Comment: What ‘The Janes’ hope to remind women under 50

A new documentary describes the struggle for access to abortions before Roe v. Wade.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

This documentary was supposed to be about history, a look at the past.

Now? It’s current events.

Centered on the bold, desperate actions of women who lived before abortion laws were on their side, “The Janes” tracks an underground network created in the late 1960s to help women avoid back alleys, coat hangers and the mob to get safe, affordable abortions.

The film debuts at the Sundance Film Festival this week as the U.S. Supreme Court looks at potentially reversing abortion rights before the Roe v. Wade decision becomes 50 years old.

Already, women in America are crossing state lines and reaching quiet networks to navigate our nation’s narrowing channels to legal abortions.

And that reality isn’t too different from the past that Heather Booth, a longtime organizer and founder of the Jane Collective who has lived in Washington, D.C. for decades, describes in the documentary.

“A friend of mine was raped at knifepoint, in her bed in off-campus housing,” Booth said of the incident that rocketed her into activism for women in 1965. “I went with her to student health. She was given a lecture on promiscuity.”

Booth and the other Janes bring us back to what campus life in Chicago looked like in the 1960s and early ’70s, when women had to be married to get birth control and paid the mob for dangerous and frequently lethal motel-room abortions.

The group found compassionate doctors who would work with frightened women. They provided counseling and helped fund the procedures and travel expenses. Eventually, some of the Janes learned to perform abortions, dropping the price from $500 to $100. They found a lab that would analyze Pap smears for $4. All a woman had to do was call a number and ask for “Jane.” They helped more than 11,000 women, many of whom were low-income and women of color.

“Almost everything I do now,” Booth said, “is with those women in mind.”

Many of them kept the stories of the clandestine network they built to themselves.

But now, as women’s rights are being chipped away in state legislatures in a backlash against Roe v. Wade, they’re speaking out to tell women — especially those under 50 — who never lived in a world where a government could force them to bear a child; what that looks like.

Today, most abortions are banned in Texas after six weeks. The 6-to-3 conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing the constitutionality of a Mississippi ban on abortion after 15 weeks. That may determine the future of Roe.

“The backlash against this decision is a backlash against democracy,” Booth said when we spoke over the weekend, on the 49th anniversary of Roe. “It’s a backlash against the way of life we’ve been building. There’s a general threat to that right now.”

Tia Lessin, one of the film’s directors, who is a friend of mine, learned of that threat when she was pretty young.

Lessin was one of those D.C. kids whose parents worked for the federal government, whose dinner table conversations were all about politics and whose youthful escapades included an arrest at an abortion rights protest in 1989.

When a contemporary of hers who was also born and raised in the D.C. area — Brett Kavanaugh — was nominated by President Trump to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, she knew what her next documentary would be.

No more travel to Iraq or wading through the mud of Louisiana hurricanes. This struggle for human rights was in her hometown, at the Supreme Court.

“This has been a fight,” Lessin said. “And this will continue to be a fight.”

The documentary is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week. The in-person festival was canceled and all the premiers will be online, reducing the glitz but perhaps increasing the reach of a message far bigger than the fight for abortion rights.

Freedom isn’t won with a single war, a signature, a bill or an election.

Booth began her activism with optimism, traveling to Mississippi in 1964 to advocate for voting rights and seeing the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.

Yet here we are, 57 years later, still debating voting rights on Capitol Hill.

Antisemitism didn’t end with the fall of the Third Reich.

Racism didn’t disappear with the election of a Black president.

Equal representation wasn’t guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act.

And women didn’t gain control of their bodies and futures with the Roe v. Wade decision.

“Freedom is a constant struggle,” Booth said. It goes on.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts. Follow her on Twitter @petludad.

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