‘The Janes’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Members of a Chicago group that helped thousands of women secure illegal abortions offer firsthand accounts of their work’s challenges, risks and achievements.

Until the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in 1973, there was a section of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital called the septic abortion ward. It admitted as many as 20 patients a day, women ailing from botched back-alley procedures or self-administered ones. Their injuries were grievous, and there were deaths every week. Against this dire backdrop, along came Jane, a collective of second-wave feminists who made it their mission to provide another option for women in need. For about five years before the Roe v. Wade decision, they administered an estimated 11,000 safe abortions.

Speaking with a number of the women who broke the law in the name of justice, and others who were involved in their underground network, The Janes directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes have made an urgent and thoroughly engaging group portrait. “We were really ordinary women,” one interviewee says. That’s true in a sense: The Jane membership — young, educated, mostly white — had no particular legal or medical expertise, at least not at first. But their courage and commitment were extraordinary.

The Janes

The Bottom Line

An essential oral history of frontline activism and care.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Directors: Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes

1 hour 42 minutes

Many of the interview subjects, now in their late 60s and 70s, are speaking publicly about their involvement in the group for the first time, a good number of them identified only by first name. Their commentary is astute and vivid, ranging from the humorous to the harrowing. They recall life-changing exposure to the dangers of illegal abortion, whether their own or someone else’s. The Jane organization has its roots in the individual efforts of Heather Booth, one of the film’s many compelling onscreen figures, who began helping women find trustworthy doctors after seeing what a college friend endured. Having been raped at knifepoint, the friend received nothing from the school’s health services other than a lecture about promiscuity.

Understanding that the law against abortion caused unnecessary suffering, the women were driven by a philosophical obligation to disobey it — as one group leader notes with pride in an archival clip, the objective was to win back control of women’s bodies from a male-dominated medical profession. For the female portion of the American population, it was still the dark ages in a lot of ways when Jane formed in 1968: A woman couldn’t get a credit card in her own name, pregnant women were not welcome in the workplace, and only women who were married had legal access to contraception; one woman recalls donning a cheap costume wedding ring before visiting her doctor.

Jane’s membership was drawn from the women’s liberation movement, most of them antiwar and civil rights activists who’d found, even in those forward-thinking realms, that they were relegated to supporting roles because of their sex (“a lot of testosterone and a lot of lecturing” is how one Jane describes the radical left). Taking on their illicit enterprise in Daley-era Chicago meant evading the watchful eyes of the mob and the police. But maybe they were watchful only to a point. “Men’s underestimating women’s abilities worked very well for us,” a member notes with a smile.

There isn’t an unmemorable interview in the film. Among those members of the collective who are identified by their full names and offer exceptionally insightful observations are Laura Kaplan, author of The Story of Jane; Judith Arcana, credited as a research consultant on another Sundance title, Call Jane, whose narrative spin on the story borrows some elements from her situation; and Marie Leaner, one of the few Black women in the collective.

Some of the women clutch stacks of 50-year-old index cards, the group’s system for cataloging clients and assigning their cases. In addition to basic information, they contain such descriptors as “Terrified,” “Scared of pain” and “Cautious — father is a cop.” On the front lines of medical care and political liberation while navigating society’s back channels, Jane didn’t just schedule appointments for women but also counseled them, accompanied them to the procedures, and followed up with them afterward.

When monthly rent averaged $150 and an illegal abortion could cost $500 to $1,000, Jane adopted a pay-what-you-can model, to the chagrin of abortionist “Mike,” who would eventually be replaced by the women themselves. A jovial interview subject, he considered the work a job, not a calling, and though his personality might not have endeared him to everyone in the collective, his skill and bedside manner were never in doubt. Also, good men were hard to find. The first physician Booth had come to rely on, Black civil rights leader T.R.M. Howard, was arrested for providing abortions. Other willing and credentialed medical men turned out to be sexual predators who expected “favors” for their services.

A couple of “Jane husbands” weigh in as well, along with a homicide detective who was reluctantly drawn into the case when the Chicago PD raided an apartment used by the Jane Collective in 1972 (an offscreen event in Call Jane). However benighted the era may have been, it’s eye-opening to hear that Irish Catholic police were agnostic on the matter of abortion, and to be reminded that such religious groups as the Clergy Consultation Service actively supported women’s right to choose in the pre-Roe years.

The inspiring present-day testimony and the evocative backdrop of Chicago circa 1970, seen from a female perspective (with material by Vivian Maier in the mix) are edited with superb energy by Kristen Huntley. There’s terrific energy too in Max Avery Lichtenstein’s score, its subtle mix in tune with the saga’s layers of spiritedness and suspense.

Lessin (Trouble the Water) and Pildes (a producer of Jane Fonda in Five Acts) shape a vibrant, thoughtful communal story from the voices they’ve gathered, complementary and sometimes contradictory. The film’s last segment is especially robust and involving as they delve into the matter of the raid that led to the arrest of seven collective members and the possibility of 110-year sentences. Why and how their high-powered (female) attorney used a stalling strategy is a happy convergence of historical events. But the bright note on which the doc ends is bittersweet. Since the directors began working on the film in 2018, its urgency has deepened. Clear-eyed and rousing, the oral history they’ve created is, unfortunately, very much of the moment.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Pentimento Productions
Directors: Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes
Producers: Emma Pildes, Daniel Arcana, Jessica Levin
Executive producer: Susan Lacy
Director of photography: Keith Walker
Editor: Kristen Huntley
Music: Max Avery Lichtenstein

1 hour 42 minutes