It is a grim coincidence that the same week that HBO premieres the The Janes — a documentary about the young women who established an underground network to provide women with affordable and safe abortion care in the years before Roe v. Wade — the current Supreme Court may actually overturn that very decision that rendered the Janes services largely unnecessary nearly 50 years ago.
The Janes, which debuts on Wed., June 8, has the colorful characters, quick pacing, and twists and turns of a heist film. The directors, Oscar-nominee Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) and Emmy-nominee Emma Pildes (Jane Fonda in Five Acts), skillfully weave together archival footage of 1960s and early 1970s Chicago with the heartbreaking, frank, and sometimes very funny personal stories of the women who evaded law enforcement and flew under the radar of the mob — a major provider of illegal abortions — to care for those with unwanted pregnancies.
“It was not only an important and relevant and timely story, but it was also just a pretty great, riveting cloak-and-dagger story,” Lessin tells Rolling Stone. “It is a thriller, a feminist thriller. And we knew we had to get these voices on camera before it was too late.”
Pildes, who directed and produced the doc, says there was some coaxing involved in convincing everyone to talk about illegal activities and their own intimate experiences with abortion, but “most saw the value of being able to give this testimony,” said Pildes. “They laid it all on the line in the Sixties, and in the early Seventies. And now, 50 years later, we’re on the precipice of losing Roe, they wanted to do what they could to help.”
In the period before Roe, women had to be married to have access to contraception. Pregnant women were not welcome in most workplaces. One doctor details the often-grisly situation at the Cook County Hospital, which admitted roughly 5,000 women a year to its 40-bed septic abortion clinic.
The documentary is something of a love letter to the city of Chicago, a hub of civil rights, anti-war and women’s rights organizing. The group that would become the Janes was born after a 19-year-old college student, Heather Booth, was asked to help a friend’s sister obtain a safe abortion. She enlisted the aid of a doctor —TRM Howard, a civil rights leader who had fled Mississippi for Chicago after his name appeared on a Ku Klx Klan death list — and helping one woman, requests from other women in need began to pour in. She realized she needed to recruit others. “Sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority,” Booth says in the film. “Sometimes there are unjust laws that need to be challenged.”
The Janes, which grew to be about 100 volunteers and performed thousands of safe abortions, built a secret, sophisticated system. Using the codename “Jane” — “I said we could use my phone, but change it so that they don’t ask for Eleanor,” Eleanor Oliver recalls. “How about Jane? Nobody’s called Jane anymore” — women needing help would reach out and describe their situation. One of the Janes would pick up the pregnant woman and take them to a first location called “the front” where she received counseling. After that she led to another apartment, dubbed “the place,” where the procedures were performed by “Dr. Kaplan,” who was not a doctor at all, but a construction worker turned abortionist. Called Mike in the documentary, patients described him as gentle and careful — something in short supply for women seeking to terminate their pregnancies. Eventually he taught many of the group to perform the procedure themselves.
A lot of real MDs were not willing to take the risk of losing their license or getting sent to prison for strangers, so unless you had the money to fly internationally or to New York or California (when those states legalized abortion) you were out of luck. “The people that were left behind the low income or lower income women, disproportionately women of color, black and brown women, that’s primarily who The Janes served,” says Lessin. “Mike’s a complicated character. He’s probably not someone you would choose to be your gynecologist. But, he did good work for the women.”
In 1972, seven of the Janes were arrested — including Judith Arcana, whose son Daniel is a producer on the film — and charged with abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. They faced significant jail time, but their attorney kept filing motions to stall for time as the Supreme Court deliberated.
The moment in the documentary when the Supreme Court rules that the decision to have an abortion is between a woman and her doctor feels victorious. The women’s cases were dropped and the group, no longer needed, disbanded. The septic abortion ward at Cook County Hospital closed. There are memories of feeling relief and the joy that their fight was over.
Watching those scenes in 2022, though, is somewhat crushing.
“We certainly wish that this film was not timely, that it was ancient history,” says Lessin, who adds that while the film it paints a picture of what it was like before Roe, the laws being passed right now by states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Ohio which criminalize crossing state lines and offer bounties for turning in women seeking care, or do not make allowances for women raped or victims of incest “are more draconian, more punitive, more scary than anything that existed.”
And the unlikely ensemble of outlaws who risked so much to now see these rights roll back? “Oh they’re pissed,” says Pildes. “They had this experience of a weight being taken off their shoulders, and being able to sort of move on with their lives. And then to see it all be taken away. I just think we can’t quite know what that must feel like.”