Candid Doc shares unusual history of underground abortion counseling service

They have names like Heather, Martha, Marie, Jody, and Judith. But they call themselves Janes. And between 1968 and 1973, they performed about 11,000 underground abortions in Chicago. Their stories, which they share in Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ powerfully candid documentary, “The Janes,” still resonate five decades later. (The group also inspired a sci-fi film premiering at Sundance this year titled “Call Jane.”)

They are not medical professionals, and their work is completely illegal. But alternatives for women who want an abortion are to go to a crowd and assume they may be sexually assaulted before or after the procedure, or to try to end the pregnancy alone, at home. In fact, the situation is grim when a local hospital has a septic area designed entirely for people who arrive in the emergency room in a life-threatening condition after a desperate attempt to put an end to it. terminate the contract.

In fact, this is how The Jane Collective begins: Most volunteers never want another woman to endure the horrors they went through. Eleanor told us she was warned in advance that the doctor performing the abortion might ask her to “cuddle” first. And he worked without anesthesia, because she had to be able to “get up and walk out of there like nothing happened.”

Jody is one of the rare women who has to go through the legal process because she has cancer and two children and may not have survived another pregnancy. But she still had to collect letters from dozens of different doctors before she was allowed to. “I feel,” she said with mild anger, “like a prisoner of the health system.”

Donna, who is reverent, also gets angry when she thinks about the religious reasoning used to specify her health care: “It’s not a theological argument. It’s an arrangement job. To exclude women from the moral authority, exclude us from humanity. “However, there was only humanity in the work that these young women did; and in the old pictures we see, they are really unbelievably young. Many of them were students involved in civil rights or anti-war movements but who found they were cast aside by male leaders even there.

So they turned inward, to each other. They form their own groups and work together to create change. Lessin (an Academy Award-nominated for “Trouble the Water”) and Pildes (her film debut) interspersed their candid interviews with numerous archival footage; we see marches, and miniskirts, and police beating peaceful protesters with billy clubs.

In some ways, these scenes feel surprisingly familiar; in others, very far away. As Janes reminds us, women inevitably depend on men. They cannot take birth control unless they are married; they cannot have a credit card in their own name; they are often fired after the pregnancy becomes apparent and have to switch to work if they have children. Their doctors are almost always male, and they certainly wouldn’t risk prison sentences for their female patients.

Occasionally, however, doctors would quietly pass on contact information to Janes, who are officially known as the Women’s Liberation Abortion Counseling Service in Chicago. Other women found the group through advertisements in alternative newspapers or posts on cafe walls. They called the number – belonging to Eleanor, who thought it wise to use the anonymous name “Jane” – and found a solution on the other end.

When we hear compelling recollections over and over, they assume there’s always a way. We see index cards they use for each patient, with notes like “Be careful, father is a policeman” or “No money, 18 years old has a child”, or, with the simple simply gutted, “Horrible.” But if a woman has no money, she does not have to pay. If she didn’t have a babysitter, someone stepped in to babysit. If she was alone, Janes would keep an eye on her to make sure she was okay. They have created a culture of women that values ​​women, at a time when it often feels as though no one else is. (Although it should be noted that a number of married people, also interviewed here, proudly support their wives’ work.)

Given that the Collective organizes about 100 abortions a week, it’s remarkable that this secretive system has been around for so long. In the end, however, their time ran out. Some of the Janes were imprisoned and enlisted the services of a brilliant attorney named Jo-Anne Wolfson. Since there was no denying that they had broken the law, she knew their best hope lay in the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision.

As one of the Janes recalled with a sigh the passage of Roe v. Wade, “We are very excited. And we thought That’s over.” The knowledge that it hasn’t been, and still isn’t, is a charge throughout the entire film.

It’s a pity that Lessin and Pildes didn’t tell us what these wonderful women did after the Collective ended. But it’s all still there, half a century later, passionate, eloquent and contemplative, fierce. “This is what it was,” is what they told us. “Here’s what it might be back to,” is what they hope we hear.

“The Janes” made its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Candid Doc shares unusual history of underground abortion counseling service

Curtis Crabtree

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