Abortion documentary The Janes provides an engrossing history lesson — and cautionary tale

click to enlarge Jane: Rebels with a cause.
Jane: Rebels with a cause.

When The Janes premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it was a document of a harsher time, when abortion was illegal in almost every state, and women had to turn to shady, unreliable operators to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Just a few months later, with the prospect of Roe v. Wade being overturned, it's now a chilling look at a potential future or at least a cautionary tale for activists to follow closely.

There's no doubt that the activists featured in Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes' documentary would eagerly spring back into action if needed. The women interviewed in The Janes retain the same dedication and passion they had in 1968, when they came together to form the organization known as Jane. The Chicago-based group broke the law to provide safe, affordable abortions, as an alternative to the often dangerous, expensive procedures that had been the only options for many women. For five years, until Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, they helped more than 11,000 women avoid ending up in the local hospital's "septic abortion ward," where patients often landed due to complications from their abortions.

As a documentary, The Janes is simple and straightforward, alternating talking-head interviews with archival footage, much of it just generic looks at the city of Chicago in the late '60s and early '70s. But it's well-paced and consistently informative, and the subjects are all fascinating to hear speak. Lessin and Pildes focus mostly on the members of Jane, many of whom came to the cause from other counterculture movements. The Janes makes it clear how closely women's rights are tied to other civil rights causes, but the filmmakers also emphasize that those movements were often male-dominated and misogynistic. These women had to strike out on their own to fight for reproductive justice, because it wasn't a priority for most male activists.

Lessin and Pildes aren't afraid to interrogate those problematic dynamics within radical movements. Jane members themselves, who were mostly middle-class white women, talk about how they may have been unprepared to deal with the many working-class women of color who sought their services. The movie remains compassionate and uplifting even as it gently tugs at those difficult threads, with a message of solidarity that overcomes differences.

Similarly, the few men interviewed are mostly tangential figures, offering supporting details and sometimes revealing their own cluelessness. In particular, Lessin and Pildes contrast the women's fervent belief in their cause with the motives of the man who goes by the pseudonym Mike, a friendly but mercenary figure who performed the abortions in Jane's early days. Even in contemporary interviews, he treats it just like any other job, without any political context. He's both kind and skilled, but as far as he's concerned there isn't much difference between performing abortions and any other small-time criminal activity he was engaged in at the time.

The Janes could have used a few more complex figures like Mike, since it eventually turns a bit repetitive, with most of the interview subjects echoing the same sentiments. But it's hard to begrudge them their moments in the spotlight, and their individual stories are touching, building a cumulative power. They're only a small representation of what women went through during that time, and may have to again.

Lessin and Pildes generate some suspense during an account of a police raid on the organization, but otherwise The Janes is fairly staid and educational. The education it offers is valuable, though, and while it's unfortunate that the subject matter has become timelier, that just makes it all the more vital for viewers to seek this documentary out. ♦

Three Stars The Janes
Rated R
Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes
Streaming on HBO Max

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