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Inside the secret network of women who performed abortions before Roe

A conversation with the filmmakers behind The Janes, a new documentary about a harrowing era of illegal abortions.

Mug shots of four young women.
Members of The Janes were arrested in 1972. They faced up to 110 years each for the crimes they were accused of.
Courtesy of HBO

“I had no other options. I wanted it over with and I didn’t care how it was done,” a woman says, in the opening moments of the new HBO documentary, The Janes. She’s describing her experience of an abortion in the pre-Roe era: a seedy motel room, a transaction with the mob — and lying bleeding on a bed, with another woman on the bed beside her, until they were both strong enough to stand up and go home. “I was terrified,” she says.

This was the world in which the Janes came together in Chicago. The clandestine network of women, inspired by the civil rights movement and other social justice reform groups, organized in the late 1960s and early 1970s to provide abortions to women who needed them.

Providing abortion services during that time was a political act. It was also a criminal one. The Janes posted cryptic flyers and ads in newspapers: “Pregnant? Call Jane.” Their reputation grew by word of mouth. One of the Janes allowed her personal phone number to serve as the hotline, and women who called the number received supportive counseling from a group of volunteers. If a caller decided to go forward, one of the Janes would pick her up and take her to the house of a supporter who offered up their home as a clinic for the day. The Janes accepted payment to keep their network going, but they didn’t turn away women who couldn’t afford their care.

The Janes estimate that they performed about 11,000 abortions before the Roe decision brought an end to their activities, and not without considerable risk. “I was afraid all the time,” one of the Janes said, “but I was a warrior for justice.” In 1972, the Chicago police raided the Janes and arrested several of their members, who faced charges that carried up to 110 years in prison. After Roe was decided the following year, the Janes saw their charges dropped.

Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin’s documentary about the group, The Janes, airs June 8. Vox spoke with the filmmakers about what they learned from the Janes, and their relevance to the current moment.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you want to tell the Janes’ story?

Emma: I have a family connection to the Janes. Daniel Arcana, one of the producers on the film, who happens to be my brother, started developing this idea after Trump got into office and started packing the courts. He felt like now was the time. Things got scary and dire really quickly in the last couple of years, and it seemed that it was the time to give these women a platform, to give testimony to what this country looks like when women don’t have the right to make these decisions themselves.

How did they feel about coming forward to tell their story?

Tia: I think they understood the importance of this moment. This was the very first time for many of them, going on the record and using their names and talking about their time in the Janes. They led very full lives, and many of them had been secretive about it — this was illegal activity. They hadn’t told family members, in some cases, but they saw the writing on the wall and wanted to be of service.

Emma: It was the same part of them that felt responsible in the ’60s and ’70s that led them to be willing to lay it all on the line to help other people. Not everybody wants to get involved and talk about illegal, controversial activity they did 50 years ago. But they, I think, knew how powerful that testimony was and how it could be helpful now both in the passing of the baton and in supporting women who need support — and conveying the message of how dire the picture is when abortion is criminalized.

What did you learn from the Janes about organizing this clandestine health care network that most surprised you?

Tia: I was surprised by the involvement of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. These were men and women of the cloth who morally were opposed to the denial of reproductive rights to women, and they did something about it. They facilitated women’s access to abortion care whether in Chicago or abroad. That’s a story that hasn’t really been told. That was surprising.

Emma: One of the other things that really impacted Tia and me was the septic abortion wards. We focused on one at Cook County Hospital because our story focuses on Chicago, but they were all across the country. It was a 40-bed ward and it was full just about 100 percent of the time, as it was told to us. The doctor we spoke to, Dr. Allan Weiland, described being on that ward as a young medical student, and the eerie quiet of that ward because women were so gravely ill. They’d come there because of botched back-alley abortions or self-inflicted abortions. He said he called the morgue once a week, when somebody had died. Within a year of Roe passing, that ward closed. It became obsolete because it was something we’d created by criminalizing abortion. That’s a very hard thing to know and sit with, as we watch everything that’s happening now.

What was the involvement of organized crime in the underground abortion movement at the time?

Tia: The Chicago Outfit was pretty big and they were involved in all sorts of nefarious activity in Chicago. Any illegal act that they could profit from, they would. When abortion was criminalized in Chicago, that became another profit center for the mafia. We know anecdotally about the mob’s involvement, but there’s also been very little written about it, and it was a surprise to Emma and me to learn about that. When abortion is criminalized, it doesn’t mean women stop seeking abortion care. It just eliminates their access to safe abortion care. The mob filled in those gaps.

I’m curious to know how the Janes reacted to the leaked draft opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson.

Emma: They are pissed. They’re pissed but they’re not hopeless, because that’s not who they are. They believe in organizing, and they’ve taken things into their own hands before. It’s hard to watch, for anyone that cares about equitable health care and the protection of women’s bodily autonomy. I would not and do not want to put words into the Janes’ mouths, but they have expressed that after everything they laid on the line and how much they did, to feel the relief of it being off their shoulders, and then to still be alive to watch all of that be revoked — it’s probably galling to them on a level we may totally never understand.

The decision that is likely coming this summer on Dobbs v. Jackson won’t have come out of nowhere. It’s the product of a long campaign by anti-abortion activists to overturn Roe. What can present-day activists learn from the Janes?

Tia: The laws in some places now will be, and are, even harsher than the laws that existed 50 years ago. There was no one empowering vigilantes to go after abortion care providers and the people they served then, and no prosecution of women for going across state lines for abortion care. In some ways, the circumstances will be a bit more dire.

To your question, the power of collective action is pretty resounding: As a group, they could accomplish things they couldn’t alone. They weren’t fearless, but they didn’t let fears control them or keep them from organizing. They were aware of the consequences they could face, and were fully aware that they could spend a lifetime in prison. They went ahead and did the decent thing. There are so many ways people can participate in helping now: if they have the resources they can open their wallets, if they have a spare bedroom they can open their homes to people traveling for an abortion. We saw that play out in Chicago. There wasn’t one thing to be done, there were many ways of being of service.

What do you hope viewers will take away from watching The Janes?

Emma: I think there’s a lot of discussion online, on social media, and in the news about the policy being made. What’s lost in all of that is that these are human beings that are going to die because of the criminalizing of abortions. Not might die; they are going to die. One of the things Tia and I really wanted to do with the film is put that humanity back in the conversation. Reminding people that these are 16-year-old girls, they’re women with three children, they’re women in abusive relationships, women with careers, women who want to go to college: these are people that are going to suffer and are losing their rights in a democracy. We hope what we contribute is a very clear picture of what happens in this country when women don’t have the right to choose.

Tia: I’d also add that we know from history and what’s happening today that the people that are most affected by inequitable access to abortion are low-income people and disproportionately Black and brown communities and rural communities. Only 10 percent of counties in the country have access to abortion clinics. This will be a crisis for every woman, but it’s especially going to harm women of color, and in the film, we go to great lengths to show what that looks like.