2 upcoming films look back at the Jane Collective, the South Side’s underground abortion provider in the ’70s
A documentary and a dramatic film starring Elizabeth Banks premiered at the recent Sundance Film Festival.
As we draw near the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — and its possible reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court — two upcoming films are highlighting the true story of a small band of Chicago activists who risked everything to ensure abortions that were safe, affordable and illegal.
In 1969 on the South Side, a group of women called The Jane Collective covertly organized to provide some 11,000 illegal abortions over a four-year period. The film “Call Jane” is a drama about the collective directed by “Carol” screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, while “The Janes” is a documentary co-directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes.
Roadside Attractions’ “Call Jane,” which has no release date yet, was shot in Hartford, Connecticut. Elizabeth Banks plays Joy Griffin, a housewife who discovers she is suffering from a serious health condition that will likely kill her — unless she terminates her pregnancy. Her husband pleads with the hospital board of stuffed-shirts, to no avail: They deny the procedure.
Desperate to save her own life, she stumbles across a telephone number on a lightpost sign that reads: “Pregnant? Need Help? Call Jane.”
Enter Sigourney Weaver, playing Virginia, leader of a team of hippie-dippy feminists who swoop in and get to work while wearing fabulous outfits and driving even more fabulous vintage cars. Joy quickly becomes swept up in the covert operation, where Virginia goads her into standing up for her beliefs. Another Jane Collective member, played by Wunmi Mosaku, illustrates some of the complex challenges that Black women faced (and still face) coordinating social justice actions in white feminist spaces.
During a Q&A last month at the Sundance Film Festival, where “Call Jane” had its world premiere, Banks reflected on becoming inspired while playing Joy, who jumped in headfirst to a life of activism.
She’s a mom and a wife who has an epiphany about all of the things she could do with her life,” Banks said. “She didn’t have one ounce of regret.”
In addition to entertaining, “Call Jane” aspires to be a call to action.
“It’s about women rescuing other women from hopelessness and danger,” Weaver said, “and, having lived through that time, believe me, we do not want to go back to it.”
Though based on true events, the film takes some liberties. For example, Joy’s husband is portrayed as being reluctantly supportive of his wife’s involvement. In reality, most Jane spouses were extremely supportive.
For those seeking a little less Hollywood and a lot more facts, there’s the documentary “The Janes,” coming to HBO and HBO Max later this year. Co-directors and Sundance Film Festival alumni Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes have compiled a narrative from interviews with the original Janes and never-before-seen archival footage.
One particularly sobering bit of film comes from Cook County Hospital’s Septic Abortion Ward, where 15 to 20 women were brought daily from botched, self-inflicted abortions that had become infected. Poor, Black, Brown and rural women were disproportionately affected.
Dr Allen Weiland, an OB-GYN there at the time, recalls, “I called the morgue every week because somebody had died.”
At the time, illegal abortions were available largely through organized crime, and the cost ranged from $500 to $1,000. Birth control was rare and available only to married women. Pregnant women were regularly pushed out of the workforce.
Women came to the Jane Collecting from a variety of backgrounds, yet the Janes vowed to never judge a woman or her circumstances. Heather Booth, one of the original Janes, says in the film, “Sometimes, there are unjust laws that need to be challenged.”
When it began, the Jane Collective employed activist Dr. T.R.M. Howard — who was instrumental in the Emmet Till case — to conduct the abortions, until he was arrested.
The Janes then turned to an ex-construction worker who was posing as a doctor, “Mike.” Interviewed about the career change, he says, “It was a step up for me.”
It wasn’t long before the women of Jane realized that not only could they learn to safely perform the procedure themselves, but they could help many more women. They never lost a single life. Over time, many Chicago doctors would quietly refer patients to Jane when their own hospitals refused to help.
Judy, a former Jane, spoke about her decision to break the law to save lives: “We had an obligation to disrespect a disrespectful law that disrespects women.”