Content Warning: The following review mentions abortion, maternal death, and sexual coercion.
“I had no other options, I wanted it over with and I didn’t care how it was done. I was that desperate.”
This is the powerful statement that opens HBOMax’s new documentary “The Janes”. Directed by Tia Lesson and Emma Pildes, the film recounts the origins of the Jane Collective. An underground network of women who worked to provide illegal abortions during the 1960’s & 70’s. What started as a single person escorting a friend to get an illegal abortion grew into a network that provided medically safer, affordable terminations for thousands of women.
During the Jane Collective’s active years, abortion was illegal and punishable by jail time. So, going into the documentary, it’s important to understand why anyone would risk these dangers to end a pregnancy.
Back in the 1960s, access to birth control and abortions was purely at the whim of doctors. The majority of whom were white men. Abortions were granted in extreme cases where death of the patient was certain. Even then, only after getting approval from several doctors. Oral birth control became available in 1960 but doctors would only prescribe the medication to married women who already had children. Besides its inaccessibility to single women, early oral birth control carried dangerous side effects like the likelihood of increased strokes and heart attacks.
With Second Wave Feminism’s push for women’s equality, reproductive health was a natural cause for activists to take on. Women activists saw that the status quo concerning reproductive agency was actively causing harm but no one was championing that cause. As the documentary explains, many women activists who embraced reproductive freedom started fighting for civil rights with anti-Vietnam activists or the Black Panthers.
Unfortunately, these circles were a boys’ club and women’s rights were not a priority. So, hoping to eliminate gender inequality and sexism, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union was founded. Like many women’s rights groups being founded around the country during this time, CWLU was started by young women who didn’t feel heard within other activism circles. While women’s rights was the organizations goal, it wasn’t until college student, Heather Booth, helped a friend’s sister obtain an illegal abortion that these activists contemplated doing more in the name of reproductive justice.
During the 1960s, Chicago had one of the largest Catholic communities in the US. As such, there was a large population of women who, even if they could get birth control, had partners and/or religious beliefs that prevented their use. Because of this, abortion was in high demand for desperate people who found themselves pregnant at the wrong time.
As The Janes explains, the Chicago mob was responsible for the illegal abortion racket during this era. For anywhere from $500-$1000, you could get an abortion organized by the mafia. Unfortunately, besides being inordinately expensive, it wasn’t guaranteed to be medically safe. Women who got these mafia-organized abortions were also given no information about what the process would be like, making it all the more traumatic. Some women were even expected to perform sexual favors in exchange for the abortionists to carry out the procedure.
This is why CWLU’s abortionist volunteers, now referred to as the Jane Collective, thought they could improve things for the better. They organized an abortionist for the patients as well as transportation and a chaperone. The Jane Collective also offered abortion counseling and asked patients to only pay what they could towards their procedures. Any extra amount went towards providing an abortion for the next person. All patients had to do was call an advertised number—the actual home phone number of member Eleanor Oliver—and ask for Jane.
While the organization helped women from all walks of life in the beginning, there was a major shift after abortion became legal in New York in 1970. Afterwards, it was mostly impoverished people—specifically Black and brown women—who needed Jane’s help.
As noted previously, this all happened during the days of Second Wave Feminism. During a time when the philosophy of feminism was far from intersectional. Unfortunately, Jane had very few Black or brown volunteers. Most were young white students and nearly all came from middle class backgrounds or higher. While the documentary gets some credit for pointing out Jane’s failed diversity, considering what is known about death rates attributed to botched abortions, “The Janes” would benefit from more time dissecting how abortion was influenced by race & color.
Despite all the good work Jane did, it was only a matter of time before they were caught. If the volunteers of “The Janes” are this story’s heroes. Just like in real life, the true villains are the cops. As the documentary explains, it wasn’t a very closely kept secret what the Jane collective did; cops just didn’t care enough to stop them. It wasn’t until two women walked into a Chicago PD precinct to report that their sister-in-law was going to get an abortion that Chicago homicide became involved in the case.
Sgt. Ted O’Conner, a Chicago homicide detective, appears in the documentary to tell the tale of Jane’s big brush with the law. Though O’Conner explains that he and his fellow officers were just, “guys stuck with the law,” the way he relay’s Jane’s apprehension is almost jovial. O’Conner laughs as he tells the story of cops shaking down a woman who had just had an abortion. He denies the abortionists’ claims that the cops kicked down the room’s door. (Because cops never use excessive force, right?) When faced with the pain of the women who were unable to get abortions because of the sting, he apathetically says he was just doing his job.
It’s people like Sgt. O’Conner who probably best illustrates why the Jane Collective was so needed back in its day. The suffering of women was either ignored, punished, or treated like a silly trifle. “The Janes” does a great job of allowing Sgt. O’Conner to prove this using only his own words.
Unfortunately, the attitude displayed by the sergeant hasn’t gone away with the legalization of abortion. If anything, the events of the 1960s might soon be our reality once again.
Almost 50 years after Roe v. Wade, the benchmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States, the right to choose is still under attack. In 2021 alone, 16 states passed laws that restricted the access to abortion. Texas, Idaho, South Carolina, and Oklahoma all passed “heartbeat bills.” These bills prohibit abortions after fetal viability—around 6 weeks gestation. Most people don’t even realize they’re pregnant by this time.
Ohio and Arizona also passed laws that made the mailing of abortion medication illegal. Doctors must now administer these drugs in person. This restriction makes it even more difficult for people to get this essential healthcare service. Worse yet, Arkansas’ Unborn Child Protection Act prohibits abortion even in the case of rape and incest. This bill, set to become a law July 28th, is currently being blocked by a judge. Supporters vow to take it all the way to the Supreme Court.
It’s the frightening realities of modern day abortion restriction that make HBOMAX’s “The Janes” so timely. In 2022, there are already rings of abortion activists working to get people the healthcare they need. Whether it’s by crowdfunding, driving patients across state lines, or volunteering as counselors, modern abortion activistism mimics the work the Jane Collective did decades ago.
If nothing else, “The Janes” is a documentary that shows its audience how bad it once was and acts as a warning to never let it get that way again. Informative? Yes. Effective? Only time will tell.
For more from Samantha, check out her review of “Kimi” here.
For more on the fight for abortion rights, click here.