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Review: How an underground group of Chicago activists responded to the illegality of abortion in ‘The Janes’

Mugshots from “The Janes” documentary, from left to right: Sheila Smith, Martha Scott, Diane Stevens and Judith Arcana.  (HBO)
By Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune

Then and now, Chicago was “a town where people did stuff.” It got things done, stirred up trouble, made no little plans. That, says one of the underground abortion providers interviewed in the distressingly pertinent new documentary “The Janes,” was the “beauty” of the place.

The word “beauty” sounds jarring in this context, and the movie knows it. “The Janes” directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes are well aware of how documentaries about our recent past have a way of anticipating our near future. In 2022, a majority of U.S. citizens still support abortion rights. But with the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court ruling likely heading for its undoing this summer, in dozens of states the recriminalizing of that right may take us straight back to 1968 and before.

In 1968, a group of mostly white, mostly middle-class Chicago women formed the Jane Collective, with the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union stepping in to help a year later. At the time abortion was illegal in 30 states, including Illinois, and permitted in limited circumstances in the other 20. Jane operated a Hyde Park home called the Front, with counseling provided to pregnant women. From there, women were driven to an apartment called the Place, where the procedures were performed by a man with shadowy underworld connections identified in the documentary only as “Mike.” (For Jane, he went by the handle “Dr. Kaplan” even though he wasn’t one.)

Spurred by a decade of protest and dissent, the women came out of the widespread anti-war and civil rights movements. Those movements were largely dismissive of what one Jane member sarcastically characterizes as “the woman question.” With so many women, and girls, dying from botched abortions amid grim, furtive circumstances, they felt it was time to act.

The film does an unusually evocative job of mixing straightforward talking-heads interviews, conducted recently, with archival footage of Chicago of the ’60s and early ’70s. With Chicago Police Department “red squad” officers on their tail, the women took precautions and, across nearly five years, worked with an estimated 11,000 women in every kind of unwanted pregnancy situation. Once abortionist Mike (an unlikely but, by the women’s accounts, skilled colleague) left the collective, the women learned and performed the procedures themselves. The work, as we hear, took its toll. A 1972 police bust brought it to a halt, but with a whiz of a defense attorney on the case, and Roe v. Wade on the national horizon, the Janes case was eventually thrown out as abortion became legal.

“The Janes” has a few unresolved tonal issues. We get hints of the difficulty and peculiarity of these double and triple lives being led by the women interviewed, but only hints. The musical score by Max Avery Lichtenstein goes into faintly satiric heist-movie mode at some awkward junctures. And ideally, with Roe about to be erased from the books, “The Janes” would land on a more complex note of imminent, controversial change afoot.

Small matters. It’s a very fine film, and Chicago history that joined a long history of Chicago dissent. As one key member of Jane identified as “Jody” says, simply: What they did was spurred by a crying need expressed by thousands locally and millions nationwide – and their own willingness to “disrespect a law that disrespected women.”

How to watch: Streaming on HBO Max.