“The Janes” is a documentary that tells a timely story about the fight for safe and legal abortions in America. Co-directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes piece together archival footage from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as talking head interviews, to craft the story of the underground group of abortionists known as Jane. The Janes helped women find safe and affordable (if illegal) abortions, outsmarting the Chicago police department and keeping the mob and an angry church at bay.
It’s an important and fascinating facet of American history, in particular women’s history, that’s seldom told. The film is thorough and gives an excellent sense of time and place. It is so compelling and well done.
The Janes played a critical role in gaining reproductive rights by providing abortions at a time when it was not viewed as a medical procedure, but as a crime. Their street smarts and bravery can be seen through their memories of encounters with the cops during a raid, or through the stack of yellowed, handwritten index cards that provide a record of every single desperate woman in need who called their office. This is an engrossing documentary from start to finish.
The filmmakers wisely let the women who lived it tell the bulk of the story, their recounts ranging from lighthearted humor to overwhelming grief to sheer terror. I could listen to these “warriors for justice” speak for hours, and I left the film longing for more of their stories.
The discussions are refreshingly frank, and often accompanied by explicit language, but the film presents an important facet of female history where women were taking care of other women. Some of the Janes break down in tears when they remember how many patients came through, most of them terrified, lonely and desperate. Instead of having nowhere to turn, they were treated with kindness, consideration, and concern. I didn’t expect a beautiful story of humanity to emerge from a documentary about underground abortionists.
This is a story that everyone needs to hear, and “The Janes” is a well-crafted documentary that shows what happens when women’s rights and resources are taken away. It’s a chilling reminder that we as a society need to do all we can to protect a woman’s right to have control over her own body. We can’t let history repeat itself.