Before the passing of Roe v. Wade in January 1973 made the process of abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy legal in 46 states where it was previously illegal, abortions happened. They happened in backrooms, hotels, apartments, and anywhere else someone could find privacy. Sometimes they happened in actual medical rooms, but, more often than not, they weren’t because they were being conducted by less-than-reputable individuals. In Chicago, this meant that they were performed by members of the Chicago mob and none were conducted with the patient in mind. Recognizing that there could be a better way, several women banded together to form the Jane Collective, also known as the Janes, an anonymous group that sought to offer affordable and safe abortions to those who needed them, without judgements and without questions, but with tenderness and humanity as their guiding light. With the release of a draft opinion implying that the Supreme Court is going to overturn the 1973 decision, now seems like a great time to remember how it used to be through the exceptional and frank documentary The Janes, directed by Tia Lessin (HBO’s Trouble the Water) and Emma Pildes (HBO’s Jane Fonda in Five Acts), coming to HBO and HBO Max on June 8th.
Through a collage of archived general news footage, personal photos, archived interviews, and interviews with members of the Janes as well as one of the officers involved with the 1972 arrest of seven members, Lessin and Pildes present the Janes as an organization born out of the Civil Rights Movement and Second-Wave Feminism that still didn’t acknowledge abortion access and built out of necessity. Structured chronologically, the film lets audiences learn about the formation of the Janes, how they functioned, what they were up against, and how things ended. Along the way, there’s some real introspection as to the positives and negatives of the group. Through quite a bit of frankness, the former Janes examine their various successes and failures, both philosophically and in literal action. If the documentary is to be believed, they had one prominent Black member, Marie Leaner, and though it wasn’t discussed deeply, the interviewed members did address that the people who ran it were predominantly middle-class White women. This meant that their view of things was shaded by their own perspectives, something which hindered their process from time to time given that many of the people who came to them for help were of lower financial class status or of a different race. This didn’t mean that they turned people away; in fact, they did everything they could to provide services to individuals for as little as possible. While this doesn’t sound sustainable, there was a “pay what you can so that you can pay for the next one” way of thinking. It was less “pay it forward” than it sounds, as some could only afford $1 while others could afford $10s or $100s. The point to all this is that the Janes offered something that the Chicago Mafia and other back-alley doctors couldn’t: safety and someone who would listen. Through each story we’re told, Lessin and Pildes layer the absolute necessity that was the Janes.
From the way the members who’d undergone abortions themselves prior to the starting of the Jane Collective discuss things, obtaining an abortion was far riskier as the people treating them offered little-to-no bedside manner and possessed the potential of abusing or harming the women who came for help. There are many horrors in this world and few like the stories of those who seek help receiving little more than derision or mistreatment. Doctors who left as soon as the procedure was over without follow-up was bad enough, but some demanded sexual satisfaction either before or after. As if the women weren’t already feeling desperate to have to hunt for someone to help them seek medical assistance, they also faced degradation. From what we learn about the Janes, theirs was a service designed to make a lawless act feel as comfortable as possible, to enhance healing physically and psychologically, and to make some measure of sexual equity possible. Impressively, Lessin and Pildes don’t dig into the inequality and misogyny with any kind of vigor, allowing the facts of history to highlight just how unfair the balance of gender roles were (and still are). Instead, each comment about boards of male doctors determining what women will do with their bodies is added to a pile of examples, either through archived video footage or newspaper articles, where men proclaimed their gender superiority. While much of this information won’t come as a surprise to those already aware of these issues and the history of them, the chronological and well-supported storytelling provides a chance for another part of the audience to gain a shift in perspective. The hardest part of watching The Janes is learning what women did to themselves before legalization and without access to the Janes, actions which lead to horrible disfigurement, risk of sepsis, and/or death.
Don’t mistake the horrible truths presented by The Janes to imply that it’s a harrowing watch. Far from it. There’s great joy and even some playfulness to be found. Some of this comes in the form of the life-affirming stories shared with us, the editing by Kristen Huntley (The Problem with Apu) smoothly taking the audience from one talking-head interview to archived footage to personal photos as though composing. It’s so smooth that it’s like being guided by the hand from moment to moment, being gently led through history. Of course, what makes the lighter moments feel that way is Max Avery Lichtenstein’s (Weed & Wine) score, conveying the perfect tone to accompany the few scenes which require underscoring. My favorite might be in one of the earlier parts of the documentary which discusses the clandestine nature of the work and the scoring takes on the familiar notes of a theme for a certain 1960’s British spy. It’s a lightness that’s missing throughout the bulk of the documentary given the subject matter, but a welcome one nonetheless.
There’s an important distinction between life before Roe v. Wade and life after: abortions will continue to happen, legal or not. According to The Janes, these women conducted roughly 11,000 abortions between 1968 and 1973. At one point, an interviewee says they performed 30 procedures a day, three days a week. They were organized, they were private, and they did this with as much vigilance and concern for every person that came into their care. What’s most fascinating is how the documentary confirms, via anecdotal information, that the people who came in search of their services weren’t just low income members of society, but also the wives, daughters, and sisters of law enforcement, lawyers, and politicians. For all the talking points anti-abortionists use, the members of society who clutch their pearls the most fit into the quadrant of abortion seekers who came to the Janes just like anyone else. This certainly seems to confirm the universal nature of the service, irrespective of class or race; it’s a medical procedure that should be offered under the right to privacy currently guaranteed by the Constitution. This has nothing to do with faith-driven governance and everything to do with amoral medical practice. As a look back on the last 50 years with Roe v. Wade supported by the patient’s right to privacy, Lessin and Pildes’s The Janes is like Cassandra, the priestess of Apollo, screaming from the past to remember what it was like when a woman’s individual right to choose was dictated by others. It didn’t stop; more people merely died with only thoughts and prayers to accompany them.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.