The Janes is a call to action

Courtesy of HBO Films

A new documentary about the underground abortion collective prefigures current events.

We Chicagoans are a proud bunch, and usually with good reason. For many, we’re especially appreciative of our city’s radical history, from the echoing impact of the storied Haymarket Affair to things happening now which will undoubtedly become part of our oppidan tapestry. The aptly named Windy City nevertheless endures as a weathered barometer of this country’s leftist politics.

It’s that past to which we look now, both for guidance and inspiration. “So many activist organizations were headquartered [in Chicago],” says documentary filmmaker Tia Lessin (who codirected Citizen Koch [2013] and the Oscar-nominated Trouble the Water [2008]), “between Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Lords, the Weather Underground, one of the largest Black Panther chapters was in Chicago . . . the Janes were really part of the fabric of that time.” 

She’s referring to the Jane Collective, an underground organization that helped women access abortions and even began providing the service themselves, performing over 11,000 between 1969 and 1973. The motley crew of unlikely outlaws are the subject of a new documentary, The Janes, which Lessin codirected with Emma Pildes. This timely ode opens the annual Doc10 Film Festival on Thursday with two sold-out screenings (it’ll premiere on HBO on Wednesday, June 8); both directors will appear in person, as well as the largest reunion of Janes since 1973.

“I felt particularly thrilled to make a film about Chicago, and a film about Chicago at that time,” says Pildes. “I’m sure there were a million interesting places on planet earth, and Chicago was certainly one of them.”

Pildes has a personal connection to the film, which was codeveloped and produced by her half-brother Daniel Arcana. Arcana’s mother, Judith, was a Jane, and their father was a lawyer who advised the group. Both appear in the film, along with other former members and several people who were associated with the collective either by giving assistance or by benefiting from their clandestine services.

The documentary features an inspired use of archival material threaded through the interviews. Per Lessin, these assets were sourced from a variety of places here in Chicago, including the Chicago Film Archives (she mentions the films of JoAnn Elam, an experimental filmmaker whose best work focused on labor and women’s rights), Kartemquin Films, and even Chicago’s favorite chronicler of the everyday. 

“We were able to use some of the beautiful 8-millimeter camera work of Vivian Maier,” she says, “whose really candid shots of people in the street were pretty extra special to us in painting a picture of what life was like in Chicago.”

The film’s crucial story is anchored by candid recollections charting the group’s origins on the University of Chicago campus—where, in 1965, Heather Booth began referring women to a known abortionist, civil rights leader and surgeon T.R.M. Howard, after learning of a friend’s sister’s unwanted pregnancy—to the “official” establishment of its unofficial and highly illegal enterprise (including details of the labyrinthine process the Janes undertook to evade authorities), to the 1972 police raid that resulted in several members being arrested. As luck would have it, their lawyer was able to delay the judicial process, biding time in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade.

Diane Stevens was one of the Jane members arrested during the bust. She’d joined the group after getting her own abortion—a legal, “therapeutic” abortion she procured in California after pleading her case with two psychiatrists and a doctor. She says she was spurred by her desire to help women in the same situation she had been in.

“We were the women . . . there wasn’t a separation,” she says. “That was something we felt strongly about. In my group, ‘professionalism’ was like, where you think of yourself and the doctor, in a white coat, probably male, so apart from you. That wasn’t the case [with us]. These women, we were in it together. We explained everything to them, we provided them with the education, and they trusted us. They opened up their lives to us. We were together.”

Her experience with the Jane Collective inspired her to pursue a career in health care, specifically helping underserved communities. A likely career for an unlikely abortionist, in more ways than one.

“[The police] kept asking where the doctor was,” she recalls about the raid. “‘Where are the men? Where’s the doctor?’ And of course there weren’t any.”

Recently a draft opinion scribed by Justice Samuel Alito foretelling the potential ​abrogation of Roe v. Wade was leaked to the press, resulting in widespread panic over the future of reproductive (and potentially other) rights in the United States. The times they are a-changin’, no. Rather, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“On the 50th anniversary of the bust of the Janes . . . May 3,” points out Lessin, “that was the same day as the leak of the Alito opinion, 50 years later.”

Doc10 opening night screening of The Janes
May 19, 7 PM; Davis Theater, 4614 N. Lincoln; sold out. Join the waitlist.
The Janes streaming on HBO June 8

The documentary is punctuated by harrowing stories of illegal abortions obtained outside the Jane network, whether self-induced or via the mob, veritable exclamation points that emphasize the importance of access to safe abortions. “We can talk a lot about it and watch things on the news and read things on social media and all that,” says Pildes, “but these are real women dying. And real women that are gonna die and be injured and afraid . . . it’s a visceral experience through these women’s testimony of what this country looks like when women don’t have the right to make this decision for themselves and what the repercussions of that really are.”

The film begins with a woman recounting the story of her mob-affiliated abortion, a decidedly impersonal experience that highlights the terrifying uncertainty around the procedure back when it was illegal. “We were searching for women who used the service, who were willing to go on camera,” says Pildes. “That was sort of the tough spot that we were having.”

How was that issue resolved? “Dory, who starts the film talking about her mob abortion and then later in the film speaks about her Jane abortion, came to us because . . . we had hit every wall, we had no idea what left to do . . . so we placed an ad in the Reader.” 

“We went old school,” she says, “and it worked.”

The old-school method of placing an ad worked, yes, but old-school methods of handling abortion won’t. The filmmakers hope their documentary will help people realize this.

“We’re hoping that this film can really reach people all around the country and around the world to help underscore what it looks like when abortion is criminalized,” says Lessin. “What we know for a fact is that making abortion illegal does not stop women from seeking abortions, it just keeps them from getting safe abortions.”

The Janes is not just a cautionary tale but a call to action for those willing and able to assist should Roe v. Wade be overturned. As Lessin points out, “Illinois looks like it’s going to continue to be a sanctuary state, where people will be able to access abortion care, but it’s pretty clear that the clinics in Chicago and elsewhere will be flooded with folks who are going across the border from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan . . . and swimming across the lake if they have to . . . to get abortion care.”

It’s a sobering thought with an even more discomfiting reality, which should galvanize those looking to help, the unassumingly heroic Janes an inspiration for what might be needed. “That is really going to drain the resources of the local providers,” Lessin continues. “Even as abortion probably will continue to be legal in the state of Illinois, there will be long lines, there will be waiting lists . . . and [it will be] potentially impossible to access care. There will also be people coming in from out of town who will need housing. They may need rides, they may need some help subsidizing and defraying the cost of their travel . . . the people of Chicago can continue in the tradition of the Janes to be of service.”