‘The Janes’ Film Review: Candid Doc Shares Extraordinary History of Underground Abortion Network

As Roe v. Wade comes under renewed fire, this passionate film looks back at a time when women helped other women access the procedures they needed

The Janes
"The Janes": HBO Documentary Films

This review of “The Janes” was first published Jan. 24, 2022, after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

They had names like Heather, Martha, Marie, Jody and Judith. But they called themselves the Janes. And between 1968 and 1973, they performed approximately 11,000 underground abortions in Chicago. Their stories, which they share in Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ powerfully forthright documentary, “The Janes,” remain stunning five decades later. (The group also inspired a fictional movie that premiered at Sundance this year titled “Call Jane.”)

They weren’t medical professionals, and their work was flatly illegal. But the alternatives for women who wanted an abortion were to go to the mob and assume they might be sexually assaulted before or after a procedure, or to try to end a pregnancy alone, at home. The situation was so grim, in fact, that one local hospital had a septic ward designed purely for those who came to the ER in mortal danger after a desperate attempt at termination.

Actually, this is how The Jane Collective began: Most of the volunteers never wanted another woman to endure the horrors they’d already experienced. Eleanor tells us that she was warned in advance that the doctor performing her abortion might ask her for a “cuddle” beforehand. And he worked without anesthesia, because she had to be able “to get up and walk out of there as if nothing had happened.” 

Jody was one of the rare women to have a legal procedure because she had cancer and two children and might not survive another pregnancy. But she still had to collect letters from a dozen different doctors before she got permission. “I felt,” she says with palpable anger, “like a prisoner of the medical system.”

Donna, a reverend, is furious as well when she thinks of the religious reasoning used to dictate her health care: “It’s not a theological argument. That’s a put-up job. To exclude women from ethical agency excludes us from humanity.” And yet, there was only humanity in the work these young women did; and in the old photos we see, they truly were impossibly young. Many of them were students involved with the civil rights or anti-war movements but who noticed that they were getting pushed aside by male leaders even there.

So they turned inwards, to each other. They formed their own groups and worked together to enact change. Lessin (an Oscar nominee for “Trouble the Water”) and Pildes (making her feature debut) intersperse their candid interviews with plenty of archival footage; we see marches, and miniskirts, and police beating peaceful demonstrators with billy clubs.

In some ways, the scenes feel strikingly familiar; in others, very far away. As the Janes remind us, women were unavoidably dependent on men. They couldn’t get birth control unless they were married; they couldn’t have credit cards in their own names; they were often fired once they were visibly pregnant and passed over for work if they had children. Their doctors were almost always male, and they certainly weren’t going to risk a jail sentence for their female patients.

Occasionally, though, physicians would quietly pass on contact info for the Janes, who were more formally known as Chicago’s Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. Other women found the group through ads in alternative papers or postings on coffee shop walls. They called the number — which belonged to Eleanor, who thought it would be wise to use the anonymity of the name “Jane” — and found a solution on the other end.

As we hear in consistently fascinating recollections, their assumption was that there was always a way. We see the index cards they used for each patient, with notes like “Be cautious, father is cop,” or “No money, 18 with one child already,” or, with gutting simplicity, “Terrified.” But if a woman didn’t have any money, she didn’t have to pay. If she didn’t have child care, someone stepped in to babysit. If she was alone, the Janes followed up to make sure she was OK. They created a culture of women looking out for women, at a time when it often felt as though no one else was. (Though it should be noted that some had husbands, also interviewed here, who proudly supported their wives’ work.)

Given that the Collective was organizing around 100 abortions a week,  it was remarkable that this secret system lasted as long as it did. Eventually, though, their time ran out. Several of the Janes were jailed and called upon the services of a brilliant lawyer named Jo-Anne Wolfson. Since there was no denying that they’d broken the law, she knew their best hope lay in the upcoming decision of the Supreme Court.

As one of the Janes recalls with a sigh about the passage of Roe v. Wade, “We were thrilled. And we thought it was over.” The knowledge that it wasn’t, and still isn’t, is a charge that runs through the entire film.

It’s a shame that Lessin and Pildes don’t tell us what these amazing women went on to do after the Collective ended. But they all remain, half a century later, passionate and eloquent and thoughtful and fierce. “This is what it was,” is what they tell us. “This is what it could be again,” is what they hope we hear.

“The Janes” begins streaming Wednesday on HBO Max.