ENGLEWOOD — A prominent South Side activist is reviving a Chicago-based underground network that helped thousands of women get abortions before Roe v. Wade.
Tamar Manasseh, founder of Mothers Against Senseless Killings, has launched We Are Jane. It’s a reboot of The Jane Collective, a group of volunteers that connected people with life-saving access to abortions in the ’60s.
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, five states bordering Illinois are either on the brink of banning abortions or have already enacted bans. Reproductive rights advocates expect a large number of people from those states will go to Illinois for care, as officials here have vowed to protect abortion access.
Manasseh is working with the Chicago Abortion Fund to continue the work the Janes. Volunteers for the revived network will wear “Jane” shirts in areas where abortion access is restricted and guide those in need to the Abortion Fund and Planned Parenthood.
“I had heard about ‘The Janes’ HBO documentary a while ago, and one day I just decided to watch it. And when I did, it was a game changer,” Manasseh said. “I saw these young women doing something very brave, something I would’ve probably done if I lived in that time. I was inspired.”
You can buy a Jane shirt on the group’s website. The shirts are meant to signal to people — in any state — that you are a safe person to talk to about abortion access.
Heather Booth, a co-founder of the Jane Collective, told Manasseh in an email she supports the organizer’s efforts to revive The Janes’ work.
Booth got involved in reproductive rights after helping a friend’s sister secure an abortion in 1965, when she was a student at the University of Chicago. Soon, Booth found herself helping other women gain access to providers.
In 1968, Booth began recruiting and training women to help with the growing need. The following year, The Jane Collective was born. Some of the members occasionally performed the procedure themselves, but Manasseh’s group has connected with established reproductive health care organizations this time around.
During its seven-year run, The Janes helped more than 11,000 women receive abortion care. The group disbanded when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973, with some continuing their advocacy work in the public sector.
Booth hopes the revived Janes can especially be a resource for people living in areas where accurate information isn’t readily available.
A rumor about Missouri banning emergency contraceptives led to some pharmacies and clinics temporarily suspending sales, after which state lawmakers clarified the products did not fall under the state ban.
Manasseh, a mother of two, said the spread of that type of misinformation can cause serious damage.
Manasseh said she understands the potential danger of publicly helping people obtain care that is rapidly being outlawed, but the work must be done.
“When you’re Black and in Chicago, you’re always in danger. I’m more worried about what would happen if we didn’t do this,” Manasseh said. “We can’t be shy or scared. We have to take the risk.”
While other iterations of the Janes have been formed since the Supreme Court reversed Roe vs. Wade this summer, Manasseh hopes to use her platform to help those most at risk: Black and Brown women who may not have the tools necessary to navigate the post-Roe terrain.
Manasseh visited Mississippi in early July in a “Jane” T-shirt, speaking with young women whose lives were immediately impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision. She encountered one young woman who, at 24 weeks, desperately needed abortion care as her fetus was seizing in the womb.
Manasseh said the woman was told that if she carried the term, it was unlikely she or the child would survive. She said she connected the woman with an out-of-state abortion provider.
“There are so many stories like hers, where there is nowhere to go, no one to turn to. Last week, you were able to make an appointment for an abortion, no questions asked. Now, the world has shifted under your feet,” Manasseh said.
The information divide is just as glaring on the South Side, where Manasseh has talked to young women who have “no idea what is happening” in other states. The activist said it’s necessary to show all women how the Supreme Court’s decision affects them.
Manasseh is working with established reproductive justice organizations to create an online resource for those seeking services, and sales of the Jane T-shirts will benefit those organizations.
Julie Lynn, director of communications for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, said getting support and information to those in need is crucial.
“The more people that can get actual information about where they can go and who can help them — and working with established funds and organizations that have been doing this work for decades — the better,” Lynn said. “I think a lot of people are well-intentioned in creating ‘new,’ which is not what Tamar is doing. She’s working with established people who know what they’re doing.”
Lynn said that downstate centers are seeing an influx of patients seeking care, the bulk of them coming from Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas. With every state surrounding Illinois restricting abortion access, strengthening protections here should take top priority, she said.
“Mayor Lori Lightfoot created a $500,000 fund to help with logistics support. We need that on the state level, and we need to protect providers who travel from their homes in Missouri to perform abortion services in Illinois,” Lynn said.
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