Few documentaries looking at the past offer as real a vision of the future as “The Janes.”
Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes have taken a look at a dozen or so women who came together in Chicago to secure abortions at a time when the procedure was illegal in most of the country.
These overwhelmingly white, middle-class, ordinary women counseled and arranged for abortions — and later provided them themselves — at risk of arrest and prison in the years before Roe v. Wade.
They called themselves Jane, a codename randomly picked, and their motive was not money or fame, but giving women who did not want a child an option. They had no medical or legal background, just compassion.
“Not only was there the need but a philosophical obligation on our part to disrespect a law that disrespected women,” one says. Another adds: “We were building a new world, and we were doing that one woman at a time.”
“The Janes” arrives on HBO and HBO Max a few weeks after a leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion shows a conservative majority of justices are ready to topple the court’s landmark 1973 ruling that established abortion rights nationwide.
Lessin and Pildes do a masterful job of putting the Janes in historical context, seeing how their desire to offer safe abortions grew out of the revolutionary ‘60s and yet how women’s issues were often deemed secondary to male-led efforts. The directors’ vision is straightforward, not using the Janes for anything other than what they were: quixotic Middle-American outlaws.
The filmmakers explain that the late 1960s were a time when a woman brought to a hospital after a rape would be lectured about her promiscuity. To get the Pill or a diaphragm, they had to be married. And it was a time when pregnant women were not allowed to work.
Without safe abortions, women made horrific decisions that could lead to the morgue. A medical student at the time recalls, “What was seared into my brain was what desperate people will do when they think they have no other choice.”
Enter the Janes, who performed about 11,000 abortions between 1968-73, operating between the mafia and the police. When the man they relied on to perform the abortions left, they taught themselves how to do it. Some in the group had lived through their own abortions and vowed to make it better for the next woman.
They would talk each patient through the procedure and recovery. They shuttled them to safe houses for the procedure, writing their names and details down on index cards. Some of the most powerful moments of the film are the elderly Janes holding handfuls of these cards and rereading them, each a story of anguish. (“Scared of pain” reads one, and “Cautious — father is a cop,” reads another.)
The filmmakers employ the standard talking head format but coax out remarkable stories not only from the Janes but also from clergy members, a reluctant homicide detective who arrested seven Janes and even the shady abortionist they relied on.
They also make clever use of old ’60s footage, like when a Jane recalls the snowballing effect of desperate women calling her for help and the screen pans across a bank of public payphones all occupied by women. Frayed footage from the news and marches are added to random images of women out and about, sunbathing and doing errands.
Enough time has passed that the women in the group are able to put their work in context, admitting the racial disparity within the Janes, the absurdity of the situation and the lack of planning for the inevitable bust. “You were a little playing god and we were young,” says one.
Lessin and Pildes end the film with the relief felt by the Janes that the 1973 decision Row v. Wade had put them out of the abortion business forever. “We thought it was over. We thought we had won,” one says.
But the filmmakers leave any speculation about today aside, letting the past speak unconnected to today’s struggle. Unspoken is that we will need the Janes again. At one point, one of the former members picks up and displays the metal tools she used to access a woman’s cervix and scrape the uterine wall. “I haven’t done this in a while,” she admits.
She may be called upon again sooner than she ever thought.
“The Janes,” an HBO Documentary Films release, is not rated but has adult language and situations. Running time: 101 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.