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A timely new HBO doc chronicles a secret group of women who provided abortions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court signaling an intention to overturn Roe v. Wade makes HBO's upcoming documentary "The Janes" extremely timely. It chronicles the real-life story of a group of women who helped those seeking abortions in Chicago more than 50 years ago. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this report.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Heather Booth was on vacation when she got the news that the Supreme Court may soon rule that abortion is once again illegal in the U.S.

HEATHER BOOTH: I was horrified but not surprised. For years, illegitimate authorities have been chipping away, state by state, rule by rule, impacting women's lives on the most intimate decision of our life.

DEL BARCO: Booth, who is 76 years old, has been fighting for women's reproductive rights since she was a 19-year-old college student. After helping organize Black voters in Mississippi, she turned her activism to women with unwanted pregnancies.

BOOTH: A friend of mine said that his sister was pregnant, nearly suicidal, not prepared to have a child. Could I help her find someone to arrange for an abortion?

DEL BARCO: Until the Supreme Court decision in 1973, abortion was a felony in the state of Illinois, as in most of the country. Booth says she found a willing doctor who promised safe, secure procedures.

BOOTH: And word spread, and someone else called. And at that point, I realized we better set up a system.

DEL BARCO: Booth gathered an underground collective of women who called themselves Jane. Some were anti-war activists or women's lib members, some were homemakers and at least one was a nun. They say that between 1968 and 1973, they provided free or low-cost abortions to more than 11,000 women. Booth tells her story in "The Janes." The documentary begins with a cautionary tale. Dorrie Barron tells us what it was like for her to get an abortion before the Janes and Roe v. Wade came along. Barron says someone in the Chicago mob took her to a seedy motel with another young, pregnant woman.

DORRIE BARRON: I was petrified. They spoke all of three sentences to me the entire time. Where is the money? Lie back and do as I tell you. Get in the bathroom. That was it. I was just laying there trying to, you know, get my breath, and I knew I was bleeding. And all of a sudden, they were gone. They just left.

DEL BARCO: The film shows how the Jane Collective was different. Judith Arcana was one of them.

JUDITH ARCANA: Women did awful things out of fear and desperation. We knew that some would be injured. Some would die. So we thought, we can be of use. You need an abortion. We'll help you. Call this number, and ask for Jane.

DEL BARCO: Posting the phone number on bulletin boards and underground newspapers, the Janes set up a clandestine system. In the film, they describe taking turns helping the women who called. One Jane would drive them to a home they called the front, where another Jane would counsel them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE JANES")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We would try to have refreshments, talk to them, try to keep a pleasant atmosphere for people that were probably terrified out of their minds.

DEL BARCO: Then they'd move to another Jane's home, what they called the place.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE JANES")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The person who was doing the abortion came in. He explained exactly what he was doing. This is going to hurt, but it won't hurt for long. Try some deep breathing - very reassuring.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: For the women coming through, they were putting their trust in somebody who was breaking the law.

DEL BARCO: The Janes say their clients included wives and girlfriends of police officers. Eventually, the Janes learned to perform the procedure themselves. Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Emma Peldes.

TIA LESSIN: There's audacious women who outmaneuvered the Chicago Police and the Catholic Church and the Chicago mob to help other women in need.

EMMA PILDES: They want people to feel like they could do this, too.

DEL BARCO: In 1972, police raided the operation and arrested seven of the Janes, including Arcana, who told NPR she was a nursing mother at the time.

ARCANA: When abortion is not health care, it's felony homicide. So we had about over 100 counts of felony homicide against us, each of us.

DEL BARCO: The Janes hired an attorney who had represented the Black Panthers. She delayed the case for months, and charges were dropped when the Supreme Court ruled abortion was legal in 1973. Nearly 50 years later, Roe v. Wade could be overturned. Three of the Janes - Heather Booth, Judith Arcana and Marie Lerner - say they hope their story inspires others.

ARCANA: I think that folks who watch this film will be prompted to ask themselves, what would I do?

BOOTH: I'm hoping that it's actually a call to action. Anybody can be a catalyst for change.

MARIE LERNER: We need to turn the anger, the fear, the concern we've got into protest.

DEL BARCO: "The Janes" airs on HBO next month. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.