These women became unlikely outlaws. Their story couldn’t be more timely

The Janes
★★★★

When directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes started work on this emotional documentary in 2018, they probably never imagined the fight at the centre of the film – this historic fight for access to legal abortions – would again be an issue just four years later.

The Janes is the story of a group of Chicago women who established an underground network to provide women with low-cost abortions in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the procedure was considered a felony homicide in Illinois. Even merely discussing abortion was a crime. There were, of course, people offering the procedure, but this was a risky – and prohibitively expensive – avenue.

The film opens with a woman recounting an abortion facilitated through the Chicago mafia. She called a number she’d been given, and was asked if she wanted a Cadillac, a Chevrolet or a Rolls-Royce. Cadillac was the cheapest, about $500, Chevy was about $700 and the Rolls-Royce was $1000, the woman says. This was at a time when the average monthly rent was $150. After paying, she was taken to a motel room, the procedure was done and she was left there, with another woman, bleeding, barely a word exchanged with the ‘provider’. And yet this woman was lucky compared to others.

Many hospitals at this time had dedicated septic abortion wards, for the sole purpose of treating women who had tried to self-manage abortions, or had been injured by underground providers. An obstetrician who worked at a large Chicago hospital at the time says the ward admitted between 15 and 20 patients every day, many with horrendous injuries.

Most of the women who formed The Janes had their own abortion experiences, and all came from other areas of activism such as the anti-war and civil rights movements, where they found themselves pushed aside by male leaders. Banding together to assist any woman in need, regardless of how much they could pay, they used one member’s phone number, with the simple instruction to call and ask for Jane, on posters and flyers. It was, says one Jane, an outrageous undertaking … travelling under the radar of the Chicago Mafia and the Chicago police department. A case where men underestimating women’s abilities worked very well for us.

Knowledge of Jane spread through word of mouth, leaflets and ads in alternative papers, and soon the women, who had a sophisticated system (code names, safe houses, even on-site babysitting for clients) were soon providing abortions, first by sympathetic male doctors, and then themselves, to several women a day.

Their clients – the details of many still written down on index cards with notes such as has no money, father is a cop and terrified – totalled more than 11,000 by the time they were raided by police in 1972. Facing 110 years in prison each, these unlikely outlaws were saved by defence attorney Jo-Anne Wolfson, who managed to stall for time until the Roe v. Wade ruling progressed through the Supreme Court; the timing of the raid was fortuitous.

Even if you’re well versed in the history of Roe v. Wade, this film will likely shock you. Especially given that half a century later, the cultural, religious and political war over abortion still rages. As one Jane says of the Roe v. Wade decision: We were thrilled – and we thought it was over.

The Janes is now streaming on Binge.

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