The Janes (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Still relevant, unfortunately

HBO documentary film “The Janes” looks into a fascinating real-life story about a group of remarkable women in Chicago who willingly helped thousands of women in the urgent need of abortion from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. During that time, abortion was illegal in many of the states including Illinois, and they could actually get arrested and then imprisoned for their illegal service, but they kept going nonetheless – before abortion eventually became legal in 1973 thanks to that landmark US Supreme Court decision.

At the beginning, the documentary presents how these women were motivated by the big sociopolitical change in the American society in the 1960s. As the society was shaken a lot by the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests day by day, more people came to demand for more social change, and that prompted many female activists to raise their voice more for women’s rights. However, as several interviewees in the documentary sharply point out, they were put aside as frequently overshadowed and ignored by many male activists during that time, and they surely had a fair share of disillusionment because of that.

Nevertheless, many of them still did not give up as continuing to fight for women’s rights, and that was how a bunch of female activists in Chicago started an illegal abortion service for women. Their risk was considerable not only for the police who often monitored them but also for those local mobsters involved with underground abortion business, but they took the risk anyway mainly because they firmly believed that safe abortion should be more accessible to many women out there.

Mainly via the underground advertisements introducing them as “Janes”, they let themselves known to their potential clients, and, needless to say, they soon found themselves handling lots of clients day by day. They looked for doctors who might work with them, and they even got associated with an abortionist who was quite experienced despite not being a certified professional at all. As a matter of fact, this dude even taught them a lot about how to do a safe abortion when he decided to quit his little illegal business later.

Several surviving members interviewed in the documentary fondly reminisce about how they really tried their best during that risky time. For avoiding any possible suspicion, they often changed the gathering spot for their clients, and they were also careful about selecting a suitable place where abortion would be performed in secret. Of course, they always needed lots of medical stuffs, and they were certainly discreet when they had to purchase those medical stuffs from many different local drugstores.

These good women’s passionate efforts during that time are contrasted with how poorly the American society dealt with women’s reproductive rights for many decades. In the Cook County hospital in Chicago, which is now The John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, there was a separate ward for those unfortunate female patients suffering for botched illegal abortion, and a doctor who once worked there tells us about how frequently he and others at the ward witnessed small and big tragedies everyday.

And that is why the efforts of the “Janes” are quite admirable. While they worked on their clients under many limits, but they always focused on their clients’ safety and welfare. Although they did get paid for their illegal service, they always considered their clients’ respective financial situations first, and they also paid a lot of attention to whether their clients did not have any medical problem after their abortion. In the end, they performed approximately 11,000 abortions from 1968 to 1972, and it should be mentioned that none of their clients died or was seriously injured.

Of course, things became quite more serious later when they eventually drew more attention from the Chicago Police Department. Because some clients of the “Janes” were associated with some powerful figures in the city, nobody particularly wanted to get involved into this matter, but then there came an inevitable point where the “Janes” came to confront the legal consequence of their illegal activity. Fortunately, they hired a very good female lawyer, who was shrewd enough to delay the following trial until the US Supreme Court delivered its decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973.

The surviving Jane members interviewed in the documentary gladly talked about how happy they were when their illegal service was not needed anymore thanks to Roe v. Wade, but many of us cannot help but feel lots of bitterness because that landmark US Supreme Court decision was unfairly overturned not long after the documentary was released in last year. This was certainly a big blow to the women’s rights in the American society, and it is really frustrating to see the American society being more regressed to that gloomy time of prejudice and bigotry.

Anyway, “The Janes” is a compelling documentary which illuminates a relatively unknown story involved with the women’s rights in the American society, and directors/co-producers Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes did a commendable job of presenting their human subjects with care and respect. Considering their common main subject, it will make a nice double feature who with Phyllis Nagy’s recent debut feature film “Call Jane”, and both of them will surely enlighten you a lot on that.

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