This review of The Janes originally premiered as part of our coverage of this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it premiered. We re-present it as it is premiering tomorrow on HBO and HBOMax.
Just by its nature, there are always a few films at the Sundance Film Festival that speak to the current socio-political moment, whether by design or happenstance. Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ documentary The Janes, which tells the story of a group of women who helped to facilitate illegal abortions in the Chicago area in the late 1960s, comes across as not just a history of this group but, in a time when reproductive rights are once again under attack, a warning as to what may be in store again if those rights are stolen away.
(There is indeed something in the Sundance zeitgeist this year as a fictionalized telling of this story, Call Jane starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, is also screening at the festival.)
Coming out of the anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements, the women who came together to for the Jane collective all carried with them personal stories about how they, or a friend, or even just a college acquaintance found themselves in need of terminating a pregnancy at a time when abortion was illegal. Lessin and Pildes take the time to first tell these personal stories while placing them into a greater context of late 1960s Chicago and the country in general. This mixture of the personal and political gives the documentary some true heft, engaging both the emotions and the intellect in a powerful combination.
Although abortion was illegal across the country, in the heavily Irish Catholic town of Chicago it carried an extra stigma. Merely asking one’s doctor about abortion could be potentially viewed as criminal conspiracy. And when a woman could find an abortionist to do the procedure, there was the distinct possibility that they they would be assaulted or left to fend for themselves immediately after the surgery. It was these conditions that the women of Jane were reacting to. They set up a system where women would be informed about the procedure, make sure it was done safely, and then followed up to make sure there were no complications afterwards.
Lessin and Pildes rely mostly on talking head interviews with some of the core Jane members, some others in their immediate circle and even one of the police officers from the raid that ultimately led, in part, to the group’s dissolution. All are engaging storytellers and I dare say that there is a longer cut of this film with even more personal remembrances that fill out this story even more.
Through their existence, the Janes pretty much operated as an open secret. They even advertised, although somewhat obtusely. Listings that read “Pregnant and have questions? Call Jane” would routinely appear in the city’s alternative publications. The same wording was found on flyers while word of mouth and doctor’s recommendations also spread the word. Law enforcement was either unaware or uninterested. It is very telling that when the police finally do bust the group – at the urging of two sisters of one of their patients – the officers can’t seem to comprehend that the women themselves were the ones doing everything.
Interestingly, although the film mentions that the mob had been getting women access to abortions before the Janes formed, the two never seemed to come into conflict. With the mob charging up to $1000 and the Janes asking for a small fraction of that, it suggests that the Janes were probably cutting into the Mob’s business and they historically aren’t too keen when that happens. The movie doesn’t question why that didn’t happen, though it is reasonable to assume that it would have been very difficult to find someone from Chicago organized crime to go on camera to address this.
The reason that The Janes resonate so much today is in no part due to the recent far-right attacks on women’s right to choose. To hear these women describe the conditions that they lived in before when they had no legal right to their own bodily autonomy, and the dangers that they went through in order to achieve it is chilling that some now threaten a return to that time. The Janes definitely serves as a reminder of a recent past that we should not be doomed to repeat.