New HBO documentary chronicles a pre-Roe abortion underground
Fifty years ago, Judith Arcana spent most of a night in prison. Arcana, then 29, had given birth a few months earlier to a son, Daniel. As the hours passed, Arcana’s breasts became heavy and sore – and so, with no baby to breastfeed, she bent over the cell’s dirty sink and used her hands to empty her milk herself.
Arcana had been arrested along with six other young women. All were members of Jane, an underground group that performed approximately 11,000 abortions in Chicago from 1968 to 1973, when terminating a pregnancy was a crime in nearly every state. Earlier that day in May 1972, at a South Shore apartment that served as a makeshift clinic, Homicide Squad detectives showed up in handcuffs. A grand jury would go on to indict the seven women for felony homicide and conspiracy to commit an abortion. A conviction could have meant years in prison. But the women were lucky: the case never went to court, because in January 1973 the Supreme Court ruled on Roe vs. Wade, guaranteeing the constitutional right to abortion. The charges were dropped and the now useless Jane was disbanded.
Today, of course, the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn deer. If – or, more likely, when – this happens, abortion will become illegal or strictly regulated in about half the country. In a moment that borders on cosmic cruelty, the leak of Judge Samuel Alito’s draft opinion happened 50 years to the day after Jane’s arrest.
Arcana, now 79 and a longtime Portlander—featured in this magazine in 2018– was not surprised. In March, she and I met at her home, and she discussed the future of deer. “We all know what the Court is going to do,” she said then. “There is no mystery here. These people are obvious. They don’t pretend. Why would anyone assume that might not happen? »
The leak also makes a new documentary about Jane all the more urgent. Arriving on HBO on June 8, The Janes is a lively and moving chronicle of underground service. In gripping interviews, Arcana and other former Janes paint a harrowing portrait of the lengths women would go to in an attempt to end their pregnancies. Early in the film, an interviewee describes the terror of receiving a mob-organized abortion in a dingy motel room. An obstetrician recalls the county hospital’s septic abortion ward being filled every day with patients who had tried to self-induce. From there, the film traces the group from its beginnings—it started as a referral service that connected pregnant women with doctors willing to perform abortions—to its heyday, when members performed the procedure themselves, up to 100 per week.
When the project gained momentum four years ago, Mississippi had just enacted the restrictive abortion law that the Supreme Court now appears poised to uphold. Spearhead of the charge? Daniel Arcana, this boy who could not be breastfed while his mother was locked up. Now a film producer, he called on fellow producer Emma Pildes. (She also happens to be his half-sister: the two share a father, who was married to Arcana and who appears in the documentary as “Jane’s husband.”) Pildes approached Tia Lessin, nominated for an Oscar for her Hurricane Katrina of 2008. doc trouble the waterand the two became co-directors.
“Emma approached me at the time of Brett Kavanaugh’s US Senate hearings,” Lessin said recently, speaking from his home in Brooklyn. “The writing was on the wall. It was not just this notion that Roe vs. Wade was going to be canceled, but along the way there were hundreds, if not thousands of restrictions [to abortion] that state legislatures have passed. They put up barriers all over the place for people to access abortion care.
Drawing continues: “I don’t think in our worst nightmares we couldn’t imagine that this movie would come out in the weeks following the overthrow of deer. We wanted it to be ancient history, to just be this cool, weird thing that happened in the past. [But] it’s quite resonant and relevant right now.
The Janes is not the first film about the group – there was a 1995 documentary as well as a 2018 fictional movie with Arcana as consulting producer. It is also part of a current wave of abortion films. At Sundance this year, The Janes created alongside Call Janea Hollywood feature film starring Elizabeth Banks as a housewife who becomes Jane, and Eventan adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s memoir on the search for an illegal abortion in France in 1963.
Rather than drawing parallels between yesterday and today, The Janes wisely keep his attention on the past. Storytelling is fast without sacrificing context. We are reminded, for example, that this was a time when a woman could not get a credit card in her name and could only get contraception if she was married. Pregnancy was a punishable offence. It was a time of political radicalization, and a number of Janes say they were energized by civil rights marches and anti-war protests – and disappointed in how they saw the men in those movements behaving. “Lots of testosterone and lots of lecturing,” one notes. Chicagoans had also seen police unleash brutal violence against protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As Arcana said in his 2018 profile, “It was an atmosphere that, in a sense, enabled – if not prompted – the women of a political turning point to realize that the system was never going to be useful. We had to take our lives into our own hands.”
In Jane’s early days, members put up posters on college campuses, ran ads in radical newspapers, and handed out pamphlets at political meetings. “Pregnant? Don’t you want to be? Call Jeanne. Callers would leave messages on an answering machine and Janes would record their details – age, how far, any known complications – on index cards. In a powerful part of the documentary, the women flip through these decades-old cards and read aloud some of the notes: “afraid of pain”, “terrified”, “be careful, father is a cop”. Janes counseled the women over the phone, explaining in detail the procedure and doing their best to soothe the nerves. On the day of their appointment, the women first showed up at one location and then were transported to another for the abortion itself, with drivers taking the side streets to deter followers. (It’s a delight of the film to hear these women, now in their late 60s and 60s, recount their experiences as wily 20s flying under the radar of mobs and police .’It was a case where the ho underestimated women’s abilities. very good for us”, we say with a wry smile.)
At a time when an illegal abortion could cost between $500 and $1,000 (at the high end it’s over $7,000 today), the group adopted a pay-per-view model. This approach did not please an abortionist named Mike, who appears in the documentary as a giggling but compassionate character. And Mike, actually, wasn’t really a doctor; in the film, he admits to having a background in construction, a job which he said did not pay as well as performing abortions. When this fact leaked, some left the group, but for others it was clear. “If he can do it,” Arcana says in the film, “we can do it.”
Mike formed the Janes who wanted to learn, then left the group. With women now wielding the tools – shown and explained in the doc – the service exploded, at its peak, providing nearly 100 abortions a week. At this point, it was an open secret: The Janes served too many wives, daughters, and mistresses of cops, politicians, and judges to believe they were truly escaping notice.
Ultimately, it was a conservative family member of a patient who ordered the raid in May 1972. The film includes an interview with one of the police officers from that day, and it is strikingly l hear describe how no one in his unit… All Irish Catholics could have cared less about abortion. But he quickly goes from annoyance at the mission to confusion at the scene: “The women doing the abortions, that didn’t occur to me. They’re just…ladies.
When I spoke with Lessin and Pildes recently, I asked if the Supreme Court leak had changed the atmosphere at the screenings.
“It changed everything,” Pildes said. “It woke up a lot more people.” Two recent showings in Minneapolis had sold out, with a mood Lessin called “raucous.”
Pildes said the ending of the documentary hits her differently now. In the final moments of the film, the Janes are heard reminiscing about their reactions to the passage of deer. “It was a hallelujah,” said one. “Truly amazing,” said another. A third: “We were thrilled, and we thought it was over.”
“Watching this for the first time after the leak was devastating in a new way,” Pildes said. “Watching women talk about the relief they felt when deer past, that it was no longer going to be something they were responsible for. Some were 19 years old! So to sit there and watch them reminisce about that feeling, knowing that it’s about to be overthrown, was a new rage and sadness.