The woman heroes of the 2022 documentary “The Janes,” showing Wednesday, Dec. 7, at Space, probably imagined that their work was done when they sat for interviews about their efforts on behalf of women seeking abortions in the 1960s-70s. Then again, as this film from directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes demonstrates with such clear-eyed insight and determination, women know that their rights and even their very bodies rest on unstable sand in an America steeped in misogyny and reliant on the whims of hypocritical men.

“The Janes” depicts the actions of a group of ordinary women from various backgrounds who, in the pre-Roe v. Wade days when abortion was illegal, created an underground, Chicago-area network for pregnant women to attain affordable, safe and very illegal abortions. Through the efforts of what became known as The Jane Collective, it’s estimated that some 11,000 women were able to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies during a time when desperate women were forced to pay exorbitant prices to underground practitioners (often directly connected to the Chicago Mob), or undertook dangerous and often fatal methods on their own, often with deadly results. As one doctor notes in the film, Chicago’s sepsis wards weren’t as full of dying women as soon as The Jane Collective started operating.

And here’s where the middle-aged white guy reviewer attempts to head off the inevitable firestorm. Look, people have feelings about abortion, and nobody needs said old white guy to chime in, so I’ll keep it brief. You can’t claim to think of everyone as equals when fully half the population ceases to maintain control of their own lives and medical decisions when and if they become pregnant. An ugly throwback bigotry underlies any system that tells women that their bodies are no longer under their control the minute they are impregnated. It’s fundamental to any talk of banning abortion that women are just inherently less than men, and that’s completely antithetical to anything that makes any scrap of moral sense. End of lesson.

“The Janes” doesn’t get as long-winded as I just did. In the talking head interviews that compellingly carry the film, the women of the Jane Collective, now in their 70s, remain just as no-nonsense about the world they operated in, and their reasons for doing what they did. One woman talks of her own abortion, undertaken by a Mob doctor (if he was a doctor) in a strange motel room, a pair of unspeaking male goons watching the entire ordeal alongside another terrified woman brought there for the same purpose. She nearly bled to death after the men left, and she and the other stranger were left to fend for themselves, eventually making their way home to wonder if the bleeding would ever stop.

What emerged from this group of women – some activists already, others mothers with children – was a series of mimeographed fliers and ads published in underground Chicago newspapers. Simply reading, “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane,” the ads contained a phone number. It’s here that “The Janes” operates much like the political thriller it most definitely was. The name “Jane” was chosen for every member of the underground movement since, as one woman jokes, “Nobody is named Jane anymore.” Women seeking abortions were provided the address of a rented apartment safe house, then whisked off to a second location where an affiliated (and qualified) surgeon performed the procedure. Eventually, as the Jane Collective learned how even their efforts remained out of reach for low-income women (especially women of color), the Janes learned to perform abortions themselves, reducing costs even further – and increasing their risk of arrest.

That arrest came in 1972, when Chicago police swept up seven of the Janes, charged them with conspiracy to commit abortions and other charges, and threatened the so-called “Abortion 7” with up to 110 years in prison, each. (Keeping with the underground heroism vibe, the film relates how the women took turns swallowing the index cards one was arrested with, so that police would have no access to the information of the women seeking abortions.)


In the film, it’s posited that these amateur practitioners were allowed to operate as long as they did because many women seeking their services had connections to police officers’ families or were police women themselves. “Their clientele included daughters, wives, mistresses of police, states attorney, judges,” explains one person in the film, the implicit hypocrisy of the very men prosecuting women for abortion shown turning a blind eye as soon as it was convenient for them. Others suggest that their not-for-profit operation was left alone by the Mob because they weren’t competing financially and because, as one Jane puts it, they weren’t leaving dead woman’s bodies in motel rooms all over the city like the Mob’s mercenary procedures often did.

Still, The Janes went on trial, their attorney cannily delaying things until after the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision decriminalized abortion in many cases. The Jane Collective disbanded, the women were acquitted, and that was that, right? Well, you’d think so.

This June’s 6-3 decision overturning Roe has already seen multiple states limiting or outright banning abortion, resulting in an all-too-predictable upswing in unwanted pregnancies, and the desperate, often dangerous acts of women seeking to self-terminate. This in a country where maternal mortality rates are unjustly skewed against poor women and women of color, and where post-birth services for single mothers are barely existent in the very states where abortion bans ensure the most need. “The Janes” paints a harrowing portrait of an America where single pregnant women were denied employment and ostracized, and where women couldn’t even get birth control outside of marriage. That even at a time where abortion foes are crowing about their next legal challenges to a Supreme Court packed with Republican-appointed, right-wing judges – the banning of contraception.

“The Janes” shows how these now elderly women are still as committed to women’s rights and women’s health as they were as the young and inexperienced activists we see in archival footage. What the film does so compellingly is show the abortion debate from the trenches, where women facing deeply personal and perilous decisions were beset by a system of laws designed to make their lives as hard and as dangerous as possible, and how these women remain on guard for the next wave. And that’s good, since, as the film’s interviews demonstrate, The Janes knew all along that women’s rights are never safe in an America where men hold the power.

“The Janes” is screening at Space, 538 Congress St., Portland, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7. Tickets are free as long as you RSVP ahead of time at Co-presented with the Maine DSA.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: