From 1968 to 1973, when abortion was illegal in Illinois and most other states, an underground network in Chicago helped women terminate some 11,000 pregnancies, offering a safer and more affordable alternative to the services sold by local mobsters. The HBO documentary The Janes, which tells that organization's story, is a timely reminder of the potential fallout from criminalizing abortion, which the Supreme Court allowed states to do when it overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022.
The situation now is different in two crucial ways from the one women confronted before the Court discovered a constitutional right to abortion. First, abortion remains broadly legal in most states. Second, the availability of abortion pills means that traveling to clinics in other states is not the only option for women seeking to end unwanted pregnancies.
Thanks to those alternatives, the impact of Roe's reversal is apt to be less dramatic than the casualties described in The Janes. Until 1973, the documentary notes, Cook County Hospital maintained a "septic abortion ward" to deal with the grisly and sometimes deadly consequences of botched DIY or black-market surgeries.
In other respects, the current situation does resemble the one that inspired the Janes. After New York legalized abortion in 1970, the group's clientele was skewed toward women who could not afford to travel there. The burdens of today's abortion bans likewise fall disproportionately on women of modest means, and pro-choice activists are once again trying to ameliorate those burdens. Their efforts to arrange and subsidize out-of-state abortions and access to mifepristone will reinforce the practical limits those options impose on legislators who try to revive the restrictions of the pre-Roe era.