In this Sundance premiere doc, the women behind an underground abortion network tell their story.
Of the three films centered around abortion which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival this week, The Janes is the lone documentary on the topic. Based in Chicago pre-Roe, an activist group of women began a program in 1968 where pregnant women would call “Jane,” and be connected to safe abortion services. Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes use interviews and a trove of archive footage to tell the story of the women behind this support system, who operated under the radar until 1972 when seven of them were arrested.
The access the filmmakers have is incredible. Besides women who were in this underground network, they interview a Chicago homicide officer who participated in the 1972 arrests and “Mike,” a man who performed abortions under the assumption from others he was somehow part of the medical profession. Voices of clergy involved in a parallel service, the Clergy Consultation Service, are also included. This Chicago religious group was geared more towards women who could afford to travel out of the country abortions (or to New York, when that state legalized).
The volunteer group behind Jane served women from middle- to lower-income backgrounds while making no judgment. Abortions cost money, but they used a pay-what-you-can model. The personal abortion stories are what sets the documentary apart. Even in 2022, it’s relatively rare for someone to share their personal story of abortion, so hearing a number of them in The Janes — the lengths to which some of these women had to go, the ones who barely survived botched procedures (not any offered through Jane) — it can be emotionally heavy stuff. But it’s important that these stories are shared and heard, and The Janes creates a space for that.
The Janes makes for riveting viewing. The storytelling keeps at a compelling momentum, only petering out a little near the end. We learn how activists who founded the group were turned off by the sexism they encountered in the antiwar movement and were inspired by work with the civil rights movement. We hear from Chicago medical staff about septic abortion wings in hospitals, where women died weekly after botched attempts at home to terminate their pregnancy.
There’s a keen immediacy permeating the work. It’s intense to see members of the group reading over some of the original 3×5 cards used to collect basic details for each patient. One woman even displays actual instruments that were used in their procedures. Such stories remain ever relevant in these times when Texas has found a way to go around Roe to make safe abortion providers impossible for most women to access. The Janes offers a welcome opportunity to celebrate and honor those who, in pre-Roe days, worked to save women’s lives and livelihoods.
The Janes premiered at Sundance, but will eventually screen on HBO.