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The new HBO documentary The Janes tells the story of young women who worked underground to help others secure safe abortions before the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. Working in Chicago in the late '60s and early '70s, they provided an estimated 11,000 safe and affordable, but also illegal, abortions.
The filmmakers began developing their project in 2017, just after President Donald Trump, who had vowed to appoint justices who would overturn Roe, took office. So they knew the story of the Janes would be timely, but they had no idea just how until a draft opinion from the court leaked just last month.
"I think we're all sort of surprised by the exact timeliness of this, you know, that we're premiering on HBO the same month that Roe is gonna evaporate," producer and co-director Emma Pildes tells Yahoo Entertainment. "But I think everybody involved… everybody sort of saw that things weren't looking great, so we're just happy we have something to contribute in this moment."
Their contribution features candid interviews with some of the mostly white and middle-class women who were directly involved in the effort. Pildes's partner in the film, co-director Tia Lessin, said some of the interviewees had to make phone calls to their loved ones before the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the grand jury prize, in order to prepare them for what they would learn about their pasts.
"Some of them are telling their stories for the first time," says Lessin, who was nominated for an Oscar for the 2008 post-Hurricane Katrina documentary Trouble the Water, which she produced and co-directed. "You know, they had moved on with their lives, and this was something they'd put well behind them. They understood the importance and the value of their story at this moment, so we had that going for us."
And after every screening, more women felt compelled to share their own stories from the era — a time when unmarried women couldn't get birth control pills until 1972.
"Whether it was… a woman whose grandmother had a back-alley abortion when her mother was 5 years old and died. Or another woman who put on a football helmet and threw herself down a flight of stairs to terminate an unwanted pregnancy," Lessin says. "This was… part of women's lives in that era, and it wasn't talked about because it was so stigmatized. But it needs to be talked about now."
Pildes, the producer of Emmy-nominated doc Jane Fonda in Five Acts, recalls an especially affecting story she heard from a woman who was required to check into a psychiatric ward, even though she wasn't mentally ill, as proof that her pregnancy was causing her mental suffering before an abortion was allowed. She then had to go before a board of all male doctors who talked around her as they decided what she would do.
"I can only imagine how scary and surreal it was," Pildes says.
The doc is also full of details on how the Janes operated, regularly changing locations with the aid of volunteer drivers and through code words; Someone would call "Jane" and be taken to "the front," or the waiting room, and eventually to "the place," where they underwent the medical procedure. The group relied on sympathetic doctors, and some of the women eventually learned to perform abortions themselves.
"They were very cloak-and-dagger, you know. They were sneaky," says Lessin, noting that the women were coming from an era of civil rights protests and the anti-war and student movements. "These are women in their 20s and early 30s who had a whole bag of tricks, from obtaining medical supplies without a license to shielding and protecting the women they served. I think what's surprising is that they all, at that young age, were willing to take the risk. I mean... this goes beyond civil disobedience, you know?"
In 1970, New York state legalized abortion, and the demographics of the women seeking help from the Janes suddenly began to change. Now more affluent, often white women could afford to travel to the Empire State, so it was predominantly poorer women and women of color who needed the group's services.
"It would've been irresponsible for us to make this film and not include that," Pildes says, "because race and class in this country is always an issue with healthcare. It was an issue then with abortion care. It was an issue while we were making the film in the middle of a pandemic. It was playing out in those ways. And it's gonna be a huge issue going forward when Roe is taken away. I mean, it's already an issue now with abortion care, but it's gonna get a lot more extreme."
As viewers will see in the movie, on May 3, 1972, the operation was raided. The Janes began eating index cards on which they kept information on their clientele. Even so, seven of them were arrested and charged.
Facing sentences of 110 years each, the women found a lawyer, Jo-Anne Wolfson, who knew the Supreme Court was mulling Roe. Her strategy then was to stall. And it paid off. After that opinion came down the following year, the charges against the Janes were dropped. The group disbanded.
As noted in the documentary, the women went on to be healthcare workers, civil servants, educators, artists and community organizers. So a lot of them are still working for the cause, albeit in a different way.
Today, it's again the younger generation that has taken up the fight for abortion rights.
And that makes Lessin hopeful.
"You know, they are not gonna let us down. While they may have taken abortion rights for granted up until now... the battle is on, and they seem to be up for it," she says. "The Janes are passing the baton to the younger generation, and I think the younger generation is taking that on. You know, I see that. I see my nieces and my goddaughters and the young people in my life who are ready to sacrifice a lot to make sure that these rights are protected."
The Janes premieres Wednesday, June 8 at 9 p.m. on HBO.