‘The Janes,’ a Lively Documentary About the Movement to Provide Safe Abortions Pre-Roe

Before Roe v. Wade, women employed desperate measures to terminate pregnancies, seeking out risky procedures or attempting it themselves. While women’s groups were working to legalizing abortion, the Janes wanted to do something now.

This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls. You can find all the reviews together here.

A still from The Janes by Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

The second of two films at Sundance this year highlighting the courageous activism of a community of women in Chicago who helped provide safe abortions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Janes is an engaging, enriching and inspiring documentary set to be distributed by HBO Documentary later this year. (My review of the other film, a narrative drama, Call Jane, can be found here.)

Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, The Janes employs a dynamic combination of archival footage, historical overview, and interviews with doctors, nurses, lawyers and an impressive number of former members of the Janes.

Before the Janes came into being, the situation in Chicago (and nationwide) was bleak for women and girls seeking to terminate unwanted or even dangerous pregnancies. Since abortion was still illegal in Illinois in the 1960s, those seeking the procedure often had to go through the mob, with all its attendant dangers. While some doctors performed abortions covertly, the costs were steep, the environments more likely to be unhygienic, and women faced great risk of sexual assault, mistreatment or catastrophic complications with abortionists who were more likely to be unscrupulous or downright predatory.

At the same time, the women who would eventually found the Janes were involved in various protest movements, like the Black Panther Party or Students for a Democratic Society, where men dominated, forcing women into subservient roles. This ultimately led to the formation of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Movement and other smaller groups of women activists eager to fight for the cause of gender equality.

An intricate and well-designed operation, the Janes managed to evade the police for a startlingly long time, finally running afoul of Chicago’s homicide unit in May 1972.

With abortion illegal, girls and women would employ desperate and horrible measures to terminate their pregnancies, whether they sought out risky procedures or attempted it themselves, a process that could lead to sepsis, uterine rupture or even death. While many women’s groups were working to legalizing abortion, the Janes wanted to do something now. Eventually, a robust network formed, with its members maintaining strict confidentiality and closely guarding the location of both a waiting room (“The Front”), where women seeking abortions received initial counseling, and a separate location (“The Place”) where the abortions were actually performed.

Girls and women would call and leave a message on an answering machine—and several of the interviewees marvel, looking back, on how trusting these callers were: recording all their personal information for the Janes to then collate and assign to group members who would ultimately follow up with callers to schedule their abortions. An intricate and well-designed operation, the Janes managed to evade the police for a startlingly long time, finally running afoul of Chicago’s homicide unit in May 1972.

By their own account, the Janes tried to remain conscious of the race and class dynamics of their own group and the communities they served. Despite personal risk, these women fought to provide safe and inexpensive abortions, taking whatever payment women could afford in order to pay the man who performed the procedures, who freely admits during his own interview segments that he was mainly in it for the money. When the Janes discovered their abortion provider wasn’t a licensed doctor and had essential taught himself, he was convinced to teach them how to perform the simple procedure themselves, allowing them to provide low or no cost abortions to far more women.

In five years (1968-1973), the Janes provided an estimated 11,000 safe abortions to women and girls in and around the city of Chicago. The documentary provides a somewhat chronological account of their work, ending with the public arrest of several of its members, the threat of long prison sentences, and the interventions of their attorney. But The Janes is so much more than a mere history lesson. It’s a vibrant, attentive film that emphasizes the collaborative spirit and radical potential of a small community able to do tremendous work on a large scale.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

Editor’s note: Throughout the month of February, Aviva Dove-Viebahn will review 12 films in total from Sundance—six feature films and six documentaries. Explore all the reviews together here.

  1. Framing Agnes
  2. Master
  3. Am I OK?
  4. Tiktok, Boom
  5. Leonor Will Never Die
  6. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
  7. Girl Picture
  8. Calendar Girls
  9. Nanny
  10. Sirens
  11. Call Jane
  12. The Janes

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.