Judith Arcana was 27 and recently separated from her husband when she began secretly driving women for safe – but illegal – abortions. It was 1970, she was an unemployed teacher on the south side of Chicago, and she spent her days guiding women in need.
“I don’t think we were crazy,” said Arcana, now 78. “I don’t think we were stupid. I think we found something so important, so useful in the lives of women and girls.”
“We’ve been radicalized on women’s bodies,” she said. “We knew what we were doing was good work in the world. And we knew it was illegal.”
Arcana was part of the Jane Collective, a disparate, rotating group of women that provided safe abortions for thousands of women in Chicago between 1968 and 1973. Despite the law, women still had abortions performed. But they often performed them on themselves and ended up in the hospital, or paid the mob with no guarantee of survival.
During these years, because of Arcana and other women, if you lived in Chicago and needed help, you could call a number and talk to a woman who would offer a safer alternative. Members of the collective gave advice and arranged the procedures, which they eventually carried out – a total of 11,000 during that period. But in 1972, Arcana and six other members of the group were arrested, each charged with 11 counts of abortion or conspiracy to commit an abortion with a possible prison sentence of 10 years on each charge. Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling saved them all.
Now, nearly 50 years later, members of the collective are sharing their stories in a few films at the Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday: the HBO documentary “The Janes”; and a fictional account called “Call Jane,” starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, and seeking distribution.
The films debut at a particularly pivotal moment for abortion rights. The Supreme Court heard disputes in December over the legality of a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks; is expected to make a decision this summer. If the court upholds the law, the ruling would conflict with Roe v. Wade, which declared abortion a constitutional right and banned states from banning the procedure before fetal viability (23 weeks).
Sundance’s filmmakers make no secret of their support for abortion rights, but say they want their work to show the complexity of the subject.
In ‘Call Jane’, Banks plays Joy, a mother and housewife who seeks an illegal abortion after learning that her pregnancy is life-threatening. The film’s director, Phyllis Nagy (whose credits include the screenplay for “Carol”), said she wished she could show it to conservative Supreme Court justices. “I’d sit there and say, ‘Now, talk to me,’ and it probably wouldn’t make a difference,” she said. “But artists need to start having the kind of political conversations with society that aren’t didactic,” she added. “Nothing else has worked.”
The creators of “The Janes” hope that people of different views will give themselves a glimpse into life before Roe v. Wade. “This is a glimpse of history; I don’t think it’s a plea movie,” said Tia Lessin, who directed with Emma Pildes, whose father was married to Arcana. Arcana’s son, Daniel, is a producer on the film. Lessin added, “It’s a true story of what happened and the efforts women have made to have abortions and to enable other women to have abortions.”
“I hope people’s takeaway will be ‘let’s not go back there’? Certainly. But I really hope it encourages people to engage in conversation. I love the movie, hate the movie,” she said before Pildes intervened: “Talk about the matter.”
And there is plenty to discuss.
The Jane Collective was formed when a college student, Heather Booth, now 76, received a desperate call from a friend seeking an abortion. Booth, active in the civil rights movement, found a doctor willing to help and passed on the information. “I made what I thought was a one-time appointment,” she said in an interview. Soon another woman called. Then another. Booth found herself negotiating fees and learning the intricacies of procedure so she could mentor women. After a few years, Booth, then a mother working on her degree at the University of Chicago, recruited others to meet the growing need.
“I worked full time. The number of phone calls increased. It was definitely too much for one person,” she added.
Marie Leaner, now 80, was raised Roman Catholic and taught that abortion was a sin. At a community center on the west side of Chicago, she ran a program for teenage mothers. “I just hated that these women wouldn’t carry the babies, but they felt it was their punishment for being in love or being sexually involved with someone,” she recalls. “I decided I wanted to do something about it.”
She offered her apartment for the procedures and occasionally held hands with the women who passed by. As one of the few black women in the group, she said, “I knew black and brown people wouldn’t participate in the service if they didn’t see themselves involved.”
The state of abortion in the US
Even all these years later, Arcana can still see the face of a 16-year-old girl who came to her home with her two friends and asked Arcana for help. She was already five months pregnant and Arcana performed the procedure on the floor of her living room. She stayed with the girl all day and then drove her home.
“She said to me, ‘But I want you to stop two blocks away from where I live, then I’ll go outside,'” Arcana recalled. “She touched my shoulder and said, ‘Because you know,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I do. Yes I do.’ I let her out on that corner, and she went home to her parents. I have no idea what she said to them, but I will always remember that goodbye.”
The story of the Janes has been told before – in the 1995 book ‘The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service’, by Laura Kaplan; and in two film screened at festivals, “Jane: An Abortion Service”, a 1995 documentary, and the fictional “Ask for Jane” (2018) with Arcana as the advisory producer.
Arcana was surprised that Sundance chose to screen both new films. It seemed an obvious choice for the festival organizers. “We felt like the two were sort of talking to each other,” said Kim Yutani, the program director, who also selected the French film “Happening,” an adaptation of memoirist Annie Ernaux’s book about her own illegal abortion. in France In the 1960s.
The “presence of the films in our program is more indicative of a moment in society than any programming team agenda,” said Sundance director Tabitha Jackson. “If a statement has to be made, it is the timeless statement of ‘we follow the artists’.”
Nagy’s approach feels more personal. The principal wasn’t interested in anything resembling homework or what she called “a lofty after-school special.” In her film, Joy spends less time battling the system and more time battling her circumstances as a married college graduate whose life has been reduced to the household chores expected of a mother and wife.
Still, Nagy doesn’t shy away from the rough details of abortion. The first 40 minutes of the film are devoted to Joy’s fruitless quest to get his hands on one, with a further 10 devoted to the procedure itself.
“I was much more concerned with getting the medical facts right,” said Nagy, who didn’t meet any of the Janes, but did consult a man who was performing abortions at the time. (The film’s screenwriters, Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, shared early concepts with Arcana.) “You have to spend that time, I think, so that people get to know her. But more importantly, to know that this puts women through the wringer. This is not something you can easily look away from.”