Emma Pildes, the co-director of the upcoming 1970s abortion documentary “The Janes,” got a call from co-director Tia Lessin on Monday night in which she was in “floods of tears” after learning about the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the pivotal abortion decision Roe v. Wade.
That’s because both Lessin and Pildes in making their film “The Janes” know all too well of the shocking past, often disturbing present and even scarier future for what an America would look like should Roe v. Wade officially be struck down by the court. They warn that much of what is depicted in their film from 50 years ago could come racing back, immediately threatening the health and lives of women but also laying the ground work to potentially strip women of other rights and have numerous ripple effects.
“We’ve been so steeped in the realities of what this country looks like when women don’t have a right to make this decision for themselves,” Pildes told TheWrap on Tuesday morning after reading the draft opinion. “Women do not stop getting abortions. They don’t. They never have, and they never will. They just stop getting safe abortions.”
“The Janes,” which made its premiere at this year’s Sundance but will open via HBO Documentary Films on June 8, is a documentary that follows a group of seven women in Chicago in the late ’60s and early ’70s who formed an underground network to provide safe abortions to women in need when obtaining an abortion was still illegal across many states.
In a stark reminder how timely the documentary is, Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary when police raided the Janes’ underground clinic on the South Side of Chicago in the spring of 1972 and jailed the women in charge. Had it not been for Roe v. Wade being handed down six months after the women were indicted, the subjects of the film could still be in jail serving a life sentence, Lessin and Pildes explain. They say that Roe v. Wade saved not only the lives of women across the country but women they’ve become intrinsically close to.
Some of those same women have maintained an email thread connection with the filmmakers. When one of them heard of the leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court, she simply responded, “F— no!”
“We’ve been steeped in this and we’ve been talking to a lot of people that said, you just have to accept the reality that this is what’s going to happen,” Pildes said. “So it wasn’t a surprise but still stunning to see there in print, and scary and emotional I think for both of us.”
“The Janes” also documents Chicago’s “septic wards” that were designed to treat women who had been forced to undergo unsafe, back alley abortions or attempted to perform abortions on themselves. Pildes describes the clinics as full of women and eerily quiet spaces where women saw others regularly dying, and it paints a scary possibility for the future.
“It took less than a year for those wards to close across the country. They became completely obsolete when Roe passed within a year,” Pildes said. “So what what does this country look like? I don’t think Tia or I would be surprised if those wards had to reopen pretty quickly.”
Pildes and Lessin shared with TheWrap more of their thoughts to Monday’s Supreme Court news, as well as some harrowing stories from women who have approached them at film festival screenings of “The Janes.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was your immediate reaction to reading the news about Justice Alito’s draft opinion that would repeal Roe v. Wade?
Emma Pildes: “It’s just it’s heartbreaking to to be have a real time feed of women that did so much work, you know, risk life and limb to help women 50 years ago and and to be watching their reactions. Also, today is the 50th anniversary of the bust, when seven of the women were arrested for for doing their work.
Tia Lessin: Actually, it was the Roe decision that kept them out of jail for the rest of their lives. Because once the decision came down six months after they were indicted by the grand jury, the state of Illinois and Chicago prosecutor dropped the charges. So Roe literally not only saved women across the country, it saved these particular women from 110 years in prison.
After I heard about the draft decision, I just wanted to shout, I just wanted to scream. I was just stunned. I still am stunned and enraged. And even though absolutely it was expected, it is clear that it is such a wide ranging decision that it was not only gutting Roe, but also laying the ground work for the elimination of access to contraceptives, the reinstatement of sodomy law, revocation of marriage equality. It’s going to have such a ripple effect. It’s as if denying abortion access wasn’t enough. I think none of us expected that. I didn’t expect that.
It’s informing us in terms of what we can do and how we can use this film, to inform the conversation of what life was really like, for women and people before abortion was legalized throughout the country. I was arrested in 1989 in front of the Supreme Court in an Act Up protest. The court was considering a Missouri law that was banning the use of public funds for abortion care. That was more than 30 years ago. I guess it’s time to go back down there. And believe me, those barricades aren’t going to keep the protesters down.
What really jumped out at you about this opinion, how it was drafted and how it was leaked? What surprised you about its contents?
Tia Lessin: I’m not a lawyer. So I can’t really speak to it on that level. But I’ve read the decision. It seems to be saying that anything that is controversial in our country right now is not settled law. That’s staggering to read that. It also takes on privacy rights. The whole Roe decision was grounded in the right of privacy. That’s how they framed the argument and that’s how they framed the original decision. Privacy is also the linchpin for contraceptive use for people who aren’t married. It’s also the linchpin for keeping prying eyes out of your bedroom for same sex couples. It’s also the linchpin for interracial marriage, which was illegal in this country for so many years. It’s staggering, the overreach. And we’ve seen the court overreach before.
Emma Pildes: I don’t know what to make of the leak. I have already heard a few different takes on that, some more cynical than others. Who knows, but I don’t know that that’s the point. I think the point is that we’re now we’re seeing this in all its horror. We’re seeing the words on the page we’re seeing, you know, all the things that that Tia is saying about outlining puritanical and patriarchal control over us. The small minority of this country imposing those views on a country. You know, the vast majority of this country believes in a woman’s right to choose. That’s not being reflected.
I guess the “good” news is that it’s time to get to work and people are seeing that a little bit sooner. We’ve been going around with this film, saying, ‘You don’t have to wait until the decision comes down to start doing something. 90% of the counties in this in this country don’t have abortion clinics and abortion care. Now.’ So we keep saying that over and over again, that we don’t have to wait for the decision to come down to take action. So I suppose the point is of the leak last night that there’s going to be more people enraged, more people on the streets, more people up in arms and hopefully that, you know, the majority that we speak of that believe in the woman’s right to choose will start speaking up now and doing something because it’s already there.
What is the history as seen in your film? Tell us about how people and citizens really should respond in this moment.
Tia Lessin: I think people have been responding and they need to kick it into high gear, open their wallets to help subsidize travel to other states to seek abortion care. They have actually driven people sort of in a overground railroad to other states to get this basic healthcare. They’ve been staffing hotlines to field calls to make sure that people are aware of where they can go. And they’ve been offering clinic defense in places where abortion is accessible. You still might have to walk through a wall of hate-filled chanting and intimidation. Not to mention the doctors and nurses and staff people in these clinics who every day are putting their lives on the line. There have been death threats and assassinations and bomb attacks at clinics, and this is something that has been going on for decades.
Hopefully there will be more information out there about how to access medicinal abortion, which is The WHO says is very safe, and it’s as safe as a penicillin shot, if not safer. But most people don’t know about medical abortions. They just don’t know. And if doctors are prohibited from telling them about it, how are they going to find out? And in places where women are in rural areas where they don’t have public transportation to get to clinics, we’re talking about huge swaths of this country.
When abortion was still criminalized in most of the country, it was available in New York was available in Colorado, some places like Kansas and Hawaii and California, but who got that care? Who was able to hop on a plane or in a car, leave their homes and their children and stay overnight in a hotel? Those were women of means, women that look like me and Emma. It wasn’t poor women and rural women or women who can’t leave their jobs. And so we show that in our film, that the people most vulnerable are going to be women of color, the people who are going to be most harmed by this, because they have been historically.
What are some of the stories you’ve heard from women and that you foresee could be the immediate impact of repealing Roe v. Wade?
Tia Lessin: We have had people after screenings come to tell us these horrific stories. We screened in DC and one woman stood up to tell us that her grandmother died after a back alley abortion when her mother was 5 years old. She never met her grandmother. Her mother was not raised by her grandmother because abortion was illegal.
Emma Pildes: One of the ushers that was a volunteer at the Cleveland Film Festival was a beautiful older black woman with really long gray hair, an ex-hippie likely. She came up to us after the screening and said, ‘You know, I’ve never told anybody this, but a friend of mine in high school, she she was pregnant and she didn’t know what to do, and she put on her brother’s football helmet and threw herself down the stairs, hoping to abort the baby and try not to get a head injury in the process.’ It’s been very, very intense. But I mean, we’re very humbled that women are sharing these stories with us. And, it’s every time. It’s every time, there is one or two or three people that share a story like this.
Tia Lessin: One in four women have an abortion in their life. If it’s 25% of women, that’s certainly not reflected in 25% of our conversations or 25% of our popular media or 25% of the films about women. But it’s just a fact. It’s medical care. It’s healthcare. It’s normalized and regular, but it’s been so stigmatized and so dangerous in these dark times. One thing that we hope this film will do, we hope it will do will be to educate and pass on these stories that are almost forgotten.
Emma Pildes: And also reflect back. Reflect back that one in four women, that there is a version of this where we can talk about it and not be stigmatized and not feel shame. The second tier of what we hope to do with this film is sort of normalize this conversation, particularly now when women are going to start dying.
You’ve been able to keep in touch with some of the original Janes who were there 50 years ago?
Emma Pildes: We’re so humbled to be able to be the ones to tell these women’s story. As documentary filmmakers, we take that very seriously. So this is a community that has supported us to be able to make this film, and so we wanted to just keep them really in the loop on on everything.
I think they’re all very surprised. I mean, nevermind what happened last night, but I think they’ve all been very surprised. This was something that they just did because it was the right thing to do. That’s how basic they see this. So I think they have been surprised by how moving and effective this film has been and what the response has been from people. We want them to see that and we want them to feel that and know that and know that work that they did was important.
Tia Lessin: We even had a woman at our San Francisco Film Festival screening over the weekend who was the daughter of one of the Janes who had died 30 years ago. She was in tears after the screening. She was just a toddler in a stroller when her mother was a Jane, and in fact, she told us a story about how she was sort of a decoy when her mother went to the bank to make transactions to deposit money and withdraw money for medical supplies and what not. And she was in her stroller looking very cute as a decoy so that the bank clerks wouldn’t be so suspicious.
These were grandmothers. These were mothers. They were doing this with toddlers running around and nursing babies, and many of them now are grandmothers and great grandmothers. So they not only obviously have a big political stake in this, they also have a very personal stake because they’re literally the next, the upcoming generation that we’re all worried for, that we’re all concerned about.
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