At once both deeply rooted in its historical era and upsettingly relevant to the modern day, The Janes preserves the efforts of one group in Chicago to ensure that, at a time when abortion was not only highly stigmatized but illegal, that women were able to decide for themselves whether to have a child. This documentary by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes uses several first-person accounts from the women involved to highlight just how much this was born out of the work of individuals. Often without any specific knowledge of the procedure or, for that matter, how to run a clandestine medical organization, they were driven by a simple desire to prevent women from suffering. It’s with this in mind that the poignancy of The Janes is amplified: The strength and will of women to help other vulnerable women, even when they have been utterly abandoned by society writ large, is a powerful thing indeed.
“The Janes” as an organization began in the 1960s, at first an informal word-of-mouth affair. Women could call when they needed an abortion, and they would get the name of a local doctor willing to perform the procedure. Simple enough. The Janes, as they are called (because in order to preserve anonymity, women were told to “ask for Jane”), were primarily middle-class white women in their 20s, drawn to the work either through their own personal (often traumatic) experiences with abortion, or those of their friends. Interestingly, there’s an indication that some of the members involved felt side-lined by the male-dominated activist groups that were popular in the late 1960s and wanted an opportunity to work on something that would put the issues facing women front and center. Gradually, their service grew into a much more complex organization, with the Janes serving as caseworkers, chauffeurs, secretaries, and even medical practitioners.
As they go through the index cards that have been preserved over the years with their client information, the plight of the women who reached out to the Janes is thrown into sharp relief. Their desperation and willingness to give perfect strangers all their personal information because they simply had no other choice, is heartbreaking. Although they only feature in a small portion of the documentary, these cards are a window into their lives. The Janes would painstakingly record who had extremely religious parents, for example, or who only had $2 to their name with which to pay for an abortion. One of the Janes speaks movingly of all the cogent, well-thought-out reasons that their clients would give for wanting to terminate their pregnancies, while also reiterating how little they needed to justify their decisions to anyone.
It’s fascinating to watch the women who ran the service, now much older, reflect on their time as Janes. They have a remarkably clear-headed perspective of what they were doing, but the film does not shy away from asking deeper questions that go beyond reminiscences. Looking back, they are able to acknowledge the deep disparity in care between rich and poor women, and especially between white women and women of color. Their mission, it seems, was undertaken with such an earnest desire to help as many women as much as they could for as long as they could, no matter the cost, that it’s easy to forgive any of the flaws in their approach that they bring up here. It speaks to their tremendous empathy, though, that they are willing to reflect upon their own biases and microaggressions that they may have committed with the best of intentions.
What’s just so hard to swallow is how tragically relevant this film is today, decades after the Janes started their illegal operation in Chicago. When abortion became legal in New York, as we see in the film, and Roe v. Wade became established law, there was a sense of finality among these women. That they had done a hard job for as long as it was needed, but then it was finished, and they could move on to other things. They surely didn’t expect to be filming a documentary decades later, in a year where abortion rights are as threatened as they have been in a long time.
The greatest accomplishment of The Janes is that it highlights not just the fearlessness, empathy, and determination of the Janes themselves, but the humanity and vulnerability of those seeking abortions themselves. Through their testimony, we can see how much forced birth hurt women in the 1960s, has always hurt women, and will continue to hurt women. The Janes thought their work was done, but with this powerful documentary, directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes make it clear that the days of secretly arranged abortions conducted by the often dangerous incompetent are not as far in the past as we like to think.