In May, Politico obtained a leaked draft penned by Supreme Court Justice Alito showing a majority ruling to overturn both Roe. vs. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). If the leaked documents are correct, it would set abortion rights in the United States back fifty years.
Serendipitously, two films premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival about the abortion activists known as the Jane Collective: Phyllis Nagy’s drama “Call Jane,” set for release in October, and Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ documentary “The Janes.” The collection’s direct action activism helped an estimated 11,000 women and girls, mostly low-income and women of color, receive safe and affordable abortions. Their actions at the time were illegal. In 1972, a few months before Roe, seven of their members were busted by the Chicago homicide department and charged with 11 counts of abortion or conspiracy to commit abortion.
At Sundance, the film felt like a much-needed reminder of where we once were, and how far we’ve come since. However, with the film set for a wide release on HBO and HBOMax in the wake of Alito’s leaked majority ruling, it now feels like a rallying call to to keep fighting, and leaves the viewer angry and wondering how these women could have risked so much only to have the courts fail them, the countless other activists who’ve worked tirelessly over the last five decades, and frankly all people capable of birth in this country.
The documentary begins with Jane member Dorrie Barron sharing a harrowing account of her first abortion, sometime in the early 1960s, at the hands of a Mob-backed abortionist who left her and another young woman alone and bleeding in a hotel room when he was finished. Several over Jane members interviewed share similar stories, either from their own abortions or in helping other women after botched abortions. Founding member Heather Booth recalls becoming radicalized after she fought for a legal medical abortion after being diagnosed with cancer. As these women tell their tales, their righteous anger leaps off the screen.
One particularly chilling set of interviews includes an RN and a doctor who worked at the septic abortion ward at Cook County Hospital. The two share stories of the real, human consequence of botched abortions. Desperate women and girls who couldn’t afford to see illegal abortionists would use tools on themselves, or in one shocking recollection “carbolic acid.” These horrific stories seem so far away, yet given how restrictions to access have creeped back in many states, they also serve as a window into what may well still be happening today.
Along with using these interviews to set up the need for the services provided by the Jane Collective, Lessin and Pildes use archival footage from the infamous demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention to paint a picture of the political atmosphere of Chicago at the time. It’s easy to see how Jane grew out of a city filled with so much political activism, or as one member put it, “That was the beauty of Chicago – it was a town where people got stuff done.”
To wit, many of the women involved became activists through the civil rights and anti-war movements, but felt that they were often rife with misogyny, with the women’s lib movement growing out of women wanting to take “the woman question” into their own hands. At the time, the mainstream abortion movement was working towards legalization and awareness, the women of Jane wanted to take direct action. While it is great that the documentary gives their commitment to direct action proper respect, it sometimes downplays exactly how important the work of activists who got abortion legalized in states like New York, or who got Roe through the court system was.
Where it does succeed well is in showing the socio-economic disparity in access to safe abortions, which cost roughly 5 times as much as a month of rent. The doc frankly discusses the business of abortion, including how the mob made money from controlling most of the illegal abortions in the city and how the airlines made money from the women who could afford to fly to New York after the state legalized it in 1972. The Jane Collective worked with an abortionist, alias “Mike,” who speaks on camera about how he could make more money doing this than his previous job in construction. It is a revelation to watch the women recount how they felt when they figured out how to take the economics into their own hands, enabling them to offer safe options to poor women, mostly women of color, who otherwise had no options.
Another aspect that feels extremely important in today’s abortion discussion in this country comes from interviews with clergy who worked for Clergy Consultation Service, a religious organization that supported a woman’s right to choose and helped women fly to places that offered legal abortions. Rev. Dana Schaper, who shares she has had two abortions, directly addresses organized religion’s inference in the issue, stating, “To exclude women from the ethical agency excludes women from humanity.” A message, sadly, many women themselves need to hear.
Along with the history of how the Jane Collective was founded and why, the documentary meticulously recreates their process using its members’ own words. They describe the phone calls they would receive from women, collecting their date on index cards, counseling them in the waiting room they called “the front,” driving them to the location, and even break down the exact steps of the procedure itself. I couldn’t help but think of the journeys the protagonists in recent films like “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Unpregnant” had to undertake in order to receive legal abortions just in the last few years. Unfortunately, sometimes a mirror to the past can also be a reflection of the present.
As the documentary ends, the women of Jane discuss the sigh of relief they felt when Roe passed. They did what they had to do when it was needed most, but after Roe they thought it was over. In one of the archival clips of a pre-Roe abortion rally a young woman holds a sign that reads “Compulsory Motherhood Violates Human Rights” and I thought, “is this 1972 or 2022?”
“The Janes” tells an important story of women who fought unjust laws by becoming criminals themselves, putting themselves on the line for what they knew was right. Watching this film in the Summer of 2022, a full fifty years after their arrest, on the possible eve of Roe’s dissolution, is bittersweet. After all of this progress, how could we end up back where we started? [B+]