In the spring of 1972, seven women were arrested for breaking a law that 1973’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision would summarily dissolve. Before that arrest was officially deemed unjust, those women were integral pieces of a Chicago-based collective that helped those who couldn’t wait for policy change to permit their actions. The Janes, an HBO Documentary directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, premiered earlier this year as part of Sundance’s abortion-conscious programming, alongside Call Jane and Happening. Unlike its narrative counterparts (with Call Jane fictionalizing and star-studding the exact collective The Janes documents), Lessin and Pildes’ straightforward, engaging film has intimate access to real collective members who saw their underground abortion network as a duty, a calling and the only thing that made sense in the face of a total ban on reproductive autonomy.
The film opens with as dramatic a hook as a largely talking head-based documentary can. One collective member describes her harrowing experience with a mob-arranged abortion provider; one of the only options available at the time, aside from self-induced methods. Accompanied by archival and wisely chosen stock footage, she relays the textural flashes of the event: The seedy motel, the clinical procedure totally devoid of any comfort or anesthetic, the shocking levels of blood and the unexpected presence of another girl in the room, a stranger whose procedure was done with the same callousness as to whether either of them survived. It was only thanks to that double procedure—and that they both had someone else to make sure the other didn’t bleed out—that she lived to tell the tale.
This is only one of the horror stories that makes The Janes, the collective that provided thousands of women with a means to life-saving yet illegal services, so insoluble. Throughout the film, collective members give firsthand accounts of what drew them to each other and eventually bound them together, even through major burnout and stays in mental hospitals. Many come to reproductive justice through their own back alley abortions, and some through the utter helplessness they experience when tasked with providing unexpected emergency help for their sisters, friends and college roommates. Told in isolation, these incidents are terrifying. When laid side-by-side with archival footage of the hospital’s septic abortion floor and the hollow recollections of the nurses and doctors who witnessed firsthand the deaths of otherwise perfectly healthy young people, it’s obvious cause for a major reckoning.
One of the most interesting contextualizing frames of the documentary comes from the women’s frustration not only with their lack of agency over their own organs, but as dismissed comrades in other protests against state violence. As the social unrest of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s took hold in the streets of Chicago, women were often pushed to a talked-over status in groups from anti-war draft dodgers to socialist students to the Black Panthers. As one collective member recalls, they began to use these groups as springboards, funneling the women who felt voiceless to a cause that no one else seemed to care about—at least not as vehemently as it deserved. If abortion were to be a disregarded “women’s issue,” then it would have to be solved by those shrugged off.
Of course, that’s not to say that men were in any way absent from The Janes’ story. Aside from the obvious implication of men in many positions of insemination and obstruction along the way, The Janes includes a host of fascinating characters—from a “Jane Husband” whose legal career began in the anti-war movement, to the doctor and civil rights leader who became a de facto secret abortion referral after fleeing the Klan. Then there are two incredible shades to this tight-knit but reverberating story, both somewhat unbelievable in their willingness to participate in the documentary: The secretly unlicensed abortionist who worked with The Janes for years, and the cop who kicked the door down (though he of course describes it as a polite tap) on The Janes in 1972. They never overshadow the women at the center of the collective, and their quotes are often contradicted, with Lessin and Pildes making some pointed decisions in the ordering and cutting of their interviews.
In today’s horrorshow of legal erosion, it’s not difficult to understand the stakes of what The Janes faced, but it is admirable that Lessin and Pildes dig deeper than the typical messaging over what threats women (as the diverse population that needs access to abortion is so often boiled down to) face in a speculative future of overreaching state power. They tackle racial and class segregation in access to care, pointing out the change in The Janes’ clientele once abortion became legal and accessible to any person who could afford a plane ticket to New York. In another decision too often unexamined in nonfiction form, the filmmakers don’t take healthcare providers and state authorities at face value, and they don’t paint policy as the end-all-be-all of lasting change. Yes, The Janes were saved from prolonged incarceration by a wily attorney stalling long enough for Roe to hit the courts, but there’s no promise that a law once written is set in unbreakable stone, or that the law—written by the few—effectively serves everyone.
As one of The Janes pulls out her old medical equipment, there’s a ringing message: Policy is too slow. Those telling their stories aren’t from a completely alien era, and the knowledge that they share, in tones frank and thoughtful by turn, is incredibly valuable. If anything, The Janes is a call to find and form networks in one’s own community. It’s a reminder, as the inevitability of another abortion ban inches closer and closer every day, there will always be people who disregard what is lawful in favor of what is right—and documentary can be a tool in teaching what, who and how to effectively parse and evade that lawful, undeniably wrong side of history.
Director: Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes
Release Date: June 8, 2022 (HBO)
Shayna Maci Warner (@bernieteeters) is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.