‘There’s always something to be done’: how the Janes provided illegal abortions before Roe | Documentary films
Regardless of whether the supreme court fully overturns Roe v Wade later this month, as indicated by the majority draft opinion leaked in May, or merely allows it to be gutted at the state level, the US will continue its years-long march backwards on reproductive rights. Abortion access in the US in 2022 mirrors 1972, the year before the supreme court ensured a woman’s right to an abortion with Roe v Wade, and a time when a sparse patchwork of legalization in a few states forced many women to seek care from dubious illegal providers or dangerous at-home methods.
The Janes, a new HBO documentary on an underground network of abortion providers in Chicago in the years just before legalization, looks to this past as a window into America’s likely post-Roe future – a US without a woman’s right to choose that is less dystopia than memory. The 101-minute film, directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, traces the personal political evolutions of several members as well as the development of the group from collection of activists who connected women with safe abortion providers – male doctors, or men who claimed to be doctors – to performing the procedure themselves. The group eventually provided over 11,000 abortions, many to poor women who could not afford another option. The same women – poor, rural, people of color, often young – who are left behind now by the extreme measures passed by Republican state legislatures banning abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy, before most women know they’re pregnant.
“This film is instructive about what this country looks like when women’s healthcare – basic healthcare – is criminalized,” Lessin told the Guardian. “Because what we know to be true is that when abortion is illegal, it doesn’t mean that women stop seeking abortions. It just means that they don’t get access to safe abortions.” As a former Chicago ER doctor notes in the film, his hospital’s septic abortion ward – a standard feature before Roe – admitted 15-20 women a day with injuries or infections, sometimes lethal, from attempted abortions.
That danger prompted Heather Booth, interviewed in the film, to find a doctor to provide a friend’s sister with an abortion as a college student in 1965. As word of mouth spread, Booth gathered several friends from the women’s movement to share the workload, which informally became the Janes. The network eventually included numerous safe houses, clandestine drivers, phone staff, pseudonymous flyers and once they learned one of their top doctors did not have medical license (he also appears in the film and speaks frankly about his motivation: under the table money), training to do the procedures themselves.
“There are many ways in which this film gives us an example of what it looks like to be of help and of use. And unfortunately, we’re going to need more and more of that in the years to come,” said Lessin. “It’s sort of a kick in the ass and maybe a call to action. We shouldn’t be sitting on our hands and sighing about the state of this country. There’s always something to be done. And in this case, they decided to create this network.”
The film, which includes interviews with several former Janes and archival footage of late ’60s protests in Chicago, is part of a collection of recent films revisiting the pre-legalization past as access eclipses in the US. Happening, a film from French director Audrey Diwan, turns novelist Annie Ernaux’s memoir of searching for an illegal abortion in the 1960s into a thriller. The feature film Call Jane, starring Elizabeth Banks as a fictional Jane client-turned-member-turned-abortion provider and Sigourney Weaver as a dauntless organizer modeled in part on real-life leader Jody Parsons, premiered at Sundance earlier this year and will get a wide release this fall.
Call Jane, directed by Phyllis Nagy, enlisted Jane member and documentary participant Judith Arcana as a historical consultant. Arcana was among the seven Janes arrested by Chicago police in 1972 in a sting operation and charged with conspiracy to commit abortion, with the threat of 110 years in prison. “We were ordinary women trying to save people’s lives, but we were criminals,” Arcana says in the film. (The group’s lawyer, Jo-Anne Wolfson, stalled the trial until the Roe verdict dismissed their charges.) Arcana’s son, Daniel, began production on what would become the documentary in 2016, when Trump was elected and “the writing was on the wall,” said Emma Pildes, his sister and the film’s co-director.
The context in the late 1960s is different than now, but the reasons people seek abortions – in fear, confidence or, often, desperation – remain the same. She wasn’t ready. Rape. Lack of finances. Struggling to stay afloat with the kids she has. Medical risks. She simply doesn’t want to have a child. In one of the most poignant sequences of the film, several Janes hold up the index cards used to keep track of the calls, which were read aloud and passed around to members for follow-up. There are stacks of them, each an individual case with notes such as “afraid of pain,” “terrified,” “21, has one kid, $0,” and “be cautious father is a cop.”
“They weren’t just cards, you know? They were people, and I knew they were women like me,” says Diane Stevens.
Each Jane also remembers the ones who got away or could not be reached, such as a 19-year-old Black woman who entered their safe house with an infection from a botched abortion and, when told she needed to go to the hospital, fled. The Janes later learned she died of septicemia. “We felt an enormous amount of guilt connected to this,” says Martha Scott, a former Jane, in the film. “Not that this was our doing, but she came through our hands, and we didn’t do enough.”
“We show really clearly in the film what happens when abortion is legal in one state and not legal in another,” Lessin said. “We saw who’s able to make the trip and who gets left behind. It’s very cut and dry. It’s along racial lines, it’s along economic lines – we saw it then and we’re seeing it right now, and we will see it on steroids in the coming years.”
The threat of anti-choice legislation is clear on the horizon; 13 states have so-called “trigger” bans ready to go into effect the day Roe is overturned, passed by conservative legislatures deeply out of step with more nuanced public opinion, which favors abortion access. Reproductive rights epitomizes the hardening of minority rule in the US; the issue is not changing public opinion but having a democracy which reflects it.
Asked, along those lines, if they hoped to reach anti-choice audiences, Pildes answered: “We don’t need to,” as most polls find between 85% to 90% of Americans think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances. “It would be nice and certainly one of the things that we want to promote is dialogue. We want people to be having conversations about it for various reasons, not just to change hearts and minds but to de-stigmatize it and make people who have had abortions not feel like pariahs, shamed or that they’ve done something wrong.”
“We can’t control what people do with what we’ve done,” said Lessin. “Mostly I hope that, after the credits roll, they can feel the emotions around what it looks like when abortion is criminalized. That they can feel the anger that we felt, they can feel the commitment to prevent us from going back.”