely with and connect patients to established reproductive health care centers.

Still, some states have laws that punish anyone who aids a resident seeking reproductive care or abortion procedures in another state. This means the Janes could be at risk of persecution for spreading resources like clinic locations and doctor phone numbers. But Manasseh says that doesn’t deter her or her volunteers.

“Fugitive slave laws are still on the books. And just because it’s about abortion, it doesn’t mean that it’s not about dehumanizing someone once again, because that’s exactly what’s happening to women right now. So in much the vein of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, I’m there,”  Manasseh says. “You might go to jail, but then again, you might save a whole lot of lives.”


Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.