The Janes is the newest original documentary from HBO. It takes us back to 1960’s Chicago, where abortion is very much illegal and there are little to no safe options for women to terminate pregnancies. There is a serious disparity among single and married women, as women only have access to birth control if they are married. Women of all ages and walks of life desperately look to places to perform abortions, some of which include the mob, amateur doctors, and men seeking sexual favors in exchange. They meet at motel rooms and sketchy, remote locations and are met with strangers with no legitimate medical experience, often paying a large price and risking their own health. However, these women are desperate to prevent their pregnancies from progressing due to young age, dangerous living situations and unstable relationships.
At this time, the mortality rate among women, especially Black and Latina women, was at an all time high. Emergency rooms were filled with women suffering gruesome injuries as a result of their illegal abortion. An alarming rate of women died from injuries like punctured uteruses and extreme loss of blood. This sent panic throughout communities and many young women banded together to try and find a solution, which is where we meet “The Janes” — seven young, educated women who came together to provide safe, discreet abortion services to women in need.
They recruit a skilled abortionist to perform the procedure and provide counseling services for the women post-abortion. They simply ask women to provide their name, address, age, and how far along they are in their pregnancy. Women seeking out their services would often provide their reasoning for the procedure — anything from assault to finances. However, The Janes were not looking for a reason from these women and certainly were not passing judgment on them. Their only mission was to offer an affordable, safe space for women to terminate their pregnancies without risking fatal damage to their health. It is not without difficulty, though, as The Janes were operating a risky business under the noses of local law enforcement. Their advertisements were vague and their methods of transporting women to their locations would often include blindfolding them, as to not reveal their whereabouts. In spite of the high risk, The Janes were not worried by the possible repercussions if it meant giving women safe and affordable resources.
The documentary includes interviews with The Janes themselves. They talk about their desire to fill spaces that were unwelcoming to them. Interestingly enough, many of these spaces were progressive anti-war and anti-racism groups. Women’s voices were still suppressed in these male-dominated places and thus they created their own group where they could make a significant impact. Their name, “The Janes,” stemmed from a necessity to lay under the radar. The name “Jane” carried enough simplicity yet stuck out among the women who were seeking these services. Many of the women in this group had experienced abortions themselves and offer heartbreaking stories of the unsafe situations they were put in and the horrors they witnessed of fellow peers suffering from self-induced abortions.
The documentary also includes interviews from the abortionist, Mike, who was highly skilled and regarded for having respect for the women who came through. It is later revealed in the film that he was not a legitimate doctor, but adequate nonetheless and even taught the fellow women of the group how to perform abortions when he eventually left. The film even includes interviews from law enforcement who had been carefully tailing The Janes. It should be noted that co-director, Emma Pildes, commented on this choice to include their interviews and emphasized the importance of having well-rounded perspectives in the film. It provides an interesting flare with some of the conflicting stories of what had taken place. It also shows how both The Janes and the police sincerely felt what they were doing was right. The interviewees talk about their religious upbringings and the shame attached to abortion. The film in its entirety offers perspectives from both sides of this ongoing argument.
The visuals in the documentary are exquisite. Real footage and photos from the time period are cut with interviews of the individuals living through this time. Documentaries, especially ones centered around historical retellings, can sometimes feel dry and rather lifeless, but The Janes pulls off a beautiful collection of compelling stories that keep the viewer engaged.
The beauty of this documentary is in hearing of the revolution these women were a part of. It was much bigger than the fight for women’s bodily autonomy. It is the story of women taking matters into their own hands to take care of one another in a society that heavily rejected them. This documentary showcases real, legitimate stories of this ongoing battle. The pain and agony of this fight is shown through with each woman’s story and makes the viewer step back and appreciate the progress we have made since then. With abortion rights being threatened now more than ever, films such as this put this complicated argument into perspective. Wherever your opinion lies, The Janes lets us see the humanity in each of these individuals and recognizes the validity in their struggle.
The Janes is currently available to stream on HBO Max.