It would be obvious to the point of triteness to go on for too long about the unfortunate timeliness of a historical documentary about abortion activism coming out now. Of course, even before the recent Supreme Court leaked draft opinion to revoke Roe v. Wade, abortion rights were already in danger in much of the United States, with the procedure effectively outlawed in some states. The conservative assault on reproductive rights has been waged for decades now, and a film like The Janes exists to remind pro-choice activists of the stakes in this battle, looking back at the time when abortion was illegal.
Rather than attempt a broad but shallow overview, the film smartly keeps its focus on a specific milieu which it makes emblematic of the wider conditions in the country during the pre-Roe era. Looking back at Chicago in the late 1960s and early 1970s, directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes interview people involved in an underground network that provided illegal abortions to those who needed them. Though fairly conventional in its approach, the film draws urgency and poignancy from its pressing subject matter and the conviction of its cast. These subjects — many of them women who either had to get illegal abortions or knew someone who did — speak with the weight of history repeating on their minds.
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From an educational perspective, the documentary is also a compelling look at the interlocking institutions, both official and “illegitimate,” that form around a social function like abortion. For some years, the mob had been the go-to handlers for abortion work — an obvious example of how the criminalization of needed services will simply empower professional criminals. The network of “Janes,” as they were called (if you needed an abortion, you would dial a covert phone line and “Ask for Jane”) developed a set of procedures to ensure privacy and safety both for themselves and those seeking their help. It’s also curious to see how different the relationships between cultural attitudes and these institutions were back then. While abortion was illegal, former police officers interviewed for the film claimed that they frequently declined to follow tips about abortions happening, simply because pursuing every report would have taken up too much of their time. And while the Catholic Church was of course staunchly against abortion, the film delves into how individual priests both covertly and publicly supported it.
The Janes is most interesting in its commitment to a firsthand account of this history. From members of the Jane network to local doctors to a blue-collar worker who became an amateur abortionist, no one without lived experience of these times testifies about them. It creates a sense of immediacy bridging the decades past to now. The film also encourages serious reflection and even self-criticism among the subjects, as they reflect on how, for instance, their network was mostly White and could have done more to help pregnant Black people. One could not exactly look to this film as an instructional on what to do if or when abortion again becomes illegal in the US — greatly expanded surveillance capabilities, a more energized and violent right-wing, and other factors would demand new and different tactics from organizers. But the movie is a reminder that no matter what a patriarchal authority may try to impose, people can always find ways to help each other.
The Janes debuts June 8 on HBO.