“The Janes” and the Power of Pro-Abortion Imagery

We want to confer a spirit of urgency onto “The Janes” (HBO Max). No doubt, Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin, the directors of this abortion documentary, are memorializing heroic, understudied work. Their film is about the Jane Collective, a clandestine organization that provided more than eleven thousand illegal abortions to clients in Chicago, from 1969 to 1973, before the Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade. In 2019, Pildes and Lessin began working on the documentary, knowing that Roe was imperilled. The film is conventional in form, but daring in tone. It has the temerity to argue that abortion is more than just a medical necessity to be tolerated: abortion can be an event that reclaims agency; abortion can be a catalyst to a personal and communal joy.

There is no narrator, or voice of God, in “The Janes.” Like Amalie Rothschild, the director of the 1972 short film “It Happens to Us,” and Penny Lane, who directed “The Abortion Diaries” in 2005, Pildes and Lessin are interested in spotlighting the voices of women. “The Janes” is a straightforward oral history, which might seem plain. And yet it was this tradition of uncodified communication—the whisper network—that allowed the Janes to do their work. “I learned that sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority,” Heather Booth, a founding member of the collective, recalls. A student activist at the University of Chicago in the late sixties, she had been asked by a friend to help his sister get an abortion, a request that would eventually birth the collective. An old photo shows Booth at the time of her organizing, her eyes alert and her smile curled; in the present day, she wears a mandarin-collar cardigan, and her hair, a shock of white, in a crop. The ritualistic juxtapositions of the Jane members across time, more than any other filmmaking detail, underscore the recency of this history. Faces aged, but not by much.

As Booth and the other members outline how the collective figured out its operations, the documentary’s score gets playful, light. The impetus for the creation of the collective was certainly a health crisis; the documentary pairs accounts of dangerous abortions with grainy images of women writhing, abandoned, in hospital wards for sepsis. We learn that, in Chicago, many abortion-seeking women were at the mercy of mobsters and other bad actors, some of whom were doctors, leaving these women vulnerable to psychological, financial, and sexual abuse. The first testimony we hear is from Dorrie Barron, who describes travelling to a motel where she and another girl were left to bleed after receiving abortions. Some two-thirds into the story, Barron, a survivor of childhood abuse at the hands of nuns, returns again, this time to recount receiving a second abortion in the care of the Janes. On her face is an expression of disbelief; she says that she had not known that “women gave a shit about women.”

The film wants to curb our instinct to solemnify the Janes and the women they served. It depicts women’s solidarity as vibrant, angry, gloriously messy. As Amanda Hess wrote recently in the Times, the documentary flirts, genre-wise, with the style of a caper: a bunch of middle-class women, many of them mothers and wives, organize successfully in hostile Irish Catholic country. Bulletins go up across the city, advertising to women to “Please Call Jane.” The phone lines ring, and ring, and ring. The Janes establish a pay-what-you-can model for their clients, who are shuttled spy-style to secret locales where abortion services are offered; the drivers take circuitous routes to avoid being tailed. The abortion sites themselves were usually family homes volunteered by members, teeming with chatter, kids, the smell of roasted pork—in other words, the stuff of life. (When police officers do a bust and ask what’s for lunch, a member recalls her sarcastic reply: “I said ‘pig’!”)

Pildes and Lessin resist inducing despair in the viewer because that emotion—and the fear it countenances—does not suffice. The Jane Collective, officially named Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, was a true political organization. And its members seemed to stimulate each other; they were imagining a new world, and creating it came with risk, excitement, anxiety. The documentary provides a dutiful gloss of how demographics changed following the decriminalization of abortion in New York City. White women of means started to fly to New York for services, while poor women, the majority of whom were Black, relied on the Janes. As Marie Leaner, the only Black woman to have worked as a Jane, recalled, “The people who consumed the services—the complexion changed.”

Initially, the Janes relied on male doctors to perform abortions on clients. One such doctor, as it turned out, was not a doctor at all, but literally just a dude named Mike, who learned how to perform the procedure by watching a “real surgeon” do it. Mike is interviewed in the documentary, and his nonchalance about performing abortions is genuinely funny. He had worked in construction; comparatively, abortions were not that hard. When the Janes discovered that Mike was not a real doctor, some members protested, leaving the group altogether. Others were inspired, and learned how to perform abortions themselves.

You don’t watch “The Janes” for aesthetic pleasure. The palette is sober, and the filmmaking itself is recalcitrant, in service always of its tremendous story. But there is one moment I found indelible. Eileen Smith, a former Jane, sits at a dining table, pulling medical instruments out of a wrinkled plastic bag. “Sometimes you have to start with a small dilator, to just try to get inside of the cervix,” she explains, while motioning with the tool. Opening the blades of a speculum, she smiles sheepishly: “I haven’t done this in a long time.”

The moment is extraordinary for its ordinariness. Here is a picture of the procedure as a domestic activity: abortion removed from the environment of the hospital, as much a temple antipathetic to women’s health as is the Church, looking like a kind of kitchen knowledge, passed down the matriarchal line. At the table, Smith looks modern, capable. But also confrontational, impolite. It’s that knowing smile. The image, if it is an image, is rousingly pro-abortion, not meekly pro-choice. She has the power to end things, to draw a little blood.

Lately, I have been thinking about what abortion looks like, or, rather, what we need it to look like. The frame is body horror in the recent films “Titane” and “Happening.” Metal, guided by determined, desperate hands, piercing through viscera and skin. The grotesquerie is edged with triumph and therefore not remote from truth. In Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the procedure is a quieter, life-giving rite, one children might attend. In “Lingui, Sacred Bonds,” a drama from the Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, the procedure cannot be observed, but we may rejoice in the liberated stance of a young mother who, in procuring an abortion for her teen-age daughter, has freed the daughter from a similar fate to her own. And then, in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Eliza Hittman’s 2020 American road-trip indie film, a successful abortion is indicated by the small pool of blood on a pad. The normalcy, the anti-shock, is jarring.

But normalcy hardly inflames the heart. Our visions of abortion are bound to rhetoric, to the sensational. After the Dobbs ruling, last Friday, which overturned Roe, protesters flooded outdoors, where they channelled their feelings of hopelessness into a spectacle of street rage. The signs, as always, were important. On many of them, recognizable iconography appeared: the cloak of the handmaiden, the wire of the hanger. Extreme symbols—symbols of defeat—for extreme times. And yet the times are always extreme.

“The Janes” was released before the Dobbs ruling came down. Its third act is quicksilver; a police officer and his partner receive a tip from a conservative Catholic source, leading to the arrest of seven of the Janes. The film introduces Jo-Anne Wolfson, the defense attorney who ingeniously decides to stall the case against the members until the passing of Roe v. Wade. And then we end. The law shifts. Their work is done. The fade to black will make the viewer watching today feel insane. ♦

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