In the 60s and 70s, a group of women in Chicago ran a vital underground abortion service. Now, with reproductive healthcare under serious threat in the US, their story is being told in a powerful new HBO documentary.
When Roe v Wade, the landmark ruling legalising abortion in the US, was passed in 1973, women’s reproductive rights took a monumental step forward. For the first time, women across America no longer had to fear that an unwanted pregnancy would jeopardise their futures.
But hard-won freedoms can never be taken for granted. Right now, a leaked majority opinion suggests that the US Supreme Court may soon overturn the historic ruling, turning the clock back 50 years on women’s reproductive rights. Were this to happen, 26 states could move to ban abortion, including 13 with laws that would go into immediate effect.
There could be no better time, then, to revisit the reality of what life was like for women when abortion was illegal, and a powerful new HBO documentary is about to do just that.
The Janes, which debuts on 8 June, tells the story of a determined group of abortion activists in the pre-Roe v Wade era, who started a trailblazing network known as the Jane Collective. Together, the women ran an underground organisation providing safe, affordable but illegal abortion services in Chicago in the 60s and early 70s, until they were raided by the Chicago Police Department in 1972 and seven women were arrested.
The raid became the driving force for Roe v Wade, which finally legalised abortion nationwide in 1973.
In the new trailer for the documentary, many of the women who participated in the network speak out for the first time about their efforts to help desperate women in need.
“We were ordinary women trying to save women’s lives; but, we were criminals,” a member of The Janes declares at the start of the trailer. “We were felons.”
The trailer details the discrimination unmarried pregnant women faced during the era, as well as the harrowing casualties experienced by frightened women who had attempted to perform their own abortions.
We also get a revelatory look at how members of the collective began their underground operation, distributing phone numbers with the name Jane on bulletin boards around Chicago.
“Jane was an outrageous undertaking by a lot of smart women,” one member defiantly declares.
The trailer also explains how the collective was operating “under the radar of the Chicago Mafia and the police department”, and how members were under constant surveillance. When the women were finally arrested, they faced 110 years each in prison for conspiracy to commit abortion.
“We were building a new world, one woman at a time,” one members recalls.
“Sometimes you have to stand up to legitimate authority,” another adds. “And sometimes there are unjust laws that need to be challenged.”
At a time when even circulating information about abortion was a felony, the Jane collective helped around 11,000 women receive affordable or free abortions.
In an interview with Variety, Emmy-nominated filmmaker Emma Pildes said she hoped the documentary would inspire the next generation to fight for reproductive freedoms.
“We want young women and men to see this film and hear these women’s stories,” she explained. “They tell you what this country looks like when women don’t have the right to make this decision for themselves in vivid detail. That’s a pretty powerful thing.
“We hope that it contributes to the conversation and gives some clarity and some humanity to the human beings who are going to suffer and die because of these (new) laws.”
The Janes will premiere on HBO on 8 June 2022, and will also be available to stream on HBO Max.
Images: HBO; Sundance Institute
Christobel Hastings is Stylist's Entertainment Editor whose specialist interests include pop culture, LGBTQ+ identity and lore.