The Janes Is One of the Most Important Documentaries to Watch This Year. Here's Why.
In the time since the U.S. Supreme Court officially overruled Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, declaring that a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion no longer exists, life and politics have begun to be reshaped. A person who can get pregnant must now face the grim reality that your right to one of the most life-altering and personal decisions is in the hands of legislators. (Currently, abortion is banned in at least seven states with more bans expected to continue.)
We are facing a time of unprecedented moral and societal challenges—which is why we need to remain educated and ignited. One way to do so is to support those fighting to keep abortion in the spotlight for what it is: equal rights and justice. Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes are two people doing just that. They’re the directors of The Janes, an HBO documentary that tells the story of the activists who formed a secret group called “Jane” that provided safe abortions in the years leading up to Roe v. Wade.
Lessin and Pildes leave no corner unturned in their project. They interview many of the volunteer women—“The Janes”—who ultimately provided nearly 11,000 safe abortions. Lessin and Pildes go back to the early start of the clandestine group, shedding light on the grave need for the Janes’ services as countless women turned to the Mafia or other unsafe (and horrifically exploitative) measures as their only means to end unwanted pregnancies.
I chatted with Lessin and Pildes in mid-June, days before the federal overruling, about the wider reaching message behind their documentary, the health crises that ensue when you remove people’s bodily rights, and what they want people to take away. As Lessin tells me, “When you criminalize abortion it doesn't mean women stop getting abortions. It means that they stop getting access to safe abortions.”
As I see it, The Janes is less about history and more about awakening us to the spine-chilling truth that women’s health, autonomy, and overall well-being are more than fodder for radical inclusion. It is something we need to continue to fight for—every second.
A Conversation with Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes
As I was watching the documentary, I was both gleeful over the triumphant end when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, but then I was scared and disheartened. As we’re looking for The Court’s decision [editor’s note: reminder, this conversation took place before June 24, 2022], I kept thinking: Will we need The Janes again? What are your thoughts?
Emma Pildes: It’s a different world now. It's years and years later. There’s the abortion pill. There's the internet. There are cell phones. There's a different generation of people with ideas in their heads. And there’s some beautiful growth that's happened in the last 50 years. So it’s a different world. But some things are going to be the same. That is for sure. People are going to suffer. People are going to die and be humiliated. Women's dreams are going to be crushed. Those things hold true when you take people's bodily autonomy away from them. That's a fact.
It is possible that we could see septic abortion wards popping up again. When you drive people underground for a medical procedure, people then take things into their own hands. They go into back alleys and onto the black market. So people are going to be injured. I think it’s going to be quite shocking for people to confront the realities of what this means.
Your documentary touches upon that: How abortion is more complex than ending a pregnancy. Taking it away impacts societies and leads to public health crises. What do you hope people watching this learn?
Tia Lessin: I hope people feel something after they watch it. I hope it’s a wake-up call. Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of people in this country are against the overturning of Roe. But it's happening. So what are we going to do about that? We’re trying to ring the alarm bell. We hope that people make their voices heard. For those who are already on the front lines, we hope that this helps to draw people to open their wallets to help fund those organizations that are offering to defray travel costs for people who are forced across state lines or that are forming legal defense funds for those doctors and the women they serve who get prosecuted. We hope that it can help state legislatures understand the stakes involved.
The number one takeaway is when you criminalize abortion it doesn't mean women stop getting abortions. It means that they stop getting access to safe abortions. Or they have to travel hundreds of miles, thousands in some cases, across state lines to get basic clinical care. People that are most harmed and that most suffer are low-income people, disproportionately black and brown women, who will not be able to cross state lines. What a terrible thing for people to have to go through for a medical procedure. So yes, The Janes is a wake-up call to look at the dramatically high stakes for people in this country.
It was incredible listening to all the women, The Janes, who you interviewed. They were so raw and forthcoming about what they did and how they wanted to help. What surprised you while making this documentary?
Emma Pildes: There were a lot of things that surprised us. One thing, the way you phrased the question that made me think of this, was that we went into these interviews with a specific idea that we were interviewing this person because they're a Jane and we wanted to speak to them about their contribution to the service and their part in the story. What we didn't anticipate is that everybody had their own either abortion story that they had themselves or one that their best friend or sister had. So there are all these illegal abortion stories that everybody had. Even the nurse who worked on the septic abortion ward that we interviewed. That’s the perspective we were trying to gain from her, but she had her own story of flying to New York to get a legal abortion.
As I was saying before, as this criminalization of abortion plays out and we start to see it manifest in all these different ways, you start to see that everybody has a story. And unfortunately, as the Court decides, those stories become very grim and very brave and very dangerous and very upsetting and people carry this with them for their lives for generations. We’ve been doing screenings and Q&As and people have been standing up to their family stories, how their grandmother died [from an illegal abortion] when their mother was five years old. This goes on for many, many, many generations. This is trauma to women that will see the knock-on effects for a very long time.
Tia Lessin: The universality of this is staggering. I think many of us haven’t spoken out about our abortion stories because of the stigma associated with it. And it’s not represented in our culture in popular media as it really ought to be given that one out of four women have an abortion before the age of 45.
Another thing that was quite shocking was the septic abortion wards. We learned about the one in Chicago at Cook County Hospital, which was essentially a dumping ground. At any hospital in the city, if a woman came in with an induced miscarriage, she would be sent to County Cook Hospital. These were mostly black and brown women who had resorted to back alley procedures or attempted to self-induce abortion. The lucky ones had an infection that antibiotics would cure. The unlucky ones were damaged beyond repair. And countless women didn't survive. We learned that these wards were in every city—Los Angeles and Boston and New York and Minneapolis. The doctors and nurses were instructed to call the police when these women arrived. So often these women were interrogated while they were suffering and while they were sick. So many women were too afraid to go get the help that they needed. It's unconscionable. And then after the decision came down in Roe, these septic abortion wards closed, not immediately because it took some time for the word to get around that abortion was legal. And I think that was the most dramatic sign of the importance of federal protection for abortion rights. It means that abortion care can be provided safely when women aren't forced into the back alleys when abortion is criminalized.
I’m hoping that these wards aren't needed again. Hopefully, we’ll learn from the past.
You can watch The Janes now on HBO.
A senior editor of The Sunday Paper, Stacey Lindsay is a multimedia journalist, editorial director, and writer based in San Francisco. She was previously a news anchor and reporter who covered veterans' issues, healthcare, and breaking news. You can learn more and find her work here and you can follow her here.