A New Movie About Abortion Before Roe v. Wade Couldn't Be Better Timed

Photos courtesy levelFilm and Judith Arcana
Photos courtesy levelFilm and Judith Arcana

In 1973, the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade made abortion legal on the federal level — and it's been legal, if not conveniently accessible, ever since. But what about the days before Roe was decided and safe, legal abortion care was either inaccessible or criminal in most states? Today, with legislation effectively banning abortion in Alabama and Georgia making headlines and similar proposed legislation gaining traction in other states, it's a question on lots of people's minds.

That's why the release of the film Ask for Jane, in theaters May 17, couldn't feel more timely. The movie offers a glimpse into pre-Roe Chicago and the real-life work of the underground abortion service the Jane Collective. The Jane Collective was a group of women who worked covertly to help thousands of women of all ages and backgrounds safely have abortions from the late 1960s to early 1970s — a time when abortion was not only illegal but also punishable with prison time in Chicago.

Judith Arcana, a writer, activist, teacher, and former member of the Jane Collective, served as a consultant for the film. She stresses that abortion not only existed before Roe v. Wade but also before the Jane Collective, before the United States, and, frankly, for as long as pregnancy has existed.

"Women have been having abortions for hundreds, thousands of years, and abortion has been illegal in many countries going back many years, too," Arcana told POPSUGAR. "Abortion is common, and so is the illegality that causes people to go underground. People are still doing this in parts of the United States."

Arcana is alarmed by the momentum of legislation to obstruct access to — or outright ban — abortion in parts of the country. But through the wisdom of her decades of activism and personal experiences, she isn't all that surprised. She talked to POPSUGAR about her story with the Jane Collective and why movies like Ask for Jane are more important than ever.

POPSUGAR: This conversation around Ask for Jane, and especially your work, feels especially relevant today with news of Alabama's abortion ban, the most restrictive in the nation, just passing this week. Did you think we'd still be fighting this battle more than five decades or so after your work with the Jane Collective?

Judith Arcana (pictured above around the time of the Jane Collective): We actually never stopped fighting this battle — for a couple of reasons. First of all, if you read the text of the Roe decision, you find that what the court was ruling was power for doctors. The power ultimately rests in the hands of doctors, not women. And second of all, just three years after the Roe decision — which definitely was a good thing, despite what I just said — the Hyde amendment was passed, meaning young women and girls, people with not much money, could no longer get abortion health care.

So, by 1976, it was very clear that the Roe decision didn't really make the kinds of changes that everyone wanted. And within five or six more years, it was also clear that the antiabortion movement and Republican Party were so ferociously using abortion as a major-league issue and power-getter that everybody was in trouble. And it's been bad ever since. It's getting worse, and worse, and worse. Easily. As of 10 years ago, 90 percent of the counties in this country have no abortion care available. So even where it is "legal," you can't get it unless you've got time and money and child care if you're a mother, and on, and on, and on.

PS: What inspired you to get involved with the Jane Collective in Chicago in the early 1970s?

JA: Well, I can't claim "inspiration" so much as need. I thought I was pregnant at a time when it would have been a very bad thing to be, and I got information — as women always did, and still do — from a friend, who said, "Call this number and ask for Jane," and I did. A woman called me back and said her name was Jane, as everybody used that name. And we talked for a real long time, including her advising me, "I think you should get a pregnancy test," which I hadn't. I was just so late, I'd thought, "Oh, I must be pregnant."

As it turned out, to make this long story short, it was indeed a very, very, very late period. I was not pregnant. But when I talked to her again, we just hit it off and started talking politics, about women's lives, about abortion, and about health care in general — childbirth, hospital systems. She let me know the Jane Collective would be taking in some new people to join in the Fall, and I went to this orientation at a church down the block from my apartment. I listened to what they had to say. I asked questions. I listened to the questions the other women who had come were asking, and I thought, "This is a good thing. I'm going to do it."

PS: One fascinating thing you've spoken about is the fact that the Jane Collective didn't face the kind of violent threats and harassment that modern abortion clinic providers do today and that you and the women you helped rarely felt your personal safety was at risk. That's despite the fact that what you were doing at the time was illegal. What changed there?

JA: Since Roe, the antiabortion movement has been a gigantic movement to serve various political purposes. It's clear the leaders of the Republican Party don't really care about women's health, or babies, one way or another. But they found this narrative, and this fight, and they have used it as this monstrous, large socio-cultural concern and been wildly successful at it.

This is not like, "Oh, people started to change their minds," or, "Students in high school began to learn about biology and changed their minds." No. This is a gigantic, powerful, very well-funded political movement that chose to come after abortion health care because it was so emotional and passionate, as you can see.

PS: What did a typical day working in the Jane Collective look like?

JA: A typical day depended on what you were doing, because not everybody was doing everything all the time. Some days I drove people to get their abortions, and then drove them back. Other times, I might have been doing medical work in one of the apartments where we were doing abortions. Other times, I might have been at home in my own office doing callbacks and looking through all of the information about women who had called and left messages. And then collecting information about their situation, their health, how far along their pregnancy is, and so on. Or, maybe that day I would have a counseling appointment with patients.

Then, the woman would come over to my place and would have a cup of tea, and I would tell you, "OK, given that you are nine weeks, this is the kind of procedure we're going to be using. Here's the situation. Please think about your health and the legal concerns that we're sharing here, that you and I together are breaking the law by having this conversation," and so on. So there were many "jobs" for Janes: counseling, driving, doing the medical work, doing the office work, callbacks, counseling, and bringing issues and concerns to meetings. We met once a week, and that was where people got their assignments of who they were going to counsel.

PS: How did women find you, and what kinds of backgrounds did they come from?

JA: Women came from anywhere and everywhere during the four-year period that the service operated. And I'd say that probably the majority — because it began with a college student — were college students in and around Chicago, and then places in Wisconsin and Indiana as well. But the backgrounds of women we served grew and changed because more and more people learned.

In that Summer of 1970 when I learned about the Jane Collective, I asked a friend who was a medical student about abortion. Now, not everyone has a friend who's a medical student, but lots of people have friends who have friends who have heard something. Lots of people were doing abortions. Lots of people have always been doing abortions and know people who have personally had or been involved in seeking abortion care.

PS: Do the stories of any women seeking abortion while you worked at the Jane Collective stand out in your memory?

JA: I dealt with a few teenagers who were in terrible circumstances. There was one who came through the service, but I discovered that she didn't want the abortion. I said to her, "Well, what are you doing here, then? You should go home. Why are you doing this?" And she burst into sobs, and said, "My mother is making me do this."

She was 15 and said if she didn't have the abortion, as soon as she had the baby, her mom would have it taken away. It was just a terrible, terrible moment of sadness and badness. And she threw her arms around me — I was pregnant at the time — and she said, "I know you'll be a wonderful mother, because you're so good to me." I felt bad about being contrasted with her mother, who she obviously did not think was a good mother, but I did feel this extraordinary rush of connection between us, knowing her story.

PS: As a consultant on the film Ask for Jane, what was really vital to you in terms of the storytelling? What did you want to make sure the movie got right?

JA: It was interesting, new learning for me, because I'm not a movie person — although lately, movies are all over the place about abortion rights, both the ugly ones and the wonderful ones. I was particularly interested, as a writer, in the idea that these people were making a fiction film based, as they say in Hollywood, on a true story.

There are no characters here who are exactly me or any of these other women who really existed then. There are, instead, the characters created by the screenwriter, who was also the director, and being able to be on set with them was incredible, particularly because these were people who were going to make art out of our lives. And that was, of course, an intense kind of consideration for me.