UChicago event with ‘The Janes’ examines abortion in a pre- and post-Roe world

Members of the underground collective discuss their ongoing work on women’s rights

On Jan. 22, the United States marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. That same week, Doc Films at the University of Chicago hosted a screening and discussion of the documentary The Janes, which tells the story of an underground collective of women in Chicago who provided abortions for about 11,000 women from 1968 to 1973—a time when abortion was a crime in most states.

The Jan. 26 event, moderated by WBEZ’s Natalie Moore, included Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton as well as former members of the group known as the Jane Collective. They discussed the film, their work as activists and the future of abortion rights, which has taken on new urgency for many in a post-Roe America.

“For almost 50 years, I believed we as a country were making some progress. Not enough progress by any means, but we were making progress,” said panelist Heather Booth, AB’67, AM’70, who founded the Jane Collective while a student at the University of Chicago. “And we are now on a knife’s edge, truly in the struggle between freedom and a racist authoritarian rule.”

Booth was joined in the audience at Max Palevsky Cinema by several other women featured in the film, including Dorie Barron, who joined the collective after receiving life-saving care through them: “These women, I’m telling you, I’m still in awe of them.”

One former Jane member, Marie Leaner, recalled how police raided an apartment on the South Side of Chicago, where seven women who were part of the group were arrested and charged.

“When we were collectively arrested and went to jail, I thought for sure this was the end,” Leaner said. “But I wound up with this tremendous hope for the fact that we were going to win, and if we continued to struggle we were going to continue to win. And to this day, I believe the same thing.”

The event was co-sponsored by the student film society Doc Films, the UChicago Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. It opened with remarks from YWCA CEO Nicole Robinson, who recognized the importance of the Janes’ work in the first year after the historic Dobbs Supreme Court decision.

“The fact that Roe was overturned crushed us,” Robinson said, “and part of this–—us being together, seeing this film–—is how we’re gonna heal together.”

Stratton emphasized how the state of Illinois will continue to support a woman’s right to choose. She mentioned the work of Leaner, one of the few Black women in the Janes, Stratton said, who helped ensure that abortions remained available across races and classes.

Noting how women of color can, in particular, be affected today, Stratton said: “Whatever the future holds … we will continue to stand with and for our most vulnerable.”

Toward the end of the event, Booth underscored the need for organized, collective action, saying: “You’ve come tonight because you are people who believe in changing this world. Who in this audience is ready to take action? Are you ready to organize? Are you ready to change the world?”

Learn more about The Janes here.