Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes were devastated to learn that the Supreme Court may soon overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion. The filmmakers had just screened “The Janes,” their documentary about abortion activists in the pre-Roe v. Wade era, at the San Francisco Intl. Film Festival when they learned about the leaked majority opinion that would turn back the clock on women’s reproductive rights nearly 50 years.
“I burst into tears when I found out” says Lessin, who with Pildes has been screening “The Janes” around the country since its Sundance premiere. “While I expected some sort of erosion of Roe and some people were even expecting the overturning of Roe, this decision was pretty shocking even to people who were in the know.”
The documentary, which will debut on HBO June 8, revolves around the Jane Collective, an underground organization that provided illegal abortion services in Chicago from 1969 until 1973. The women who ran it – the Janes — also advocated for the woman known by the pseudonym Jane Roe. She filed a lawsuit against Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, challenging a state law making abortion illegal except by a doctor’s orders to save a woman’s life.
Lessin and Pildes say that the activism that occurred nearly 50 years ago against Wade can be replicated despite a shifting landscape that includes social media. They point out that the battle can take shape in many ways.
“The thing that we learned in making this film is that you always have the option to do the decent thing and stand up for each other and support each other,” says Pildes. “When it comes to activism, some people’s contribution is going to be protesting in the streets. Some people’s contribution is going to be making a film and some people’s contribution is going to be direct action, like the Janes, that may be very illegal where they are doing it. But overall, I think it will look a bit different because the world is different.”
The battle to keep Roe v. Wade intact has been underway since 1976, Lessin notes. That’s when the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, was passed.
“Only 10% of counties in this country have abortion care facilities,” Lessin says. “Who does that leave out? That leaves out rural and low income people and people who don’t have access to transportation or even public transportation. So, there are already networks set up. People have set up housing. People donate money to help subsidize travel costs. So, people need to plug into those already existing networks, and we all need to take to the streets and speak about our experiences very candidly so that we can destigmatize what is basic healthcare.”
The directors’ outreach campaign for “The Janes” will continue through the year. They are scheduled to screen the doc at several college campus in the coming months.
“We want young women and men to see this film and hear these women’s stories,” Pildes says. “They tell you what this country looks like when women don’t have the right to make this decision for themselves in vivid detail. That’s a pretty powerful thing. We hope that it contributes to the conversation and gives some clarity and some humanity to the human beings who are going to suffer and die because of these (new) laws.”
Lessin says that she doesn’t feel the responsibility “to change hearts and minds” of pro-life activists in Mississippi or Texas, where Roe v. Wade is being challenged.
“The vast majority of people in this country believe in the right to access safe abortions,” Lessin says. “We just need to engage people who already believe in accessing this basic healthcare right and help them engage and take action. We certainly want anyone and everyone to see this film, but we especially want people who have been silently fuming or who have been complacent to understand the high stakes and the threat of injury that hangs over so many people in this country because of the court’s looming decision.”
Photo: “The Janes”