A Film’s Backward Look Evokes a Brutal Post-Roe v Wade Future

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It’s called “The Janes.”

“The Jane Collective” was a group of women in 1960s Chicago with intimate knowledge of abortions gone wrong. Seeing the humiliation and terror, the deaths and maiming of women who were desperate to get abortions that were then illegal, they took matters into their own hands—literally.

I was fortunate to see “The Janes,” the powerful documentary about these extraordinary women, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24th. As Covid had closed the live Sundance, I had the opportunity to watch the film from my living room couch, via computer.

The experience was intense.

[Disclosure: I know Tia Lessin, who co-directed the film with Emma Pildes.]

Using archival footage, the film captures the city and its character. It also artfully depicts the tumultuous events spawned by the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements that permeated the time–and helped shape these women’s convictions.

But it’s the candid interviews with several of the Jane participants—from then and now—that are so striking and memorable. There’s a sort of “lots of women” feel to the way they look and speak.

That feel belies the courage it took to do what they did. And to watch them as they describe their thoughts and daring actions in conversational tones is truly compelling.

From their backgrounds in the Civil Rights Movement and in one case a personal workplace injustice, they concluded they had to take risks against unjust laws.

They knew they could be arrested at any time. Still, they persisted in trying to locate women who might otherwise be tempted to go to the Mafia or to self-abort, even if they died trying.

Many of them did. One of the most dreadfully memorable threads to this sad story is the presence of the sepsis ward in a large hospital, the beds filled with young women who’d received botched abortions.

The Janes located people willing to provide safe abortions, transported the women who contacted them to clean surroundings, and followed up with them for several weeks to make sure they were all right. They were unfailingly kind, compassionate, and nonjudgmental.

There are a number of colorful characters on both sides of the law that lend additional drama and even humor to the film.

“The Janes” will be available on HBO later this year. I hope it will be widely viewed, as it is a critical historical lesson.

As Tia Lessin said during the Q&A that followed the showing, the issue is not and never was whether one supports or opposes abortion. Women have always had abortions—and they will continue to do so.

For 49 years, Roe v Wade has recognized a woman’s Constitutional right to her reproductive decision-making. Yet for decades, state after state has added increasingly onerous restrictions on that right. If this clearly biased Supreme Court strikes the death knell with its expected rulings in the summer, even more states will follow.

That Supreme Court ruling will simply accelerate a trend many years in the making. Women of means will be able to travel to states where they can receive safe, legal abortions. But poor women will increasingly suffer the wrath of decision-makers who have no business making these life-threatening decisions.

In an interview with Deadline.com, Tia Lessin emphatically made the point.

“We don’t have to guess what that’s going to look like if the Supreme Court overturns that decision [Roe V. Wade] or just continues to whittle away at it. We know what that looked like, prior to ’73, and the lengths that women had to go to get basic health care, and the disproportionate impact that had on poor women, on Black and brown women, on people who menstruate. It’s unconscionable that women would have to risk their lives to get a very simple medical procedure and to take control of their destiny…”

Heather Booth, one of the Jane founders, was equally emphatic about the upside to the film’s lessons.

“I learned that if you organize and come together with others, you really can change the world. We still need to remember that. Part of the point of the movie is that we can make a difference.”

Years ago, I worked with a woman in her 30s who said she had no interest in politics, but if they try to take away abortion, she’s in.

I’ve been waiting for women to become more visibly outraged by the Supreme Court’s rulings.

“The Janes” and a fictionalized film titled “Call the Janes” that also appeared at Sundance couldn’t be more timely.

I don’t want to tell too much about the film because its texture is so rich and layered. I’ll report when I learn HBO’s scheduling of “The Janes”—and where it might be viewed by those of us who don’t have HBO.


21 thoughts on “A Film’s Backward Look Evokes a Brutal Post-Roe v Wade Future

  1. This is an issue that I hoped would never rear its ugly head again.When it comes to human rights, one step forward, two steps back should never be allowed to happen. Men making abortion a political battling point should never have happened. Thanks, Mr. Trump, for bringing it about, along with anti-immigrant and racial prejudice and more gun violence. The effect of this one man, I fear, is going to last for a long time.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Hi, Judy. I agree with your concluding sentence.
      It’s true that trump, who has no scruples and had long maintained he was pro choice, got to appoint 3 radical Justices. But McConnell made the first seat possible by denying Obama the appointment of Merrick Garland. And the same dark money crowd that’s been behind every step backward has been working to undermine Roe for years.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. True, Annie. McConnell then made the third seat possible by hypocritically pushing through the Amy Coney Barrett nomination shortly before the 2020 election. Nothing like a woman Supreme Court justice who is anti-women’s rights.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Abortion has been “de facto” illegal in many states for many years. So, the SCOTUS decision to deny the “right” to an abortion will have little impact. As the author describes, safe abortions have always been available for women of means, but not the poor. These anti-choice decisions will continue to impact only the poor. Hopefully new and better medical and technological advances will render the decision irrelevant.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I don’t fully agree with you, Joseph. The SC decisions will speed state legislation to further restrict abortions in more states. And though I’ve long been saying and writing what Tia Lessin (the film’s director) said about the poorest women, the women whom the Janes helped were from diverse economic backgrounds. They charged on a sliding scale, with more affluent women paying more so that less affluent and poor women could pay little or nothing. For the past 49 years though, the burden has definitely shifted almost entirely to poor women, especially Black and Brown women. The Hyde Amendment, of course, has been effective in that regard.

      I have long felt that greater societal emphasis on making free or well-subsidized safe long-term birth control more widely available is the best way to reduce the number of abortions while protecting women’s health. Research by the Guttmacher Institute supports this approach. Unfortunately, there are members on the current SC who don’t support contraception either. I fear we’ll see evidence of these radical views before long.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. Which countries in the world have, overall, a progressive populace? The USA sure as hell doesn’t. I don’t know what has caused so many Americans to be repressive. Strict and misguided religious upbringings, I imagine, are significantly to blame.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. What frustrates me the most, Neil, is that poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans support Roe and don’t want to see it overturned. A majority supports most of the Democrats’ agenda, from drug price regulation to child care to actions to address climate change. That’s why I keep hoping for more active citizens.There are lots of hurdles to overcome, but we can overcome them if enough of us work at it and vote!

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Yeah, Blogger. I think when you look at national votes you will see that the majority of Americans.
      support liberal policies. For example,since 1992 the more liberal candidate for president has won the popular vote every time with 2004 being the only exception. 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020 were elections in which the majority of Americans voted for the more liberal candidates. The structure of the US government favors states with smaller populations.

      Liked by 3 people

    3. In most cultural and culture-adjacent areas, the US is actually among the most backward of Western countries. Compared with the rest of the West, we have more people who reject evolution, more people who refuse covid-19 vaccination, more people who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old and Noah’s flood really happened, more people who disapprove of homosexuality (and we were one of the later Western countries to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide), more people with hostile views of science and higher education, more people who don’t believe in global warming, and on and on.

      Strict and misguided religious upbringings, I imagine, are significantly to blame

      See the difference for yourself. In intensity of religious belief, the US is more similar to the Middle East than to Europe.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Precisely, Gail—and just like Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the seat of Justice Thurgood Marshall.

    As President Biden prepares to keep his campaign promise to appoint a Black woman to the SC, the hypocritical charges of reverse discrimination have begun. I can’t wait til Justice Breyer’s successor is safely confirmed, as the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee will surely seek to make trouble. I’m sure the nominee will be brilliant—all those being discussed are—as well as savvy enough to make it through the grueling confirmation process.


  5. The roots of this problem in the US go back to the emergence of religious fundamentalism as a specifically political force in the 1970s. That is, almost as far back as Roe v Wade itself. The fundamentalist political movement arose largely as a reaction to cultural changes like the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. The push to reverse Roe — by electing anti-abortion politicians, making the commitment to appoint anti-abortion judges a necessity for Republican presidential candidates, and taking over the Supreme Court — necessarily spanned decades; it required an ability to look both ahead and backward more than just a couple of presidential terms and see the big picture, something which they seem better able to do than a lot of left-wingers.

    Shining a vivid spotlight on the pre-Roe reality, as this film does, is a valuable effort because after 49 years those times are no longer within living memory for most of the population.

    At this point it’s probably too late to stop whatever the Supreme Court is going to do. The focus needs to be on preserving abortion access as much as possible in a post-Roe America, if that happens. In the blue states, state laws will continue to guarantee rights.

    It is a tradition that people in freer countries lend a hand to those suffering under backward, authoritarian regimes. For example, abortion-rights activists in Mexico are already making plans to help women in Texas and other US red states obtain abortion pills.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As Barry Goldwater, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative once said:

      “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” (Personal communication with John Dean).

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks for adding to the historical context, Infidel. After watching the wrenching sepsis ward scenes in the film, I could imagine that once it’s widely distributed, the Morals Police will rant that these young women “got what they deserved.”

      The way you wrote the final paragraph gave me chills. But for all the well-meaning helpers, there will also be black marketeers and others preying on desperate women.
      I hadn’t known before seeing “ The Janes” that the Mafia had found performing abortions a lucrative addition to their crime portfolios. Just goes to show what happens when much-needed human services are driven underground.


  6. Thanks once more, Annie! As usual, I agree with you totally about another most important issue. Including that women have always had, and will continue to have abortions. The only question is whether they’ll be safe, because they’re done legally. Maybe the answer is to do it by passing a law in Congress, or by Constitutional amendment, though neither of those is too likely without voting in a large majority of members of the House and Senate that would be to both of our liking. The fact that Roe is likely to be overruled or severely curtailed when a majority of Americans (and I think it’s a fairly large majority) are in favor of keeping it is more than a little disturbing.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Wow. Glad to know about the film but will have to buckle my seatbelt to watch it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Sad day if when we return to these days.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thanks for this, Annie. Will be watching this film… A novel to check out – “We, Jane” by Aimee Wall… it’s getting lots of critical acclaim. Published this past spring by my mom’s best friend’s daughter who we are all so proud of!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. There’s a recent French film called L’Évenément (The Happening) on the same subject that also aired at Sundance this year. It follows a young woman’s efforts to obtain an abortion in 1960s France when abortion was illegal. It’s based on the semi-autobiographical book of the same title by Annie Ernaux. Hard to watch but extremely beneficial since it provides a realistic view of the inevitable harm that will come to women by making abortions illegal.

    Liked by 1 person

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