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.