“The Janes” is a straightforward, talking-heads documentary from HBO that provides a brief history of the Jane Collective, a clandestine abortion group working out of Chicago in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that protected a women’s right to an abortion, had not yet been handed down, meaning the procedure was illegal in most states, forcing women with unwanted pregnancies to turn to exploitative abortion providers (like the Mafia) or resort to dangerous methods to self-induce an abortion.
This situation — and the can-do spirit of the times, cultivated by the civil rights and women’s liberation movements — sparked the members of Jane into action.
The documentary, directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, relies primarily on testimonies from the Jane Collective’s women volunteers, tracing their efforts from the beginning — when the group was merely a referral service — to their final days contending with law enforcement.
Ultimately, the Jane Collective provided close to 11,000 abortions by the time Roe v. Wade came into effect, at which point the group ceased its activities. (Though the renewed push for restrictive abortion laws today, and reports of the present Supreme Court’s ruling on a case that could overturn Roe, casts a sense of bleak uncertainty over the film’s otherwise triumphant conclusion.)
Cookie-cutter though it is, “The Janes” does have something going for it: its interview subjects, the former Janes, who all speak about their beliefs and shared past with striking clarity. They remind us that their work — their commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of other women — was not really all that radical, but a measured, intelligent response to the inadequacies of a system that refused to fend for its own.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.