HBO’s The Janes Is Essential Viewing for a Post-Roe America

For those of us who weren’t around to remember what it was like before the Supreme Court upheld Americans’ right to safe, legal abortion, the imagery we associate with the pre-Roe-v.-Wade The era is cartoonish. Back alleys. Coat hangers. Maybe that’s easier than registering the real, human misery of places like Cook County Hospital’s septic abortion ward, where doctors prohibited from performing abortions scrambled to save women who experienced life-threatening complications after procuring them illegally. The excellent documentary Janes, Dr. Alan Weiland, an OB-GYN who worked at the Chicago hospital as a medical student, recalls that “the septic abortion ward was full every day.”

JanesThis documentary is available on HBO Max and HBO Max streaming it on HBO Max. It does not focus on the agony of pregnant women who have suffered before. Roe The law became the law and the septic abortion wards were a remnant of an evil past. It’s a story of everyday heroism. Directors Tia Lessin (You can’t get the water to boilEmma Pildes (Jane Fonda, Five ActsJane (a collection of Chicago women who came together in the late 1960s to deliver abortions at a lower cost to desperate patients) is briefly examined. This film arrives at the same time that the Supreme Court expects to reverse the timeline. RoeCrushing is the right word. But it’s also crucial—and not just for activists in search of a practical playbook. Every American should understand why Janes acted, as many states are poised to ban abortion this summer.

Members of Janes (1972).


Since legally protected reproductive right are usually exercised behind closed doors, in places subject to HIPAA regulations personal narratives have been essential to the abortion debate. It makes perfect sense, then that personal narratives are the heart of abortion debate. Janes. This film features the lives of celebrities-feminists who were not household names between 1968-1973. And that’s more than enough.

Lessin and Pildes uncover the Chicagoland Abortion Underground stories that are just as instructive, as they are heartbreaking. Janes opens with one woman’s first-person account of an ordeal in which a mobster demanded that she choose between a Chevrolet, a Cadillac, or a Rolls Royce—three different price points for three different illegal-abortion experiences. She was young and broke and chose the Chevy. The procedure took place in a motel room with a second patient. It was quick and uneventful. “They spoke all of three sentences to me the entire time,” she recalls. “‘Where’s the money?’ ‘Lie back and do as I tell you.’ ‘Get in the bathroom.’ That was it.” When it was over, the two strangers were left alone together, bleeding, without any information on how to care for themselves as they recovered.

Motivated by empathy rather than money—the Chevrolet cost $500 in the ’60s, or the equivalent of $4,000 today—the founders of Jane resolved to do better. They were, with a few notable exceptions, young, college-educated, middle-class white women who’d come up in the male-dominated antiwar and civil rights movements. (Without undermining what their subjects were able to accomplish, the filmmakers incorporate several participants’ apparently sincere expressions of regret over the fact that Jane was much whiter, as an organization, than the communities it served.) Many others had terrible stories of abortion. They devised clever ways to improve upon their experiences. These included regular check-ins for patients two weeks following the procedure, two-part appointments that required transporting patients by car from the Front (or waiting area) to the Place (or second location).

Members of Janes (1972).


When they realized that an abortionist they’d pressured into treating women who often couldn’t pay much, if anything, wasn’t actually a doctor, he agreed to teach the Janes what he knew. Lessin and Pildes interviewed this unwitting feminist friend. “It was a job,” he shrugs. He is remembered by women as a hustler but did his job well and treated patients with kindness, which was a rare trait for someone in his situation. The Janes were able to save money as well as take control of reproductive healthcare by themselves. From a contemporary perspective, at a time when the pro-choice movement talks a lot about the sanctity of a patient’s relationship with their doctor, it’s intriguing to hear these activists speak of their desire to liberate women not just from draconian laws or predatory underground abortion providers, but also from a patriarchal medical establishment. They might have felt differently if the male doctors they reached out to for help, many of whom were actually referring patients to Jane for abortions, hadn’t routinely told them to get lost.

However, 2022 does not correspond to 1968. It is not 1968 anymore. Obstetrics, gynecology and gynecology has become a more male-dominated profession. More than 80% OB-GYN practitioners have been female in recent years. Meanwhile, the advent of medication abortion, and an existing infrastructure of organizations aimed at getting these pills to patients who don’t have easy access to them or funding out-of-state travel in cases where surgery is still required, means that bloody-hotel-room—let alone back-alley—scenarios will almost certainly be rarer post-Roe than they were in Jane’s day. Although not perfect laws exist to stop the discrimination faced by pregnant women at that time, they are still applicable. There are other ways to help. Janes doesn’t strain to make the argument that the future will look identical to the past.

The Janes, August 1972


Instead, the film stays focused on the specific story it’s telling, trusting viewers to spot potential parallels and glean relevant lessons. The film shows us how opportunists make money from the ban on abortion, much like they did from prostitution bootlegging. When New York legalizes abortion, in 1970, we see wealthy, often white women start flying out to have the surgery done there; in Chicago, poor women, who are largely women of color, come to predominate among Jane’s clientele. To apprehend Janes, a homicide team is formed by men without much to say about abortion.

There is no doubt that humans will die. Roe is struck down, the film illuminates how that decision is likely to exacerbate all manner of other social ills—racism, over-policing, profiteering by way of black-market medicine. Through individual interviews, a composite image forms of a society touched on every level by half its population’s lack of bodily autonomy. If that’s the country we’re about to live in, then we owe it ourselves to go into it with open eyes.

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