The Janes, pre-Roe documentary

the leaders of The Janes as young women

The Janes is a documentary about a group of abortion activists in Chicago during the late 1960s and early 1970s before Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in 1973. With Roe now in danger, The Janes is terrifyingly relevant.

The 1960 were turbulent in the U.S. There were protests over Viet Nam, drugs, civil rights, women’s rights, and more. In 1968, Chicago exploded with protests and police violence. It was a heady atmosphere.

A group of women who were from different backgrounds and situations came out of that dissent and activism to coalesce around the need for safe abortions. At that time in Chicago, it was the mob delivering illegal abortions. It was dangerous and often deadly. The hospital had a special wing just for septic abortion cases.

Jane started slowly. One woman found one doctor who would perform abortions in secret. She referred one person to him, then another, then another. There was so much need that it grew quickly. Soon a group of women decided to work together to provide referrals to safe abortions. They provided counseling and all sorts of help.

The whole system used the women’s home phones and personal apartments. They called themselves Jane. They advertised all over Chicago. “Pregnant? Need help? Call Jane.”

Women came into Jane in different ways. Most were white, well-educated. Some were mothers. Some had had abortions. They all understood the desperation of women who needed abortions. As one woman commented, “There was a philosophical obligation on our part, on somebody’s part, to disrespect a law that disrespected women.”

The women understood they were breaking the law. They were articulate about why they did it. In the documentary as they talked some 50+ years later, they were still able to describe that time in vivid detail.

They provided services for whatever a woman could pay, even if it was nothing. They provided transportation, counseling, follow up. They changed locations frequently. They could set up a clinic in 15 minutes and take it down in 5.

They used a man they thought was a doctor to do the abortions. When they found out he was just a guy who was good at it and wanted the money, several of the women learned how to do it from him. One of the women who spoke in the documentary pulled the tools they used out of a plastic bag and talked about how they were used.

Another thing the women held onto besides the tools were stacks of index cards. When a woman called Jane, her information was recorded on index cards. In the years Jane was in operation, Jane facilitated over 11,000 abortions in Chicago.

Young members of Jane in police photos

Eventually they were arrested. Not because the police cared what they were doing. After all, many of their clients were daughters and mistresses of police officials. But a complaint was issued and homicide (Homicide!) detectives were sent to investigate at one of the pop-up clinics.

By then, it was nearing the spring of 1973. The woman lawyer they hired to defend the arrested members of Jane managed to drag her feet until the SCOTUS delivered the verdict on Roe vs. Wade. The charges were then dropped and the need for Jane ended.

Now, in 2022, new laws that disrespect women are popping up all over the country. The possibility that the SCOTUS will reverse Roe is very real. That makes this documentary important viewing. I urge everyone to watch it and think about the steps women may have to take if abortion becomes illegal in every state.

You can find the film on HBO and HBO Max. Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes directed.

3 thoughts on “The Janes, pre-Roe documentary”

  1. One of the Janes is the grandmother of my boys’ babysitter, and we recently talked about the horrible turn in reproductive rights. These women were incredibly brave and fearless, and we need to be equally brave and fearless, to stop the changes going on now.

  2. Pingback: Happening (L'événement), relevant and topical - Old Ain't Dead

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