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Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes wish their new HBO documentary, The Janes—about a group of Chicago women who covertly helped thousands safely obtain abortions in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the procedure was still illegal—was not so timely.
But the film premieres on HBO Wednesday—just as the Supreme Court is likely poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, along with the constitutional right to abortion that it recognized.
“Never could we have predicted that this film would be coming out probably the very month that Roe is overturned,” Lessin told Vanity Fair in an interview this week.
The making of the film was surreal enough. The documentarians learned about the dangers women faced when abortion was criminal 50 years ago, even as current-day politicians were fighting to criminalize the procedure again.
“It was deeply upsetting, because you become so hyperaware of what’s likely to happen—what will almost certainly happen—when abortion’s criminalized again and not federally protected,” says Pildes. “How many people are going to die? How many spirits are going to be crushed? How many women are left alone?”
Lessin was shocked to learn that illegal abortion-related complications were so common before Roe v. Wade that “all over the country, there were entire wards in hospitals devoted to caring for women who had botched abortions, either self-induced or back-alley. They came in with infections, with injuries. Some of them were damaged beyond repair. Some of the women were sterilized without consent and countless women died. We know that.”
The filmmakers heard the testimony of former Cook County Hospital employees who attempted to care for these women.
“They can vividly recall the feelings they had when there was nothing they could do to save women, and just for a simple medical procedure that, done under safe conditions, is safer than a colonoscopy or a tonsillectomy,” says Lessin. “Within a year of the Roe V. Wade decision, those wards for septic abortions were closed. They weren’t needed anymore because women were able to find safe procedures.” Now that Roe V. Wade is again in peril, Lessin wonders, “Are we going to start seeing those wards in cities around the country again?”
The Janes chronicles how women formed and ran an underground network from 1968 to 1973, helping other women in Chicago safely obtain the procedure in an era when some were dangerously attempting it on themselves, with no safety precautions or guarantee of survival. In the documentary, the Jane founder Heather Booth and members of the organization like Judith Arcana find themselves in the bizarre déjà vu situation of battling for women’s rights all over again—this time by recounting their experiences running the covert operation on camera.
“I do think that they saw this as a second call to action, a follow-up to the work that they did in the ’60s and the ’70s,” says Pildes. “Certainly different work, but they understood the value of testifying to what this country looks like when women don’t have a right to choose. And they’re in a unique position to speak to the intricacies of that.”
What’s troubling about the present-day attack on women’s rights, points out Lessin, is the fact that “the laws right now that are on the books or being proposed are even more punitive and harsher than the laws that existed when the Janes were organized.” In Texas, for example, if Roe is overturned, anyone who performs, induces, or attempts an abortion where “an unborn child dies as a result of the offense” is guilty of a first-degree felony—punishable by up to life in prison and up to a $10,000 fine—under the state’s trigger ban.
That said, the landscape around this modern battle for women’s rights does look different than it did 50 years ago.