‘The Janes’ Review: A Stirring Documentary Account of the Trailblazing Underground Abortion Network

Stylistically, Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes' film is a standard talking-heads affair, but the participants' vivid recollections make it compelling.

The Janes Documentary
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

If the Jane Collective has gone under-credited in American women’s rights history over the last half-century, independent cinema is doing its best to make up for lost time. Right on the heels of Phyllis Nagy’s colorful fictionalized drama “Call Jane,” “The Janes” is the second film at this year’s Sundance festival dedicated to the female-staffed, Chicago-based underground service that provided over 11,000 illegal abortions to women in need between 1968 and 1973, at which point Roe v. Wade rendered their work triumphantly obsolete. Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ documentary is the more straight-and-sober account of the Janes’ work and legacy, though in sticking to the facts, it remains plenty rousing. Its inspiring arc may be unavoidably undercut by our knowledge of Roe v. Wade’s imperiled status in current American law, but if anything, that unspoken contemporary context underlines the need to amplify this history: A brace of Jane films couldn’t be better timed.

Produced by HBO Documentary Films and set for release on HBO platforms later this year, “The Janes” makes little effort to fashion itself as big-screen fare. Sticking strictly to a conventional formula of talking-head interviews and mostly generic archive footage, it’s a plainly televisual outing, displaying little of the structural or stylistic vigor that marked Lessin’s two previous co-directing credits, “Trouble the Water” and “Citizen Koch.” That is perhaps by design. “The Janes” aims to engage its audience solely on the testimony of its interviewees — mostly past members of the collective itself, along with various allies and spouses. Their stories prove detailed and compelling enough to carry the day, even if the filmmaking does little to reflect the radicalism of their enterprise.

The interview that casts the most startling spell here, however, is the first one off the bat, and it’s not with one of the Janes, but one of their patients. Slowly, calmly, but with an audible quiver in her voice, Dorie Barron recalls the horror of her first abortion in the early 1960s, carried out by mob-connected men for an exorbitant fee in an isolated motel room, after which she and another terrified young woman were abandoned to bleed and recover in their own time. She survived; many women and girls given similarly careless procedures did not. It’s the kind of harrowing anecdote that bluntly makes the case to anti-choice lobbyists for safe legal abortions over dangerous covert ones, and it’s bookended by a second appearance from Barron, this time detailing a later abortion at the hands of the Jane Collective: Treated with concern and empathy, she had the realization — practically an epiphany in a world steered by patriarchy — “that women actually give a shit about women.”

Sure enough, the individual contributions from members of the collective — mostly contemporary, though a couple of now-deceased subjects appear via archival interviews — combine to evoke a tight-knit air of sisterhood, where women didn’t need to explain themselves in order to get the help they needed. Spearheaded by University of Chicago student Heather Booth, the movement grew organically from her efforts to help a friend’s sister secure an illegal abortion in 1965, instigating a whisper network that saw numerous other women come to her for assistance. Realizing the breadth of the crisis, she recruited fellow young feminists to help her help others, and the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, as the Janes were officially known, was born.

Though it was a group founded on female solidarity — operating on a progressive pay-what-you-can system, by which wealthier white patients essentially funded abortions for the less privileged — the group was initially reliant on sympathetic male doctors to serve their ever-expanding clientele. That “Mike,” their most reliable and apparently skillful aide in this respect, turned out not to be a medical professional at all was a disruptive, contentious discovery for the Janes. (In his own bluff, amusing interview extracts, he admits he instead had a background in construction.) But it proved a pivotal one, introducing them to the possibilities of carrying out abortions themselves, at which point the collective could truly claim feminist self-sufficiency. By the time the Chicago cops, tipped off by one patient’s conservative relatives, staged a reluctant raid on the Janes’ operations, they were wholly baffled as to who was performing the procedures. Where were the men, after all?

This police intervention cues the film’s oddly rushed final act, as the arrest and imprisonment of seven network leaders and an ensuing court case — one that saw gutsy defense attorney Jo-Ann Wolfson effectively stall for time while the Roe v. Wade ruling made its progress through the Supreme Court — are dealt with all too briskly, relative to the rich detail and human interest of the story’s establishing stages. Perhaps there’s a whole separate procedural documentary to be made about one landmark legal fight for women’s rights gambling on the outcome of another, more nationally momentous one. Or perhaps “The Janes” doesn’t want to luxuriate too much in a 50-year-old feelgood finale, knowing that the very same battle is being fought all over again. Either way, Lessin and Pildes’ film should leave today’s pro-choice activists equally alert, anxious and hopeful, motivated to seek strength in community.

‘The Janes’ Review: A Stirring Documentary Account of the Trailblazing Underground Abortion Network

Reviewed online, Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 24, 2022. Running time: 102 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Pentimento Production. Producers: Emma Pildes, Daniel Arcana, Jessica Levin. Executive producer: Susan Lacy.
  • Crew: Directors: Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes. Camera: Keith Walker. Editor: Kristen Huntley. Music: Max Avery Lichtenstein.