In the past, in the United States, it was quite easy for women to have abortions. Some might say it was a Frequent occurrence in colonial America for those who could access it, but by the mid-1800s it became illegal in nearly every state. What ensued in the decades following the criminalization of abortion was a long and arduous struggle between those who believed it was their right to have an abortion and those who saw it as a threat to their religious beliefs. Protesters in the 1960s began a domino effect, and in 1973 the monumental Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade said states could not completely ban access to abortion.
For those who fought to make access available, it felt like a breather, but others saw it as the start of a different kind of fight: breaking down the precedent set by the court. In a exclusive for Politicson May 2, 2022, it was revealed that the Supreme Court planned to overturn Roe vs. Wade, a landmark case in the fight for women’s reproductive rights. The leak was the first of its kind in the court’s contemporary history, making it a source of grief and protest for some Americans, while others were relieved. While what can happen with Roe vs. Wade and the Supreme Court may be up in the air, many look to the past to learn from those who lived and fought before abortion was fully legal. It’s fitting that HBO’s streaming platform, HBO Max, releases its new documentary The Janeswhich tracks and documents the difficulties women in Chicago faced in obtaining abortions prior to the announcement of Roe vs. Wade graced newsstands and televisions across America.
Women support each other in difficult times
This documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, then won an award at the Cleveland Film Festival. It is directed by co-directors Tia Lessin (trouble the water, Citizen Koch) and Emma Pildes (Jane Fonda in five acts, Spielberg), and both directors have worked on social justice and gender issues in their previous filmographies. Despite what seems like perfect timing, this documentary has a lot to say outside of the current situation.
Like the generation that remembers an earlier era Roe vs. Wade slowly begins to disappear in the tides of history, The Janes dives into first-hand accounts of what it was like to be a Jane in Chicago in the 1960s. In the late sixties, one of the few options at the time was to turn to the crowd to have an abortion, which could potentially cost thousands of dollars. “I was desperate,” said a woman in the opening scene of the documentary. With no options in Illinois, or even the United States in general, women have been forced to turn to potentially shady methods of obtaining abortions.
Then emerged the Janes in Chicago. Advertisements popped up all over town to call a number and search for Jane, who would then help you find a reliable, inexpensive service for an abortion. The women who would become Jane put themselves at extreme risk to help their patients, as the Chicago Mafia and the Chicago Police Department actively sought out those to help the process. If caught, they would be convicted and go to jail for breaking the law. ‘I don’t care,’ Jane said, while another said: ‘It wouldn’t make a difference [until I was arrested]. I would be fine. The threat of danger, ripe with masculinity in the police and mafia, is still there. Although they operated for five years, the Janes would not be taken for their activities until just before Roe vs. Wade, in 1972. The reason why they were captured? A cop’s sister-in-law was trying to get an abortion.
The same woman in the opening scene, when she contacted the crowd, was presented with three price options. Unable to afford one of the more expensive packages, she was left bleeding in a hotel room with another woman who also couldn’t afford another package. She admits that she could have died if she hadn’t been able to get up and leave the hotel room with the stranger. Later in the documentary, as she describes a second abortion performed by the Janes, she has tears in her eyes. In a medical system dominated and run by men, the Janes managed to create something that felt safe for their patients, a kindness that stemmed from the fact that they too were once in that seat and understood their pain.
A generation that grows with resistance
One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is when the viewer looks at the demographics of the Janes: the majority were white women from privileged socio-economic backgrounds. The women they served were not the same demographic as them; Latina and black women primarily sought abortions in Chicago. Even today, the hard core of women seeking abortion are increasingly those who come from poverty, which tends toward women of color. When New York and other states legalized abortion in the early 1970s, wealthy white women could travel there for abortions, leaving those who struggled the most behind.
As the filmmakers dance around the fact that many of the Janes were educated white women serving BIPOC communities, which helped them get away with what they did under the watchful eye of the law, footage of the civil rights movement are juxtaposed with the late sixties stories of the Janes. However, that is just the backdrop for this documentary, and these women faced a different kind of horror, despite being inspired by the civil rights movement and anti-war protests that took place. took place during their youth. A Jane, who is black, describes how she has a scar from a bottle thrown at her during a protest.
In stunning detail, they depict graphic scenes from their own abortions, as well as the women they accompanied to their abortions, and what happened in their clandestine operation. Whether it was code words or a rotation of the location or car they would use to pick up the women, the amount of thought and planning that went into their operations is astounding. But, at the same time, the documentary subtly reminds the viewer that this is not ancient history. The women seated in front of the camera are lively, show bursts of humor when describing certain incidents, and are still very much alive today.
A story that could come back to life
Through interviews with the women once known as Jane, it becomes clear how ordinary people felt the call to action and helped others in need. In a post-Roe world, the groundwork and foundations they laid in the 1960s are more critical than ever. With images from the era and an indulgent style that focuses solely on women telling their stories with their voices, The Janes documents a bygone and already forgotten era. What these women did may not be explicitly written about in social media posts and fully described in history lessons, but this documentary offers primary sources and evidence proving they existed and that what they did was real. They didn’t need to be anything more than a Jane Doe back then – what they did mattered and made a difference in another’s life.
In a court of law, these stories would be classified as testimony. It may or may not be in the viewer’s interest to decide whether or not they were right to do what they did, but the heart of this story erases social, racial, and economic barriers. It was about women helping women, strangers, and risking their lives in the name of what they thought was right. While many of them openly tell their stories for the first time via this platform, faces are suddenly attached to names and events, allowing viewers to humanize their struggles. It’s also inspiring, because these women took the opportunity to stand up for what they believed in and could have ruined their own lives by helping others.
Whereas The Janes lives largely in the past and the collective memory of these women, it is a harbinger of what is to come. Almost sixty years later, CDC reports that most women who have abortions are low-income, black or Latina. While in 2022 access to female healthcare providers, as well as social media networks, may seem like a boon to the cause compared to the not-so-distant past, there’s no denying that something like the Janes might have to breed for the regular folks who can’t afford to travel to California or New York. Suddenly, history is repeating itself and these haunting lessons from the past are needed more than ever.
The Janes is available to stream on HBO Max starting June 8, 2022.