In the spring of 1972, seven members of the Jane Collective, an underground service in Chicago, were arrested for providing illegal abortions to women in need. The collective had been founded by Heather Booth in 1965, when a friend in need of the procedure was nearly suicidal. “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane,” read ads placed in the underground press, offering a counseling service mostly for low-income women and women of color. The Janes would refer women to abortion providers, sometimes performing abortions themselves. After the organization was discovered by the Chicago police, the seven Jane members’ lawyers successfully delayed the case’s court proceedings until January 1973. Roe v. Wade decision, which struck down federal and state abortion bans in the United States.
The release of Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ Oscar-shortlisted documentary The Janes also aligned with a major abortion ruling: Just weeks after its June 8 premiere on HBO, the Supreme Court issued its decision for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which returned the power to outlaw abortion to the state level. While they didn’t expect this particular decision to arrive on the heels of their film, the directors say the fear was always in the back of their minds. “The dominoes were falling,” says Pildes of anti-abortion efforts in the United States. “We had to wake up the majority — and it is the majority of this country that believes in a woman’s right to choose.” The pair spoke with THR about the Janes’ lasting legacy and what others can learn from their collective work.
How did the two of you connect on this project, and what did you know about the Jane Collective before embarking on this film?
TIA LESSIN They’ve been the stuff of feminist lore and myth for some time, but by and large, most people had never heard of the Janes. Emma approached me because she has a family connection to the story — she was raised knowing about the Janes. We teamed up in the fall of 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh was being confirmed by the US Senate and it became clear that Roe was not long for this world. Shortly after that, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Then [the Supreme Court] took up the Dobbs case. Things became scarier and scarier. I mean, 2021 was a landmark year for anti-abortion legislation throughout the US, and that was even before the Dobbs the decision came down. But beyond it being an important story to tell in this moment, it was a great drama. It had all the things that you want [in a film]: these ordinary women, unlike outlaws, doing something that was sort of beyond them because they felt so compelled [to help other women].
EMMA PILDES My father is the radical lawyer in the film, and [his first wife was Jane member] Judith Arcana. Daniel Arcana, one of the producers on the film, is also my brother. He saw that we had access to these people and were able to give them a platform to bear witness. It was almost a responsibility to take advantage of those family connections. As Tia was saying, the dominoes were falling. This is health care, basic health care that we had access to for 50 years, and it felt like settled law. We had to wake up the majority — and it is the majority of this country that believes in a woman’s right to choose.
How ready were some of these women to share their stories? As you say, they are the heroes of the story, but they were also breaking the law.
LESSIN Many of them hadn’t even talked about it for 50 years; some of them hadn’t told their family members. It was that secret, because it was not only a felony to provide abortions, but also to simply [help] someone to get an abortion. When these women were arrested, they were looking at 110 years in prison each. But also, abortion is very stigmatized. People don’t talk about it. Putting them on camera to talk about this really intimate and personal decision, in some cases that many of them made for themselves — that took some bravery. We were really determined to tell the story through their lived experiences and through their words. We didn’t rely on academics or scholars. And it was a kick to get Ted O’Connor [the Chicago policeman who investigated the Janes] or Mike [who performed many abortions for the Janes] on camera to really hear their different perspectives.
Were you surprised to hear from the men in the Janes’ lives, who either helped their cause or simply got out of their way so that they could do what they needed to do?
PILDES We were moved and excited by how the men fit into this story. One of the reasons we wanted to make the film was to tell women’s history, right? We started by saying nobody really knows about [the Janes], but that’s because it’s not a male hero’s journey. Those are the stories that get told, right? These women did something really unique and profound and important in history to save people’s lives. We took a lot of time to show the movements that they came out of, and that they had been relegated to helper roles. Even though these movements were important movements — the Black Panthers, the student movements, the anti-war movement — they all had their elements of chauvinism. And so the women were made to sit [back], but they listened. They learned, and they took that with them. And they were able to organize as efficiently as they did for Jane, because they were brilliant, savvy, wonderful, thoughtful human beings. To watch the inversion of that, that the men were relegated to helper roles this time around… They did important work, too. They collected money. They sat in the waiting room and hung out with the boyfriends or husbands and helped to calm [their] nerves.
LESSIN They brewed the coffee. As one of the women says early on [in the film], men are so used to underestimating women, and they took advantage of that. When the cops came and busted down the door, their first question was, “Where are the doctors?” They couldn’t even imagine that women could be doctors. They were just walking around befuddled. It just didn’t even enter their consciousness.
There’s a lot of humor in the film that balances out the other strong emotions that arise when these women evoke their memories of this time. How did you use that range of emotion to your advantage as storytellers?
LESSIN We were really delighted by their playfulness. It felt very necessary for us, as filmmakers, to be able to laugh — and also for our audience to be able to have some breaks from some difficult moments, like the septic abortion ward. I mean, there are some very, very intense moments, and we needed to make room for that. I don’t know if you saw the film with an audience, but we were really pleasantly surprised at the number of loud moments of laughter. It gives people permission to be vocal. Look, abortion can be difficult, especially when it’s illegal; all the barriers are fraught for people, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. It can just be health care. It doesn’t have to be a fraught decision. In fact, the Janes talked about the relief that women would feel after they had their procedure; they weren’t in tears, because something that had been weighing on them, that had been worrying them, was over and they were ready to go on with their lives. There were some tough moments, for sure. But there were also some joyful moments and celebration. They took what they did very seriously, but they didn’t take themselves that seriously all the time.
Since the pandemic, the idea of mutual aid and activism is at the front of many people’s minds. Given that — and the Dobbs decision in June — what can the legacy of the Jane Collective teach activists today?
PILDES These women were of a generation [in which] There wasn’t a lot of confidence in them as capable human beings. We heard time and time again that this work showed them their own self-worth, their own abilities. It gave them self-esteem. It showed them that they were capable of doing great things, and was a reminder of personal power, that you have the option to save lives. The women of Jane took a lot from the experience that changed the course of their lives and made them big, beautiful, confident human beings. We wanted to make this film not just to sound the alarm, but to remind people that personal power, when it becomes part of collective action, can make movements and change the world.
LESSIN The lack of access to safe abortions, back then and still today, disproportionately affects predominantly low-income, communities of color, and rural communities as well. Second-wave feminism was not known for its revelations around race and class. And yet these women just did the important work, and the work led the way. There were conflicts, no doubt; the women of the service weren’t always friends, but they understood what their mission was. You don’t have to have it all figured out to do the work — they certainly didn’t. They wanted to act.
I think that we’re seeing that happen all over the country. People are opening their wallets, they’re opening their homes, they’re driving cars to get people across [state] borders. I heard of a private plane service and a boat that’s operating off the Gulf of Mexico. If they have the skills to perform abortions, they’re doing that; if they have the time to escort people to their abortions, they’re doing that. There’s just a whole menu of things that people know. We didn’t make this film to be a guidebook or a crystal ball, but it is a cautionary tale. And it will hopefully engage people in this fight that is happening right now. And it will continue, unfortunately, for the many, many months and years to come.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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