On May 3, 1972, at the age of 21, University of Chicago student Sheila Smith found herself with six friends in the back of a police rice truck, eating a stack of three by five index cards, each with the name and inked were numbers of a woman seeking an illegal abortion.
“My first day of learning how to help was the day I got arrested,” Smith, now 71, told The Post.
But Smith was more concerned about protecting the identities of the women she helped terminate unwanted pregnancies than facing 110 years in prison on 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to perform an abortion.
“We didn’t want the names and phone numbers of [our clients] handed over to the police,” said Smith, a native of Queens. “So we tore up the cards and ate all the pieces that were relevant.”
Smith had joined an underground abortion network called Jane, whose members went by the alias “The Janes”. They secretly ended more than 11,000 unwanted pregnancies in four years – all under threat of retaliation from the police, mobs and the Catholic Church – before getting caught. Now, 40 years later, her story will be told in the HBO documentary The Janes, which will be released Wednesday.
“These were very principled people who came from the civil rights movement, the anti-[Vietnam] War movement, the student movement,” Tia Lessin, who directed with Emma Pildes, told The Post.
“They were mothers, grandmothers, aunts and college girls,” added Lessin, the Oscar-nominated creative behind 2008’s Trouble the Water, of Hurricane Katrina. “But they all shared the belief that women should be able to make that choice.”
The duo conducted 11 on-camera interviews with the surviving members of Jane – including Heather Booth, who founded the underground abortion ring in 1968.
In the mid-1960s, a friend asked Booth, then a student at the University of Chicago, to help his “nearly suicidal” sister end an unplanned pregnancy. She tapped into her sources in the medical field of the civil rights movement – connections made while she had previously protested alongside leaders in the fight for voter registration rights in Mississippi in the early 1960s – and got Dr. TRM Howard, a civil rights activist and surgeon, to agree to having the abortion performed. Shortly thereafter, Howard was arrested for illegally aborting pregnancies and leaving women in need without reliable and safe places to go. Women seeking abortions in Chicago either had to recruit mobsters – who would perform the excisions in seedy motels and charge between $500 and $1,000 for the procedure, for which they codenamed “Cadillac,” “Chevrolet,” or “Rolls.” “ used Royce” – or attempting to terminate the pregnancy yourself.
“I used to call the morgue on this ward every week because someone had died,” says Allen Weiland, gynecologist and gynecologist in the film. He recalls that every day at least 15 to 20 injured women are brought to the septic abortion unit at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Many patients did not survive the internal trauma.
During the formative years, the Janes – neither of whom had professional medical training – enlisted the help of a guy named “Mike” who stepped in as the organization’s main abortionist because no real doctor was willing to take the call.
“When I first learned [how to do an abortion], I was helping this surgeon from Detroit,” Mike says in the documentary in a slurred, gruff baritone. “I’ve watched him for years. I stood behind him, I handed him the tools. And then he said, ‘Come here, you do it.’”
Mike had a gentle bedside manner with the women who sought his help, but he didn’t work in vain.
“When I first met [the Janes]said the lady, ‘We’ll have customers who have the money [for an abortion]. We’re going to have clients who don’t have the money… and we’re going to do them for free,’” Mike recalls in the film. “I said, ‘For free? Are you crazy? I won’t do it for nothing!’”
His greed eventually became a point of contention with the Janes, and some of the women learned to perform abortions themselves.
Surprisingly, religious people were among the Janes’ greatest allies. The document details how the Clergy Consultation Service, made up of members of the priesthood, worked with the Janes.
“This is not a theological argument,” says the esteemed Dr. Donna Schaper in the film: “I had two abortions and felt like God was with me in all of those decisions. It was a God-given decision.” .”
After their arrest in May ’72, the ladies spent the night at the Chicago Police Department at 11th and State Streets before an attorney friend released them on bail.
The following year, Roe v. Wade anti-abortion laws unconstitutional. Not only did the ruling allow expectant mothers to freely terminate unplanned pregnancies, it also gave the Janes’ shrewd attorney, Jo-Anne F. Wolfson, the firepower she needed to drop all charges against them. Wolfson, who died in 2018, also worked to successfully clear all of the Janes’ criminal records.
Now that Roe v. Wade is in danger of being ousted this month, Smith fears risky illegal and home-assisted abortions will leave desperate women in deadly predicaments.
“I’m really worried about the future,” she says.