The Story of one of the Few Black Members of Chicago's Secret Abortion Rights UndergroundBreaking News
tags: abortion, reproductive rights, Jane Collective
In the late 1960s, Marie Leaner made a tough choice, one criticized by even her mother: to join a group known as the Jane Collective, a covert abortion network that helped women secure services on the South Side of Chicago in the late 1960s.
Born and raised in the Washington Park neighborhood, Leaner was one of the few Black members of the group, which used code names and various fronts — including Leaner’s own home — to provide safe abortions.
Leaner’s family worried she had joined a “white woman’s movement.”
“I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do anything with [the Jane Collective] or not because of my parents,” said Leaner recently, speaking from the Uptown assisted living facility where she now lives. “My mother thought that it meant that I wanted to be white. She didn’t understand, but she also didn’t stop me from doing what I did or going in the direction that I went. I wanted to be around white people because I wanted to be involved in making a difference in the world.”
The 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court abortion case Roe v. Wade has put a fresh spotlight on abortion access and the risks some women took to provide services prior to the ruling. An HBO documentary released last year tells the story of the “Janes,” who were arrested and charged with several counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion in 1972. Though they faced up to 110 years in prison, the charges were dropped when Roe v. Wade made abortions legal just one year later.
But the racial dynamics of the movement have not been fully explored. At 80 years of age, Leaner — who has been involved in civil rights initiatives almost her entire life — reflected recently on the magnitude of her work in an interview with WBEZ.
Black feminism is inherently complex because of how race and gender intersect, often pressuring Black women to choose between one or the other. Even though Leaner understood the urgency to advocate for racial equality in the 1960s and ‘70s, she also recognized that misogyny often permeated those movements.
An activist and paralegal, Leaner said she was motivated to become a “Jane” through her work at Chicago’s Department of Children and Family Services and her membership in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, which would eventually sponsor the collective.
“Around that time, there were all these little Black boys getting shot up in the alley in, on the West Side, in North Lawndale … winding up with their bodies strewn in alleyways, my God — and girls were getting pregnant. We’re talking 11-, 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds,” she stoically recalled.
She decided she would join because, she says today, “it was the only organization I knew that was doing anything on behalf of women in this city. And it was a hard choice ‘cause [the Janes] were all white.”
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