“Many Will Be Injured, Many Will Die”: ‘The Janes’ Is A Must-Watch As Roe Topples
A Q&A with the filmmakers behind ‘The Janes’ abortion rights documentary
A t the edge of 39, my brain often hollers about motherhood — do I want it? Is it even possible? After all, at this point, I am officially a geriatric pregnancy. It’s difficult to overstate, at times, how much this question of children, or their absence, haunts me. And threatens to haunt me the rest of my days in fact.
And so it came as no surprise to find myself tugging Sheila Heti’s celebrated book named exactly that — Motherhood — from the shelf of a house I’m renting in Los Angeles.
As forced birth looms on America’s horizon in the pending death-wake of Roe V. Wade, my urge towards the title was doubly, triply, loaded.
Women have spent so much energy, time, money, knuckle-white worry on not getting pregnant, on not having to face down an abortion, and now that nearly lifelong and palpable fear of unwanted life, that seizing of your body to sustain another’s — this shadow of compulsory childbirth feels like it could just about blot out the sun.
It was under this psychological gloam that I sat down to watch The Janes — a new documentary that premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival — tracing a group of seven women who created a clandestine network in the South Side of Chicago circa 1970 for women seeking safe, affordable, and decidedly illegal, abortions.
The Janes flew in the face of the police department, the Catholic stronghold in Illinois, the Chicago mob who was profiting from underground abortions, and state legislature that rendered even circulating information about abortion a felony.
“It was an outrageous undertaking by a lot of smart women,” one Jane smiles in recollection.
Using code names, safe houses, fronts, rotating cars, and veiled advertising, the Janes successfully provided 11,000 abortions to women in need. Before being arrested in 1972 that is.
But what began as a history film — a cautionary tale where illegal abortions were so rampant hospitals had dedicated septic abortion wards — may soon become a playbook for our future. I got the chance to ask the filmmakers behind The Janes, Emma Pildes, and Tia Lessin, what this film meant to them — as humans, as Americans, as women, and artists.
What role does this extraordinary story of ordinary women defying the law play in our collective understanding of the creation and destruction of lives? Here’s what they had to say.
How did this project come about? What is at stake for you in the telling of this story?
In the fall of 2018, we began collaborating, together with producer Daniel Arcana, in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings. As filmmakers, we were struck by the dynamic characters, the unexpected humor, the powerful story arc of this group of ordinary women going underground, defying the law, the Catholic Church and the Mob to help those in need.
As women, we were drawn to this little-known chapter of feminist history and its relevance to today, when abortion providers and the people they serve are being forced back underground.
After HBO greenlit The Janes, we raced against the clock and the pandemic to finish the film before the Supreme Court overturned Roe. The stakes are huge.
Without equitable access to abortion care, we will lose autonomy over our bodies and our lives. The fundamental freedoms of tens of millions are on the line.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered in researching the evolution of The Janes or interviewing the women involved?
We learned many things that surprised us during the making of The Janes: the Chicago Outfit’s dangerous abortion racket, the connections between civil rights and abortion rights activists, and the early and outspoken role of Protestant and Jewish clergy — not in opposition to abortion, but in support of it.
The most gut-wrenching thing we learned about were the wards in hospitals all over the country which were dumping grounds for women who had been injured or had terrible infections as a result of unsafe abortions.
We found footage of Cook County Hospital at the time, and we interviewed a doctor who worked there. He told us that the ward was always full and eerily quiet because the young women were just so sick. Many of those he treated were injured beyond repair or so badly infected with sepsis that they died.
For me, the pairing of historical footage with the interviews was particularly artful and moving — it was some of the best I’ve seen in a long time! Can you talk about that process and what it added or how it underpinned your storytelling?
We wanted to immerse viewers in the lived experience of our characters, but since they were engaged in illegal activities, there was very little actual footage of them and their exploits.
We both have very strong backgrounds in archival research, and we unearthed troves of footage and photographs from public and private collections all over the country to evoke that time and place.
We drew heavily from Chicago filmmakers, including experimental filmmaker JoAnn Elam, street photographer Vivian Maier, and Kartemquin Films.
We wanted to capture the feeling of 1960s and early 70s Chicago, of the political movements that these women came out of, and the social turmoil of the era.
We also wanted to see women in all their diversity — city dwellers and suburbanites, hippies and squares, women of color and white women, those with children and those without.
We had extraordinary finds from the era like local television newsfilm segments documenting abortion clinic raids and jailed providers in the 60s, footage that we’d never seen anywhere before. We also found dozens of contact sheets at the Library of Congress shot by Look Magazine of the very police squad that arrested the Janes.
Neither of us think of archival footage as supplemental or as B roll — it’s all primary. Our editor Kristen Huntley transformed the archival footage and photographs into riveting sequences, cutting them to interviews with incredible artistry, inventiveness, and attention to detail.
Kristen is an extraordinary talent, with not only a great eye for picture, but also a great ear for dialogue and sound design. Her work enriched and elevated the film.
What role does this film play in the future of abortion justice in America? Is it a playbook? A cautionary tale?
It is indeed a cautionary tale. We wanted to paint a picture of what this country looked like the last time women were denied the right to make this decision for themselves. We did not feel we had to connect the dots for people in terms of what is happening today.
It’s all there — the disregard and the terror that women are made to endure to overcome those barriers. We wanted to give our subjects a platform to bear witness and a way to sound the alarm.
We are going to be feeling the impact of the elimination of federal protection for abortion rights for years to come and we hope this film can be of use in the long, hard fight ahead.
What is the role of art in moving the needle towards justice? What is it about the medium of film that aids in that vision of equity?
Documentary film is a remarkable artform in that, at its best, it is capable of cultivating great compassion and profound understanding. And that, we believe, drives change.
When audiences engage viscerally — in this case — with the pain, isolation and fear that people experience when abortion is criminalized, that engagement creates a personal connectedness that is deeply transformative and has the potential to inspire action.
One of the most chilling moments for me comes in the credits when we’re told the Septic Abortion Ward closes in Chicago in the wake of Roe V. Wade…
I wonder if we’ll have to reopen them even as doctors scramble to train fellow doctors in D&Es?
There’s a very good chance that we’ll see many of the horrors we saw fifty years ago start right back up again. When abortion is illegal, people don’t stop getting abortions, they stop getting safe abortions. And the result of that is that many will be injured and many will die. From what should be a simple medical procedure. Let’s be clear here, those septic abortions wards were necessary because abortion was criminalized.
And when the Roe decision came down, very quickly those wards became obsolete. That’s not going to be different this time around. It’s unfathomable.