The Janes Is the (Surprisingly Uplifting) Abortion Story We Need Right Now

Members of the underground abortion network The Janes in bathing suits
Courtesy of HBO

Before they met Dorie, Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes had no idea where to begin their new HBO documentary, The Janes. But when they heard her story about what it was like to get an illegal abortion as a young woman living in pre-Roe v. Wade Chicago, it immediately stood apart. In a testament to how ruthless the government was in its efforts to prevent abortions, Dorie’s procedure came courtesy of the mob. She chose the cheapest option—a $500 mystery method with the code name “the Chevy”—and reported to a motel room in an unfamiliar area of the city. The men there said all of three sentences: “Where’s the money?,” “Lie back and do as I tell you,” and “Get in the bathroom.” Then, they left her and another young woman nearly bleeding to death. With each other’s help, they barely made it out alive.

Dorie’s story is not only emblematic of why a small group of women from across Chicago came together to form the Janes, the underground network with the highly illegal mission of providing safe and affordable abortions that’s at the documentary’s center. It’s also a testament to the solidarity among women at a time when terminating a pregnancy was considered a felony homicide. At first, being a Jane meant connecting women with male doctors who wouldn’t expose them or put them at too much risk. It worked—until they found out the men they thought were doctors actually lacked medical credentials. If those men had figured out how to safely perform the procedures without being professionals, why couldn’t they figure it out too?

In the years that followed, the Janes performed nearly 11,000 abortions. To say that being a member was risky would be an understatement: The seven Janes that the cops busted in 1972 each faced up to 110 years in prison. Luckily, the 1973 passage of Roe v. Wade came just in time. Lessin and Pildes knew the legislation wouldn’t be around forever, but they didn’t expect its all-but-guaranteed demise, in a leaked Supreme Court opinion, to come the same month as their documentary’s release. The film is both a vital look back at life sans Roe and a glimmer of hope for the future. Here, the directors share their thoughts on whether or not the present will soon look like the past, and the both lighthearted and tragic stories they wish they could have included.

Emma, I hear you have a family connection to the Janes?

Emma Pildes: Yes—Daniel Arcana, who’s another producer of the film, is my half-brother. His mother is Judith, the Jane in the film, and we share a father who is Michael, the radical lawyer. So we’ve had this [story] in our back pocket for quite a while. It’s not that things weren’t being chipped away at as far as access to abortion in the almost 50 years since the Roe decision came down. But when [Donald] Trump got into office, things were feeling particularly vulnerable and scary. It seemed like the right time.

Tia Lessin: When Emma approached me in the fall of 2018, it was in the immediate aftermath of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I was like, When can we start?

Dorie’s story was such an arresting way to begin the film. I felt so naïve because I was like, wait—the mob was involved?

EP: We [found Dorie when we] really had hit a wall. We had the Janes, but we were having a hard time finding women that used the service. That’s when we put the ad in the Reader, and then Dorie responded. To be able to compare the experience of getting a mob abortion with the experience of getting a Jane abortion—something so horrifying with the Janes’s ethos of being non-judgmental and transparent, and making people feel like human beings? It was a gift from the documentary gods.

Marie, who was one of the few Black women at the core of the Janes, was also such an important voice in the film.

EP: She came out of the Civil Rights Movement. She single-handedly tried to desegregate the swimming pool at Loyola when she was there in college and promptly got kicked out. She had her hand in a lot of different movements—the antiwar movement, Black Power struggle. And she was so candid and honest about her involvement with the group and the complications of all of it, racially and whatnot, but she has so much admiration of respect for her fellow Janes and the sisterhood. And she was one of the dozen or so people who sued the Chicago Police Department [for its surveillance of the Janes].

The degree of surveillance was really shocking.

TL: In the footage of the pro-choice rally from ’70 or ’71 in Daley Plaza, you can see a guy with a checkered police cap and a camera right there, very visible. They weren’t trying to hide.

Right—it’s not like he was sneaking a video with a cell phone like cops today.

TL: They did that too. They didn’t have cell phones, but they definitely set up shop behind the scenes. A lot of [the Janes] were aware that people on the left were being actively surveilled, and they seemed not to let that in any way drive their decision-making. I think they just took that as of the times. As Emma’s father [a laywer involved with the Janes] says, “Of course they tapped my phones—I’d expect them to.”

Courtesy of HBO

But these days, with Google searches being cross-referenced with our cell phone coordinates, we can be geolocated if we’ve done an online search for abortion pills. If we are from Texas and we appear at an abortion clinic in California, that data can be discoverable by law enforcement and prosecutors and subject to warrants. So there are some ways in which the sophistication of our ways of communicating enables networking, and some ways in which it potentially puts people into more danger in terms of being prosecuted.

What were some of the stories you wish you’d been able to squeeze in to the film?

TL: Heather had a great story. She was seven or eight months pregnant and had just handed off the network to Eleanor, Jody, Susie, and a bunch of others that were a bit distant from it. One day, she got a phone call, and they used the emergency code on the phone that indicated something had gone wrong—she wasn’t clear whether it was from a complication with one of the procedures or a police raid. So she made her way to the agreed-upon safe house to help out, and along the way, she was ripping up the documents and files she had and throwing them in different garbage cans. When she got there and knocked on the door, they opened it and yelled, “Surprise!” It turned out to be a baby shower for her.

It was important to us to show that it was such a diversity of people. They were college students; they were homemakers. There were women with quite a few children—Martha had four—and women brought their children with them to their procedures. One of the Janes has said that most of the women she counseled were mothers who didn’t want their second or third or fifth or sixth child.

Courtesy of HBO
Courtesy of HBO

EP: The other story we wrestled with including was of one of the Janes who moved to Berkeley, California for a short time. She found herself pregnant, and she knew that she didn’t want to have the child. She was too young—probably 19 years old—and low on money. At the time, you could get an abortion in California if being pregnant was a threat to your health. Many were willing to extend that to mental health, which was a little bit pushing the laws, so she went on that path and was able to get a legal abortion. She had to get multiple approvals from multiple psychologists, which was very expensive and humiliating and time-consuming. She said something that really touched us: “You know, when you’re pregnant, the whole world’s a clock.” Time is passing as she’s doing all this stuff while she’s still pregnant, and then she had to sit in front of a board of men all lined up at the hospital to decide her fate. It’s just so humiliating and inhumane, so backwards and horrible. And yet, she was incredibly grateful: She was able to get a legal abortion.

The film ends on a surprisingly uplifting note—with the passage of Roe v. Wade, and therefore the charges against the Janes being dropped.

TL: When the Roe decision came down, we could feel their relief. Not only because they were off the hook, because the charges were dismissed, but also because it took women all over the country off the hook. All of a sudden, you were confirmed as an autonomous human and able to make choices about when and whether to have a child. We considered bringing it to this [present] moment, but that was a very short conversation. We knew that this moment we’re in absolutely informed the film every step of the way, from the interviews we were doing to the editing. And we understood that it absolutely informed the women as they spoke to us on camera: They understood the urgency of this moment, that the decision of overturning Roe v. Wade was looking over us. We certainly didn’t expect that the film was going to be released the same month [as the Supreme Court leak], but we [already] knew it wasn’t long for this world.

I have to ask if you think this type of network is going to return.

EP: It’s hard to say. I don’t think we know exactly what the grassroots movements are going to look like. As Tia was saying before, the world looks very different than it did 50 years ago. We have cell phones; we have the Internet. And we have the abortion pill, which is a huge, huge difference. But as far as surveillance, some of those things are a double-edged sword.But as much as this film is a story about the triumph of the human spirit—I think we’ll see that again. I do think people are and will be willing to put themselves on the line to help others.