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When the United States Supreme Court passed Roe v. Wade in January 1973, legalizing the right to abortions, the women behind Jane thought the war on women’s bodies was over. They had won.
Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ 101-minute documentary, aptly titled The Janes, tells how a group of Chicago women created an underground network to help women access safe, affordable, and illegal abortions between 1968 and 1972. The Janes helped an estimated 11,000 women at a time when, despite being illegal, there was no shortage of black market and back alley abortions being performed. Some “providers” would physically or sexually assault the women in need, causing many to seek hospital care; others died.
One doctor interviewed in The Janes says Cook County Hospital’s septic abortion ward was always full, admitting 15 to 20 patients daily, and that regular calls were made to the morgue. “Seared into my brain is what desperate people will do when they think they have no other choice,” Dr. Allan Weiland, an OB-GYN, recalls. He was a medical student at the time when women would come in with perforated bladders, perforated uteruses, and perforated intestines. One woman, he remembers, tried using carbolic acid to end her pregnancy: “She had horrific burns.”
Formed by a handful of mostly white, young, college-educated women activists, the Janes placed advertisements in underground newspapers: Pregnant? Call Jane. One member listed her home phone number. They used index cards to keep track of those seeking their help, listing the individual’s age, how far along they were in the pregnancy, and what, if any money, they had.
Lessin and Pildes’ documentary never lulls. It moves through the history in linear fashion, starting by connecting all that was happening during the ’60s, including the civil rights and anti-Vietnam-War movements as well as second wave feminism. Many of the Janes are interviewed, and the directors do well showing them today with pictures and Polaroids from then. Film clips from the era help strengthen the film’s visuals, as do newspaper clippings, and other written documents.
I wouldn’t call myself an expert on all things reproductive rights, though I’ve followed the issue closely since I was a teen in the early aughts. Still, I was shocked to learn about this group of women who said to hell with the law, let’s do something about it. Why, I found myself asking throughout the film, had I never heard of these women prior to 2022?
The documentary feels celebratory—not that it’s upbeat, but the fact that the Janes existed for so long and helped so many is laudable. And then Roe was passed. One woman, who recalls getting her second abortion through the Janes, cries on camera: “When I tell you they changed my life, they changed my life,” says a weepy Doris, noting this was the first time she saw women caring for and about other women. “It was a whole new world for me.”
Doris is one of the women who open the film. She shares her account of seeking out the mob for help, being taken to a destitute motel and being joined by another woman before a man, who barely spoke to them, performed their illegal abortions. One of the few things he said was “get in the bathroom,” when the bleeding started. He left. Both women waited an hour or so while the bleeding slowed, then went their separate ways. “If I stayed in that room, I would have died,” Doris says matter-of-factly.
Other stories like Doris’ follow. Two women who would soon become Janes recall helping a girl bleeding in university dorms following a shoddy procedure, the other remembers finding a doctor to perform an abortion for a friend who was violently raped in her off-campus housing. The horrific details stand out, at least for those of us who’ve only known a post-Roe America. I’ve heard about clothes hanger abortions before, I’ve seen Dirty Dancing, but The Janes is, perhaps, the first time I’ve truly understood the fear and desperation so many women lived with before the country legalized the right to choose.
For that reason alone, The Janes should be required viewing—and certainly not just for people who can get pregnant. But watching it today, when a handful of state legislatures, such as Texas, have implemented abortion bans while awaiting the Supreme Court’s forthcoming ruling over Mississippi’s 15-week ban, which is expected to gut or overturn Roe, the film’s celebratory feeling is broken. Today it feels like foreshadowing of what’s to come. (And honestly, what already is real for many, especially low income folks and women of color.)
What feels both groundbreaking and awe-inspiring about The Janes, and the Janes, is that these were ordinary young women. They weren’t doctors or nurses, psychologists, lawyers, or “professionals” of any kind. They were people who wanted to change the world amid the predominantly men-led civil rights and anti-war movements. When several of the Janes were arrested in 1972, they were cooking a pot roast in the kitchen of the apartment where they performed safe abortions. I can only describe these women as heroes, but what makes them more awe-inspiring is their normality.
It’s unlikely that Lessin and Pildes made The Janes while living under a rock, unaware of the current state of abortion rights in the U.S. Though there’s very little talk of anything that happened after 1973, the film can’t help but feel like an urgent wakeup call. Earlier this month, Marie Claire said it was “may be the most timely doc of the year.” I would argue, The Janes is not just timely, but a call to action. A reminder that history is often doomed to repeat itself.
The Janes screens Friday, April 22 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, April 23 at 3 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, as part of FilmFest DC. filmfestdc.org Individual tickets are $13.