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HBO Max's new abortion doc 'The Janes' is timely, haunting — and ultimately hopeful

The institutions that serve us are not broken — they are working according to their design. Let’s hope that incites us to action, and not to despair.

The law cannot — and should not — stop people from seeking out life-saving health care. Abortions happened long before Roe v. Wade, and they will continue to happen long after its apparently imminent demise. Lawmakers may have the power to legislate which actions are legal and which are not, but they cannot simply end abortions. 

The film’s stories of women’s desperation are haunting — and ominous.

This historical context, now made contemporary in light of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion, has set the stage for “The Janes,” a new documentary premiering on HBO on Wednesday, June 8. Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, this film spotlights the Chicago-based underground abortion network called The Jane Collective. 

The film’s stories of women’s desperation are haunting — and ominous. Brutal, costly abortions at the hands of the Mafia. Pervasive sexual assault by the men conducting abortions. Women dying in septic abortion wards from self-induced efforts (one OB-GYN interviewed recalls seeing a woman who used carbolic acid), and clandestine abortions gone wrong. The constant threat of not just being arrested for getting an abortion but for even talking about one — which was a felony.

Yet, amid this violence, a hopefulness shines through. The 1960s, culturally, was rooted in the belief that we are the change we seek, and that radical societal change was possible. Emphasized again and again is the message that we cannot rely on antiquated laws propping up white-supremacist patriarchal institutions to support or care for us. And “The Janes” offers a template for organized feminist action. The organizing principle of the collective’s work is care — that all health care, fundamentally, should be based on compassionate care. 

“They were so detailed in care,” said Doris, whose second abortion with the collective was remarkably different from her first one, via the Mafia. “The assurance, the trust, the respect I got — when I tell you they changed my life, they changed my life.”

She added, holding back tears, “When I saw women caring about women … it was a whole new world for me.”

The Jane Collective is estimated to have provided around 11,000 abortions from 1969 to 1973. The collective’s origin story is not unlike the origin stories of other movements: A call for help catalyzes an action, which results in another related action, and another. In 1965, Heather Booth received that call for help — a friend’s sister was suicidal for want of an abortion. Booth had the previous year participated in the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, and says she learned "that sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority, and sometimes there are unjust laws that need to be challenged.”

From left: Martha Scott, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, Abby Parisers, Sheila Smith and Madeline Schwenk.
From left: Martha Scott, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, Abby Parisers, Sheila Smith and Madeline Schwenk. HBO

Her civil rights activism also introduced her to Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a Black surgeon and civil rights leader who had recently moved to Chicago after receiving death threats from the KKK for speaking out about Emmett Till’s murder. Howard agreed to help the friend’s sister and continued to perform abortion services for women who came to Booth for assistance until she lost touch with him.

Word spread, and by 1968 Booth realized she needed more help to continue her referral service. She reached out to women at various activist meetings and, quickly, dozens of women joined her. Jane was born — first as a continuation of Booth’s referral service, and then as a counseling service.

Their work dramatically changed when “Mike” — the man who had been performing the procedures after Howard, and who, unbeknownst to some of the Janes, was not a medically licensed physician — decided that he didn’t want to do it anymore. (The reason, he alludes to on camera, is that the Mafia was closing in on him.)

Some women left the collective because they felt both personally betrayed and that they had betrayed the women they counseled. But for those who remained, as Jane member Judith Arcana put it, “if he could do it, we could do it” — medical degree be damned. So, Mike trained the Janes to perform abortions themselves. This was a pivotal shift within the collective, not only in the services they provided but whom they provided them to: They never turned any woman away, no matter her financial situation. But now, without having to pay Mike, they remodeled their payment service by reducing the price from $500 to $100 and offering a pay-what-you-can option.

Around this time, too, abortion became legal in New York state and Washington, D.C., which meant that a large demographic of their clientele — middle- and upper-class white women — could travel to obtain a legal abortion (abortion was still illegal in Illinois). With lower costs and more scheduling availability (they could sometimes perform up to two dozen abortions a day), women of color from the South Side and West Side of Chicago quickly became their main clients. “The complexion changed,” noted Marie Leaner, one of the only Black women in the collective.

In the documentary, members of Jane, who themselves were predominantly middle- and upper-class white women, spoke about recognizing the problematic dynamic. “Of course it felt complicated,” Peaches, a white woman in the collective, observed. “We tried to do it with as much respect and understanding as we could.”

The collective was always under surveillance, but, they noted, because male authorities — from police to judges — had themselves solicited services for their wives, daughters and mistresses, they were able to operate largely without police interference. That is, until May 1972, when two women went to the police to report the collective, after attending a counseling appointment with their sister-in-law, who was seeking an abortion. 

Seven Janes were arrested, along with the clientele in the apartment. They each were charged with eleven counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion.

The description of the arrest of seven Janes is almost comical. Two members of the Chicago Police Department’s homicide unit show up to the apartment where the abortions were being done that day and were baffled. “Where’s the doctor?!” they shouted, going from room to room looking for a male physician. They were unable to fathom that the women could do the work themselves. 

Seven Janes were arrested, along with the clientele in the apartment. They each were charged with eleven counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion, and each faced up to 110 years in prison. But their lawyer, Jo-Ann Wolfson, had a plan to keep delaying the court proceedings because she knew that the Supreme Court was hearing a case about another “Jane” — Roe v. Wade. When the decision was delivered on Jan. 22, 1973, legalizing abortion throughout the United States, Wolfson quickly petitioned the district attorney, and all charges were dropped.

“We came together to do something at a time when it was most needed,” collective member Laura Kaplan said at the documentary’s conclusion. “We did it. And then it was time to do something else. We were done. So goodbye Jane.”

Yet it’s not goodbye. Especially now. In reality, the Jane Collective was not unique. For decades, underground networks around the world — from El Salvador to Poland to Mexico to right here in the United States — have been and are assisting pregnant people obtain the abortion care that they need. And while showing how the collective was informed by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the documentary misses an opportunity to situate the Janes’ work within both a historical and global context. That context could have strengthened the documentary’s larger political message about civil disobedience as an effective solution to institutional failure.   

Jane, nonetheless, is having a moment. Two forthcoming films based on the collective — Amazon Studios’ “This Is Jane,” starring Michelle Williams, and Roadside Attractions’ “Call Jane,” starring Elizabeth Banks, come out later this year — in addition to the 2018 feature film “Ask for Jane.”

This renewed interest is of course not a coincidence. The stories and experiences of those interviewed demonstrate how care is a radical act and how it served as the organizational principle that shaped the collective’s operations. We must help everyone — no one was turned away for lack of funds. We must care with compassion, and unlike in the male-dominated medical establishment, encourage collective care and knowledge. That also means empowering through education, via practices designed explicitly to provide information.

What we must remember is that the institutions that serve us are not broken. Rather, to invoke Ijeoma Oluo, they are working according to their design. And how they are designed, to maintain the white-supremacist patriarchy, means that they will continue to harm and criminalize women, queer and trans and racially marginalized people — no matter what the law says.

“The Janes” meets our political moment and reinforces the message of people power — and that when people organize, they can change the world. Let’s hope it incites us to action, and not to despair.