Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane. So says the flyer pasted to the side of a mailbox in downtown Chicago. Joy sees it after she stumbles out of a creepy-looking back-alley abortion clinic, unable to go through with the procedure. The year is 1969.
This is a feature film, not a documentary, but “The Jane Collective” was a real underground organization that helped women get safe abortions—and the all-important aftercare. (A documentary The Janes was released by HBO in June.)
Joy (a terrific Elizabeth Banks) is happily married to Will, who’s just made partner at his law firm, and they have a fifteen-year-old daughter, Charlotte. Joy is a traditional stay-at-home mom but sometimes edits her husband’s law briefs because, as he tells her, “You make me sound like Clarence Darrow.” Joy is very happy to be expecting a second child, until she develops congestive heart failure and the only way to reverse it is through “therapeutic termination” of the pregnancy. Barring that, she has a 50/50 chance of survival. Her doctor says she’ll need hospital board approval to terminate. She goes to the meeting bearing a tray of homemade cookies. The all-male board treats her as if she isn’t there. When they are told she might have a 50/50 chance of survival, that’s good enough for them. “Is there any number that would sway you?” Joy asks, but her question falls on deaf ears.
At home, Joy tells her husband she’s not ready to die. She still has much she wants to accomplish, including being there for Charlotte. Her husband, although upset, doesn’t have any answers. He’s always been a rule-follower.
Joy’s doctor tells her there’s another option: convince two psychiatrists she’s suicidal. Yes, she can do that, she tells him, but one of the psychiatrists doesn’t believe her. Plan B is to fall down a staircase. “It worked for me,” the receptionist at a doctor’s office tells her. Joy can’t quite bring herself to do that, which is how she ends up at a back-alley abortion clinic, unbeknownst to Will, and ultimately—unbeknownst to Will—calls Jane.
The real Jane Collective started up in 1969, when abortion was generally illegal in all but four states. This volunteer network consisted of working women, stay-at-home moms, and students, some of whom had used the service themselves and joined the cause. In the movie, Joy joins the cause and trains herself to do the procedure. “You could have been a nurse,” the abortion doctor tells her after she performs her first procedure. “I could have been a doctor,” she replies.
In May 1972, the Janes were raided by a Chicago homicide detective who came looking for the abortion doctor but found only women. As in the movie, some of the real Janes had trained themselves to do the procedure after discovering that a doctor they’d hired was actually only a medic who’d served in the Korean War. This enabled them to provide more abortions at a much lower cost or even for free. In the beginning, most of the women who came to them were affluent. Later on, many poorer women sought them out. Seven Janes spent a night in jail and were still awaiting trial eight months later when their case was thrown out because the Supreme Court had decided Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal in all fifty states. In any case, the women had proven hard to prosecute. On the way to jail, they’d swallowed their ‘clients’ names/addresses ripped off index cards; additionally, the DA couldn’t find anybody who wanted to testify against the Janes—they’d performed about 11,000 abortions without a single fatality.
In the film, the leader of the pack is Virginia (Sigourney Weaver, also terrific), an older woman who’s fought for causes all her life. In real life, the founder was a student at the University of Chicago who helped an almost-suicidal friend obtain an abortion. Not long after, another woman called. Then another, and another and . . . Overwhelmed, she conceived the idea for the Jane Collective in her dorm room. At the time, Cook County Hospital in Chicago had a septic abortion ward that was always full of women who’d had botched abortions–as did many hospitals across the country.
Despite the subject matter, Call Jane is an entertaining film. It’s a drama filled with some funny moments (just like any real life) and it doesn’t feel preachy. Joy is a conservative and extremely likeable character, and she initially tells Virginia she disapproves of what the collective is doing after she meets a young woman who seems to be using the service as birth control—her married boss keeps footing the bill.
The movie finished filming last year, well before the Supreme Court decision in June that overturned Roe v. Wade. If I’d seen a movie like this a few years ago, I would have thought, wow, what an amazing thing these women did, and thank goodness the sneaking around is over and all women have access to a safe procedure if they need one. There are those who disagree, those who believe the life of a fetus is as important—or more important—than the life of the mother.
My hope is that many people from both sides will see this film and discuss it. Reasonable minds can disagree and still agree on ways to see another’s point of view and compromise. Sex isn’t going away; unplanned or unwanted pregnancies are inevitable, even with birth control; medical emergencies sometimes threaten the life of a pregnant mother; rape and incest are as old as mankind.
As a woman and citizen of the United States living in the 21st century, what I find totally unacceptable is that a woman’s right to an abortion—or not—is now a decision left to each state. It means that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not equal for all women in these United States of America.