Co-directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ engaging documentary The Janes (2022), draws attention to events that should be remembered for the courage shown by a clandestine group of American women. Between 1968 and 1973, a network known as “Jane” [The Jane Collective / the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation] helped 11,000 women secure safe, affordable, illegal abortions.
What’s remarkable, is using discreet tactics including code names and safe houses, they were able to successfully evade the attention of the Chicago Police Department, until a fateful police raid on an apartment in the spring of 1971. The seven women arrested and charged only escaped imprisonment thanks to the U.S Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, protecting a woman’s right to an abortion.
Not everyone sees the ruling as progressive, and progress for one person might be another’s regression of moral, ethical, and cultural values. The film is timely because of the current rise of conservatism in the US, and the continued support for the ruling to be rescinded. As recently as December 2021, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court agreed to hear a case out of the state of Mississippi that had the potential to undermine the integrity of the original ruling, as reported by The New York Times’ Adam Liptak.
Direct and engaging, Lessin and Pildes are open to the broader conversation that goes beyond documenting the network’s subversive actions. They address gender politics, the moral legitimacy of the law, the overreach of religion, and the high price activists pay in their pursuit of subversive actions.
Former member Katie remembers her experience as, “an outrageous undertaking by a lot of smart women.” She talks about how they avoided the attention of the Mafia and the Police Department. Indeed, what became useful to the clandestine operation was that the authorities underestimated the women’s determination and abilities. The Janes is empowering documentation of women’s ingenuity that chronicles an important period in the women’s rights movement. Their work must be remembered lest, per the cliché, we forget the past and we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes. Hearing first-hand accounts of the ordeals experienced by women deprived of legal abortions, we’re reminded that we must not allow conservatism to drag social progress back into the shadows.
Roe v. Wade emphasises the success of the legal process, and yet the collective challenges the legitimacy of the law. Legal institutions need to be scrutinised because they’re formed by values that shift with time. Furthermore, communal moral rules, running parallel to personal ethics, are shaped by cultural, social, political, and spiritual determinants. Laws can both victimise and champion social justice. The Supreme Court is in a recurring cycle of dominating between left and right, liberal and conservative-leaning justices.
Who are the laws made by, and who do they serve? Do they have rational integrity, or are they biased towards an ideology? If the influence of lawmakers and the political establishment is rooted in conservative religion, then are women victims of patriarchy with God as a figurehead? If so, it’s an intrusion upon the law by religious ideology and core values.
One of the ironies of the “American experiment “is the Founding Father’s attempt to separate church from state, yet to this day the two remain bound together. This is not unique to America – people across the world are in a struggle to separate from religion and have independent ethical agency. An insightful critique in the documentary comes from the Rev. Donna Schaper, of the Clergy Consultation Service, who says, “[Abortion is] not a theological argument. It’s a put-up job. I’ve had two abortions, and I felt God was with me, at my side in all of these choices… that it was a God-given decision. To exclude women from ethical agency… [sighs] Excludes us from humanity. And it turns us into powerless sinners against our own selves. And you can’t have that.”
Rev. Schaper’s relationship with religion leads the discussion away from an adversarial one to suggest that religion and faith do not oppose the ethical choices about abortion that a woman makes, but is part of her support network. The Janes either encourage or compels the audience to think about the social and cultural, emotional, and intellectual role of religion and the law, as a means to empower instead of denying people free will. This feeds into the discourse on religion and law as mechanised systems of guilt and shame.
Institutions, legal and social structures should not be regarded as sacred but as works in progress. The pursuit of progress is a collaboration between structures of authority and citizens, to recognise and root out what Heather Booth – a Jane member who supported the Mississippi voting reform protests – describes as “illegitimate authority”. She says, “I learned that sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority and sometimes there are unjust laws that need to be changed.” Meanwhile, Jane a former member says, “As far as society was concerned, we were scumbags. But we didn’t feel that way. We felt we were doing the right thing. Not only was there a need, but there was a philosophical obligation on our part, on somebody’s part, to disrespect a law that disrespected women.”
Lessin and Pildes diligently leave the audience with a reminder of the personal toll of actively challenging illegitimate laws and authority. We witness the burdens these courageous women shouldered to fulfil their calling which, between 1968 and 1973, helped 11,000 women secure safe, affordable, illegal abortions. The Janes makes clear that any noble act of protest or activism comes with risk and sacrifice. We can only hope that US Supreme Court will not be foolish enough to repeal Roe v. Wade.