The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What will post-Roe America look like? Let’s look at pre-Roe America.

HBO’s documentary about a group of underground abortion providers recalls a time when women had few options

Members of the Janes in 1972. (HBO)

Several days ago an acquaintance tweeted, “Imagine you have been kidnapped. The people in charge of rescuing you are the characters in the latest thing you watched on TV. Do you survive?” I am relieved to report that the last thing I watched was a new HBO documentary, “The Janes,” and my odds of survival have never been higher.

“The Janes” is about a collective of women in pre-Roe v. Wade Chicago who helped pregnant people secure safe but illegal abortions. They advertised on bulletin boards (“Pregnant? Call Jane”), they worked on a pay-what-you-can basis, and they assisted with approximately eleven thousand procedures in the early 1970s.

Now, in 2022, the demise of Roe v. Wade could be imminent. And as some of us are trying to wrap our heads around what that might look like, “The Janes” is a defiant examination of what it did look like, at least for a subset of determined activists living through a time in which pregnant people were dying daily of botched procedures carried out via knitting needles and Lysol. The local hospital had a ward dedicated to treating septic abortions.

The collective’s protocols sound like something from a spy novel: After leaving a message on the Janes’ answering service, patients were instructed to meet at one Jane’s donated apartment (“the front”), then ferried by another Jane to a different donated apartment (“the place”), where the actual procedure was performed. A doctor assisted in the early days, then another man stepped in (he had no medical background but had learned abortion techniques from a physician). Finally, some of the Janes — schoolteachers, graduate students, mothers — learned how to just do it themselves.

In 1972, several Janes were arrested when a caller tipped off the police: A relative was scheduled to have an abortion, which the caller found immoral. While the Janes awaited trial, the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade and made their whole case moot. Abortions no longer needed getaway cars, and helping someone get one was no longer illegal.

Watching “The Janes” — and please, someone make a Netflix series of this story starring Beanie Feldstein — is a reminder of just how much solving reproductive health issues has always relied on informal, unsanctioned networks based on the understanding that menstruation blood or breast milk or afterbirth don’t go away just because polite society ignores them.

On camera, the husband of one Jane marvels that he’d simply never given abortion a second thought. The policeman who arrested the Janes remarks, surprised, that the patient he intercepted 50 years ago was wearing a nice suit. What did he expect? A scarlet “A” for abortion?

Many of the Janes had met each other via antiwar activism but found that movement to be overly “macho,” populated by gonzo men who were uninterested in female perspectives. So they branched off to create a social movement of their own: a feminist utopia born of dystopian circumstances. They arranged free child care for their patients. There was sometimes a pork roast in the oven so that everyone would have something for lunch.

It seems meaningful to me that this documentary was made before the Supreme Court’s anti-Roe draft opinion leaked, and that it will premiere afterward. If abortion is the law of the land, then we can interpret the Jane Collective’s story as a relic, a women’s liberation story of a bygone time. But if abortion becomes illegal again in some parts of the country, then what we’re watching becomes a story about activists who were criminals then and would be criminals now. By celebrating the Janes, we’d be technically celebrating a crime.

That’s where the documentary really gets interesting, not because it’s a riveting spy caper but because it poses a moral question: When is the wrong thing the right thing? What are the criteria you personally use to decide that you know better than lawmakers? And if you believe you do, do you simply protest the law, or do you actually go ahead and do the thing the government has forbidden you from doing? “There was a philosophical need,” one Jane rationalizes in the documentary, “to disrespect a law that would disrespect women.”

Right now we don’t know what the Supreme Court decision will say or how states will react to it. Might some prohibit driving across state lines for an abortion, or attempt to ban medication abortions?

In the pre-Roe era, some women learned to fashion at-home abortion devices out of Mason jars, and a recent article in the Atlantic describes a collective of women now learning to do it once again. When the lines are drawn, people who believe in a woman’s right to choose (even if the Supreme Court no longer does) will have to decide what lines they are willing to cross. Would you find it morally acceptable to put abortion pills in the mail? What about driving someone across the state border​ where medical abortions are available?

I highly recommend “The Janes,” but with a few caveats. As a historical documentary, it’s uplifting, frankly, to watch a bunch of gutsy women reach for a plan when it would have been easier to reach for a Valium and a bottle of gin. But as a template for what could come next, it’s terrifying. Nobody should want that. Nobody should have to find out whether they’re willing to do what the Janes did back when the cost of an abortion was extraordinary and women were always the ones to have to pay it.