HBO’s newly-released documentary “The Janes” (on air as of June 8, 2022) covers the story of the Jane Collective, an underground abortion network in Chicago that despite legal barriers “helped women obtain safe, affordable abortions in the late ’60s and early ’70s.” At the time, abortion was a crime in Illinois and multiple other states. Seven leaders of the collective were arrested and charged with abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion in 1972, yet the case was dropped once the Roe v. Wade ruling legalized abortion throughout the country. One of its producers, Daniel Arcana, whose mother was involved in the collective, reflects that the work is eerily airing to the public after its initial release at the Sundance Film Festival in January as the palpable threat of the overturning of Roe v. Wade looms large.
“The Janes” makes a case for a hardy dose of doom and optimism:
“The film’s stories of women’s desperation are haunting — and ominous. Brutal, costly abortions at the hands of the Mafia. Pervasive sexual assault by the men conducting abortions. Women dying in septic abortion wards from self-induced efforts (one OB-GYN interviewed recalls seeing a woman who used carbolic acid), and clandestine abortions gone wrong. The constant threat of not just being arrested for getting an abortion but for even talking about one — which was a felony.”
“Yet, amid this violence, a hopefulness shines through. The 1960s, culturally, was rooted in the belief that we are the change we seek, and that radical societal change was possible. Emphasized again and again is the message that we cannot rely on antiquated laws propping up white-supremacist patriarchal institutions to support or care for us. And “The Janes” offers a template for organized feminist action. The organizing principle of the collective’s work is care — that all health care, fundamentally, should be based on compassionate care.”
I found NBC writers Marcie Bianco’s critique that the documentary dilutes its appeal to collective power by obsessing over its distinctness to be a crucial evaluation.
“In reality, the Jane Collective was not unique. For decades, underground networks around the world — from El Salvador to Poland to Mexico to right here in the United States — have been and are assisting pregnant people obtain the abortion care that they need. And while showing how the collective was informed by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the documentary misses an opportunity to situate the Janes’ work within both a historical and global context. That context could have strengthened the documentary’s larger political message about civil disobedience as an effective solution to institutional failure.”
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