Martha Scott, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, Abby Parisers, Sheila Smith and Madeline Schwenk pictured during their tenure with Jane in the early 1970s. (HBO)
In the matter-of-fact retellings of abortion experiences that appear throughout The Janes, a single phrase is heard repeatedly: “I was terrified.”
Five decades later, the women telling these stories are calm—sometimes even clinical. Part of what shifts them from terror-stricken young women to engaging interview subjects is time, but many accessed that sense of agency through “Jane,” a sophisticated underground network that helped an estimated 11,000 women in Chicago get safe, affordable, illegal abortions between 1968 and 1973.
The Janes, directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes and premiering June 8 on HBO, is gripping. This is a documentary about criminal behavior, code names, safe houses and radical organizing. All involved faced felony charges. And yet the group felt, as one member says, an obligation “to disrespect a law that disrespected women.”
Those who sought abortions in 1960s and ’70s Chicago had every reason to be terrified. They were often completely alone—even sharing information about abortion was illegal in Illinois. If they did access the procedure, chances were it was facilitated by the mafia, or a doctor who expected sexual favors in return. They would be lucky to avoid the Cook County Hospital’s septic abortion ward, which was always full.
In many respects, illegal abortions closely resembled legitimate visits to the medical establishment. Women were used to being treated with condescension by male doctors; they were used to never being told what a doctor was doing to their bodies.
For the members of Jane, their work was as much about providing women with the right to choose as it was about creating a radically different healthcare experience. Over and over, the women interviewed in the film speak to the revolutionary power of being treated with respect and sensitivity, of not having to justify their reason for an abortion.
“It seemed odd to me that it was illegal,” remembers one, “and yet it was the best medical experience I ever had.”
Radicalized through the anti-war, free speech and civil rights movements, and alienated by the male-dominated structure of those groups, the members of Jane were mostly white, middle-class and college educated. Many were married and had children of their own; many had experienced the stress of an illegal abortion or the difficulty of even securing a legal one for health reasons. And so instead of simply talking about women’s rights, the group scaled up and formalized activist Heather Booth’s work to connect women to trusted local abortion providers.
For many years, that abortionist was “Mike” (a great presence in the film), who had no scruples about the type of work he was doing, so long as he was paid for it. Later, the members of Jane would take over the actual abortions, in addition to coordinating timing, payments and transportation between the “waiting room” and “operating room” (usually borrowed apartments).
Among these fascinating logistical details, The Janes shows how the landscape dramatically changed in 1970 when New York state legalized abortion. The Clergy Consultation Service, an interdenominational group who referred women to out-of-country abortions, and worked parallel to Jane, suddenly began sending all their first trimester clients to New York. One member of the service remembers trying to negotiate a group purchase plan with United Airlines.
Those who could afford to travel for a legal abortion did so, leaving the lower middle class and poor women, many with children at home, as the main clients of Jane. The demographic shift was immediate: the women who came through Jane (mostly women of color) were very different from those who were Jane.
The documentary pauses here to allow former Jane members to critically reflect on the racial dynamics of their work. Marie Leaner, the only Black member of Jane featured in the documentary, remembers the group’s willingness to provide abortions to those who couldn’t afford them as “a revolutionary act.” But there is also an example of someone they possibly didn’t help enough—a 19-year-old Black woman whose previous efforts to end her pregnancy resulted in fatal septicemia.
The law did eventually catch up to Jane. In the film, a bust by Chicago homicide detectives plays out like a thriller, with some comedic relief coming from the cops’ inability to understand where the doctor was hiding in the group of women. But the danger of their situation was real; seven members of Jane each faced 110 years in prison. We’re spared from seeing the women punished due to quality legal representation and the fortuitous timing of Roe v. Wade, but here the documentary meets the awkward timing of its own release.
Before the leaked Supreme Court opinion that spells the overturning of Roe v. Wade, The Janes’ ending would have hit differently, triumphantly. My conclusion would have centered on its inspiring demonstrations of patient-oriented care, and all the lessons we can take from this model in a world where women’s hard-won right to an abortion is guaranteed by the highest court.
Now, it’s probable that projects like Jane will be undertaken once again in states across the country. History will repeat itself, and new generations will face an agonizing choice between breaking the law and facilitating bodily autonomy.
At least this time, there’s a guidebook.
‘The Janes’ premieres Wednesday, June 8, at 9pm on HBO. Details here.
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