In 1969, when abortion was illegal in Illinois, an underground operation sprang up in Chicago. Officially called the Abortion Counseling Service or Women’s Liberation, it came to be known as the Jane Network because women wishing to have an abortion were told to call a number and “ask for Jane.” When I watched ‘The Janes’, an HBO documentary about the service, I was struck by the vibrancy of the story. Though the women behind Jane worked under stress to give covert abortions to desperate and terrified women, the film has a kick to it. There are weed jokes and anti-surveillance shenanigans and a soundtrack fit for a mod spy movie. As the Janes evade the church, the mob and the police to facilitate some 11,000 clandestine abortions, they emerge from anonymity as the stars of a new genre: the abortion hairdresser.
“The Janes” ends with Roe v. Wade uttered in 1973. Within weeks of the documentary’s release, the Supreme Court had quashed Roe, making the film even more essential — not just as a roadmap for modern civil disobedience, but as a testament to the kind of complex, unruly abortion stories that are now also in jeopardy. In recent weeks, as I waited for the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision to expire, I compulsively searched for such stories, as if the ruling might grab them too. In addition to “The Janes,” I watched the French film “Happening,” about a college student who wanted to have an illegal abortion in France in 1963, and “Oh God, a Show About Abortion,” comedian Alison Leiby’s one-woman show about ending a pregnancy at Planned Parenthood at age 35.
The effort to control abortion has also had the effect of suppressing the stories we tell about it. Women seeking abortions are silenced by abortion bans, anonymized in court and moralized across the screen. It’s striking how often abortion is glossed over in movies, presented as a quickly discarded option (as in “Juno”) or averted with a spontaneous miscarriage (“Citizen Ruth”) or deployed to ease another character’s arc (“Dirty Dancing”) or fully euphemized (“Knocked Up,” where it’s only referred to as “rhymes with smashmorshion.”)
When abortion stories aren’t stifled by shame, they can be celebrated as an act of courage to speak out — a tradition that has created its own clichés, as stories of abortion are smoothed over into politically palatable forms, molding the patient as suitably desperate. and her story is only reluctantly revealed. Women were made to trade their stories for their rights. In the documentary, a Jane member recalls women calling the service and listing their reasons for needing an abortion, but would assure them it wasn’t necessary: ”We would really try to get them to understand – they didn’t need themselves unjustifiable. †
What does an abortion story look like without justification? Abortion is a common procedure (one in four American women will have one, according to the Guttmacher Institute) that has been so flattened into a “problem” that it can be revealing to simply rearrange abortion as an experience, one that can unlock unexpected insights. in women’s private lives. When “The Janes” makes abortion a joke, “Happening” turns it into a hero’s journey and “Oh God” turns it into a farce. Together, these works suggest that abortion is worth talking about, because women’s lives are interesting in their own right.
“Happening” follows Anne, a literature student who becomes pregnant and wants an illegal abortion while studying for final exams. While Anne is sabotaged by her doctors, shunned by her peers and attacked by men, she sees her life potential shrinking every week. And as she pursues increasingly dangerous methods to terminate the pregnancy, she risks death to fight for her future as a writer. “I would like a child someday, but not instead of a life,” she tells a useless doctor.
The plot of ‘Happening’ is not driven by Anne’s harrowing victimization, but by her unwavering determination. When a doctor offers her compassion instead of help, she refuses to leave his office. “So help me,” she demands. A great action hero, she endures physical trials while outsmarting her opponents. She tries to force her community to recognize her humanity through the veil of crime and the taboo of abortion.
Anne eventually goes to an underground abortionist, but the procedure doesn’t work, so she undergoes another, more risky surgery that could kill her or send her to the hospital, which could be her last stop before prison. She has convulsions over a dorm toilet, but the scene plays less of body horror than a feat of strength. When one of her bullies encounters her in the stable, Anne amusingly involves her in the event and instructs her to grab a pair of scissors and cut through the bloody tissue cutting off her body. The existence of “Happening” confirms its triumph: it is based on a 2000 memoir by the writer Annie Ernaux.
Such horrors await Alison Leiby in “Oh God, a Show About Abortion,” whose self-described “simple and frictionless” abortion is worth investigating, especially because it’s a funny story. The 70-minute monologue opens with a surprising joke – “My mom texted me, ‘Kill it tonight!’ and I’m like, I already did, that’s why the show exists!-that feels made to immediately disarm the taboo on abortion.Then the show rolls through the experience itself, from the moment Leiby awkwardly pees into a glass cup in a Courtyard by Marriott to first-trimester proceedings that she secures at a Planned Parenthood facility across the street from a high-end maternity store (“Whose’s that?” she jokes. “Mike Pence?”)
Even before Roe’s turnaround, Leiby acknowledged that she was lucky and that most women seeking abortions “don’t walk into Planned Parenthood in a Lululemon outfit and then take an Uber home.” Towards the end of the play, when her mother tells her she was forced to go to the mafia for an illegal abortion in the 1960s, Leiby hesitates to share her own experience. “I didn’t want to seem boastful, like, A doctor did mine,she jokes.
Leiby doesn’t complain about her own privilege, and her story gains momentum from that choice. Her abortion decision continues to be met with much patriarchal condescension and shame. But she resists the pressure to be sad about her pregnancy ending, and she refuses to apologize for her right to do it safely and legally. “I thought for the next few days or months I would be staring out the window like I was in a commercial for depression drugs,” she says. Instead, she walks out of the clinic feeling “a little impressed.”
I attended Leiby’s show in New York this month while visibly pregnant. While my bulging body now inspires lavish congratulations from strangers, my own feelings about my pregnancy were tumultuous, and it was invigorating to step into an environment where the condition was not immediately culturally confirmed.
Much of Leiby’s story revolves around her choice not to raise children — there’s an interlude about perineal tears — and while her abortion is much easier to insure than Annie Ernaux’s, the stakes haven’t been lowered. Leiby wants to continue her career and avoid the “painful, exhausting and scary” aspects of parenthood, but she also just wants to be recognized as a fully grown human on her own terms, not as a problem that only a baby can solve.
Also ‘The Janes’ is a story about women who claim their potential, although the members of the Jane network fulfill their potential not by having abortions, but by giving them. When they discover that their abortionist, “Mike,” is not a doctor, but simply a man who has learned how to perform a dilation and curettage (a procedure known as a D and C), they refuse to close the service. Instead, they’re starting to perform abortions themselves, largely for free, no Mikes needed. They learn to take responsibility, not only for their own lives, but also for that of others. In turn, they are driven to “share that sense of personal power with women,” as one member puts it. “We wanted every woman who contacted us to be the hero of her own story.”
These abortion stories represent only part of the experience (to begin with, they largely feature white women), and they have arrived at a time when the telling of abortion stories risks being sifted even further. Even if a patient doesn’t make her abortion public, digital surveillance threatens to tell the story for her, through Google searches, menstrual app data, and location tracking. (Such tools have already been used in criminal prosecutions).
Stories that do emerge will often be molded to withstand political pressure. Last fall, when Representative Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat, first spoke publicly about rape at a church camp when she was 17 and an abortion at age 18, she did so in support of legislation codifying Roe. “It felt like something was pressing on me,” she said of the demands of her testimony, adding, “Whatever I say, it must produce.”
The decision in Dobbs tells a story of its own about women considering abortion. The court’s imaginary modern pregnant woman can achieve full self-realization while carrying out her pregnancy, with the help of anti-discrimination laws, state-mandated parental leave, and health insurance. “Now you have the chance to be what you want to be,” Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch said in an interview about the case. “You have the opportunity in life to really achieve your dream and goals, and you can have those beautiful children too.”
This woman can have anything, except she can’t have an abortion, and she can’t have a story either. It is a straw man – useful only when it has been stripped of its subjectivity and stripped of all substance.