The Janes: ‘We thought it was over’

It opens with a woman’s voice and a black screen.

“I had no other options,” she says. “I wanted it over with.” Then you see her. White, gray-haired, maybe somewhere in her 70s. And she continues her story.

“I didn’t care how it was done. I was that desperate.” Someone gave her a phone number. “And it was the mob.” The gangsters talked in code. Did she want a Chevrolet ($500), a Cadillac ($750) or a Rolls Royce ($1,000)? “That’s what the mob charged for an abortion.”

She took the cheapest option, which brought her and another woman seeking an abortion to a motel room with three men and a woman in an unknown part of town. The mobsters, she recalls, “spoke all of three sentences to me the entire time: ‘Where’s the money?’ ‘Lie back and do as I tell you.’ ‘Get in the bathroom.’ ”

After it was done, the men disappeared. The women were left bleeding and alone.

Thus begins “The Janes,” an HBO documentary premiering this week about a network of ordinary women who provided abortions in Chicago back when doing so was a felony. Given that a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade is expected within days, it is hard to imagine when a film has ever been more timely.

If you’re unfamiliar with this story, filmmakers Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes are not surprised. Says Lessin, “I think it’s a story that most people will be hearing for the first time. Typically, women do get erased from history.”

“Women’s history is not told,” agrees Pildes. “Movies aren’t made about them, articles aren’t written, it’s not in the history books, it’s not taught in school, at least not in the same way. When you let women filmmakers into the equation, they reveal different stories.”

The story revealed here is of a time when women were infantilized — couldn’t get credit cards or serve on juries, needed to flash a wedding ring to buy contraceptives. And the woman who wound up with an unwanted pregnancy might find herself talking code with some gangster or attempting abortion via foreign object or carbolic acid.

Then, in underground newspapers and with tear-off strips on bulletin boards, there appeared an ad: “Pregnant? Need help? Call Jane” — a name chosen because none of the women in the group had it. As told in the movie, between 1968 and the Roe decision in 1973, The Janes facilitated an estimated 11,000 abortions, all while trying to dodge Chicago police.

You paid what you could. You were sent to an apartment the Janes dubbed “The Front,” where you were counseled. Then you were transported via zigzag routes to throw off police to “The Place,” where “Mike,” a doctor who wasn’t actually a doctor, performed the procedure.

Imagine having lived through that, only to find yourself facing a return to square one 50 years later. “I don’t think either of us like to put words in the Janes’ mouths,” says Pildes, “but hearing them talk about it, I think they’re full of rage and devastated. They know firsthand … what this country looks like when women don’t have the right to make decisions for themselves — how many women die, how many women are injured, how many women are scared.”

“The Janes” is a compelling history that feels like an ominous prophecy. In the painful serendipity of its timing, it reminds us that there is nothing quite so bitter and emotionally exhausting as defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. As one Jane says of the 1973 ruling, “We were thrilled and we thought it was over. Who knew what would follow?

“We thought we won.”

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.