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The Janes: The women of the clandestine illegal abortion network in the 1970s

An HBO Max documentary brings together memories of the feminist collectives, which faced dozens of years in prison in the pre-Roe era

An archival photo of the members of The Janes.

In front of the camera, Dorie Barron remembers how, half a century ago, before the now-revoked Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in the United States, she resorted to the mafia. Her circumstances prevented her from continuing her pregnancy, and she found herself a menu of options, as if she were shopping for a car. Each item had its own name and fee. Young and without resources, she chose the cheapest possible, for which she would pay $500. She would arrive at a room in a remote motel, where she met three men who said just three things to her: “Where’s the money?” “Lie down and do what we say.” “Go to the bathroom.” At the end of the procedure, she and the other woman in the room found themselves alone, in the middle of nowhere, bleeding heavily. During that era, many women died as a result of such clandestine abortions.

The work of The Janes was just as illegal, but much more empathetic. They were a clandestine network of women in Chicago in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. They sought out discreet, safe places and people who knew how to terminate pregnancies as safely as possible. They accompanied women during the entire process, and they only charged women who could pay. Their patients contacted them via ads in alternative magazines.

According to their own calculations, the group carried out more than 11,000 abortions in less than a decade. The story of their movement is retold in The Janes, a documentary available on HBO Max. The documentary, whose production began in 2017, began as a history lesson reclaiming the memory of a forgotten group of activists. But as the right to abortion began to be threatened in the United States, it became a story with a moral. Now, after the country’s majority-conservative Supreme Court opened the door to banning abortion in conservative states, the documentary has become an inspirational story for those who are now fighting back. “Unfortunately, the story of The Janes, which was going to be a look into the past, has become our present and future,” said the documentary’s co-director Tia Lessin in a conversation from New York. Lessin and Emma Pildes directed the film, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance.

Police portrait of four of the seven members of The Janes arrested in 1972 for helping other women end their pregnancies.
Police portrait of four of the seven members of The Janes arrested in 1972 for helping other women end their pregnancies. HBO Max

Pildes had a close connection to the movement: she is related to one of The Janes. That closeness allowed the duo of directors full access to its members. They decided to commemorate their years of activism when they realized that the right to abortion was once again at risk, as recent weeks have confirmed. After years helping other women, seven of the group’s members were arrested in a police raid in 1972. They faced possible life in prison. But the case was dismissed months later, following the Roe vs. Wade, the landmark ruling that established the constitutional right to abortion in 1973. “They took what they did very seriously, but they don’t take themselves seriously, even though they are true heroes for a lot of people,” Lessin says.

The women’s activism took place in the context of the 1960 movements for racial equality and LGBTQ+ rights. The vast majority of the women were white and middle class, and the director describes them as “a product of their time.” Lessin herself was connected to social movements in the 1980s, attending the street protests organized by the LGBTQ+ collective Act Up in 1989. “I benefited from and was inspired by the struggle these women had waged two decades earlier. But shortly after abortion was legalized, threats from the extreme right emerged, forcing new generations to continue fighting. Although it was no longer a crime, little by little almost all the public aid was withdrawn,” explains the director, who was in her twenties at the time and was arrested in front of the Supreme Court.

Lessin notes that the movement has never ended. “Every year, new restrictions were applied, until we reached the point where we are now,” she says. The filmmaker has just returned to New York from Texas, where she is working on a new documentary that offers a contemporary look at the seed that The Janes planted. “Times have changed a lot, although abortion is once again being persecuted. Now, in the United States, more than half of abortions are done with pills, which is very likely to give rise to the creation of an unsafe black market,” says Lessin. “What The Janes reminds us is that criminalizing this right doesn’t stop it. It only ensures that women, especially those without financial resources, do not have access to do the procedure safely. Many are going to die because of this conservative legislation. Even those who wish to give birth and have miscarriages are going to run into problems,” she says.

The filmmaker argues that the ongoing protests against the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade have not been enough. “We are seeing some of our fundamental rights disappear, but for some reason, people are not raising their voices even when they believe in those rights. The Catholic Church and the right wing in this country have hijacked our morals. Denying abortion is not about safeguarding religious feelings. What’s happening is a gender war,” she says.

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