Imagine the world pre-Roe v. Wade; what people had to do to secure the illegal procedure: sketchy mob-run abortions, dangerous self-administration, all leading to clinics full of dying women. The Janes didn’t have to imagine. The HBO Max documentary The Janes tells the story of a group of young women in Chicago in the late 60s and early 70s who ran an underground abortion clinic, taking their pain into their own hands and saving the lives of hundreds of people. On October 12, the Gender Justice Initiative and the Women’s and Gender Studies Department here at Georgetown hosted a screening of the documentary, including a panel with directors Tia Lessin (Oscar Nominee: Trouble the Water (2009)) and Emma Pildes (Emmy Nominee: Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2019), Spielberg (2018)) as well as two of the original Janes, Sheila and Heather Booth.
The Janes was an illegal abortion service, but easily accessible by ads across Chicago: “Pregnant? Call Jane.” The original group of eight women was inspired by the urgent need they saw in the community and in their own lives. Many of the Janes tell stories of their own harrowing abortion experiences or that of friends. At one point, the documentary shows disturbing footage of women dying in a septic abortion ward. The solution was clear: safe, affordable abortions. After “calling Jane,” the caller would be scheduled to visit one of the Jane’s houses. There, the procedure would be explained and they would be provided emotional support. Then, the Janes would drive the client to another house—checking to make sure they weren’t followed—where the abortion was performed. At first, different doctors performed the procedure, but eventually, the Janes themselves took that on as well. They asked the women to pay what they could, but never turned anyone away.
What The Janes does best is highlight the importance and efficiency of grassroots organizing. When the government can’t keep you safe, you must rely on your community. The clinic was a community-wide undertaking; neighbors and friends gave up their houses and cars for the Janes. At any given time, there were 30 people, all volunteers, working to support the clinic. After learning the man they were paying to perform abortions was lying about his license, the Janes realized they didn’t have to rely on the medical field either. They took on the role of doctor, in addition to their roles as the administrator, counselor, and everything else. They were a collective of badass women, achieving what the government couldn’t and wouldn’t do with more efficiency and compassion.
Lessin and Pildes situate the fight over abortion rights as part of a larger systematic patriarchy in Chicago and beyond. The film addresses how it was legal to fire someone for being pregnant, making many people choose between having an abortion or losing their job. In addition, there was (and still is) a stigma against sexual violence survivors. People who chose to seek medical help or go to the police are often met with shame and victim blaming. The film emphasized how pervasive the impact of abortions was in society. Everyone was benefitting from abortions, whether they knew it or not. The Janes reveal that many of their clients were relatives or mistresses of judges, politicians, police officers, and other people who publicly condemned abortion. They also believe this was why The Janes were left unprosecuted for so long—because the people in power needed them.
For all the telling of their heroics, The Janes wasn’t perfect. The members of The Janes were able to exist in part due to their privilege as white, middle class, and, in many cases, married women; they had the liberty to take more risks. The documentary does a laudable job examining the intersectionality between race and abortion rights, shining a light on how the struggle for abortion rights was uniquely tied up in the civil rights movement. The first doctor who performed abortions for The Janes was Dr. T.R.M Howard, a civil rights leader who fled the Klan in Mississippi after being a witness in the Emmett Till case. In addition, when The Janes eventually got arrested, they were represented by a lawyer who also represented the Black Panthers. However, for all the focus on racial and class intersectionality, the film made no mention of trans and queer people’s impact on the abortion rights movement or their need for abortion access. The language used to discuss abortion throughout the film and the panel failed to be inclusive, painting this issue as exclusively a women’s issue.
Throughout the screening, a tension existed that couldn’t be ignored. We are at a Catholic university, a university that does not provide access to abortion or teach abortions in its medical school. Moreover, the university does not allow H*yas for Choice (the on-campus reproductive rights group) to be an official club under a directive from the Catholic Church. The panelists were not afraid to mention this hypocrisy. Lessin said in a short interview with me, “We all have our own beliefs, but I don’t think it is right to force those beliefs onto anyone else; reproductive justice affects everyone on this campus no matter their beliefs.”
As of June 2022, we no longer have to imagine what the U.S pre-Roe was like. The film presents Roe as the savior of abortion rights. Once Roe was passed, The Janes happily ceased all operations because they simply weren’t needed anymore. The Janes helps bridge the gap between the world pre and post-Roe. For Lessin and Pildes, the potential reversal of Roe weighed heavily on their hearts while making the film: “We knew time was short for Roe. We knew this film would come out before the reversal and in some way help people understand what it was like the last time, a window into our past and now unfortunately our present,” Lessin told me. But Janes Sheila and Heather Booth also helped the audience understand a crucial fact: “We are not going backward, we are going someplace we have never been before.” Laws are more punitive against abortion now than they ever have been. The highly organized anti-abortion movement in the pockets of politicians only came to be after the passing of Roe. We are up against more demons now than ever before, and I’m scared. However, The Janes gave me hope.
The fight is never over as long as there are people like The Janes, ready to break the law for justice. The Janes is a solemn, but inspiring, call to action.
Audrey Ledford is a junior in the SFS majoring in Culture and Politics and minoring in Art History. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the INDY.