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The Janes Defied the Law, the Church and the Mob

Photo courtesy of HBO

Tia Lessen and Emma Pildes are the directors of the new HBO documentary The Janes. Tia is an Oscar nominee for her work on HBO's Troubled the Water and Emma is an Emmy nominee for HBO's Jane Fonda in Five Acts.

Their new film, The Janes, tells a story of a group of unlikely outlaws, defying the state legislature that outlawed abortion, the Catholic church that condemned it and the Chicago mob that was profiting from it. The members of The Janes risked their personal and professional lives to help women in the pre-Roe versus Wade era, a time when abortion was a crime in most states and even circulating information about abortion was a felony in Illinois. The Janes provided low cost and free abortions to an estimated 11,000women. A raid in which seven members of the collective were arrested, became the driving force for Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 and is inevitably going to be reversed in the United States in 2022.

Here’s an excerpt from our interview with Emma and Tia.

Passionistas: We'd like to begin by asking you both what you're most passionate about. Let's start with you Emma.

Emma Pildes: My skillset when I'm good at what I've worked hard to be good at being a filmmaker to lift up stories like these in moments like these, to give a platform for in this case, these extraordinary women to testify about things that are important.

I'm passionate about using my powers for good. I think this is what I'm saying, [00:02:00] but I mean, you know, that's it, we, we, there's so many things in this world that I can't do and I'm here and this is a path that I've chosen and I want to make something of it.

Passionistas: What about you, Tia?

Tia Lessin: I'm passionate about storytelling. I'm passionate about democracy and passionate about my 11 year old son and living with. A good world in the future. I'm passionate about women's rights and racial justice and economic equality. I'm passionate about making pottery, which is something I do when I'm not making films and making dinner for my kid.

Passionistas: Tell everybody who The Janes are.

Tia Lessin: The Janes are a group of infinitely resourceful women in the late sixties and early seventies. At a time when abortion was illegal and most of the country, they decided to challenge that they went underground. This was a group of pretty unlikely outlaws. They were college students and college dropouts and homemakers and clerical workers, and they knew that they wanted to use their resources and their time to save women's lives and to make safe and affordable abortions accessible to women in Chicago and actually women throughout the Midwest who flocked to them at that time who had few options when they wanted to end their pregnancies.

And one other thing I'll say is that they defied the Catholic church. They defied the Mob, they defied and invaded the Chicago police for many, many years and used all sorts of underground tactics and techniques. To build this sisterhood of care.

Passionistas: What compelled you to make the film? Why tell this story now?

Emma Pildes: Three years after Roe became law of the [00:04:00] land, the Hyde amendment passed. They've been chipping away at abortion access and abortion care and reproductive justice from the get-go. So I suppose in some way, anywhere along the way in the last few years, this film would have been important and relevant.

It certainly switched into hyperdrive in 2016 when Trump got into office and immediately started packing the courts and his rhetoric was all over the place and ideologues were more and more in government and in the courts, it got scary in a new way. And Daniel Arcana, one of the other producers on the film started developing, Daniel also happens to be my brother and we have a family connection to this story. So he sort of had this in his back pocket and it was pretty clear that now is the time I don't think he knew, or we knew as we came together quite how timely it was going to be. You know, I don't think we could have ever predicted that in the same month that we're premiering on HBO.

We are going to lose Roe. So I would not go so far as to say we got lucky with that, because that is certainly not the case. You know, we wanted to tell a historical tale because it seemed important. And to give these women a voice and it seemed important that it was starting to become relevant, but never could we have imagined that it would be quite so relevant, but we're just grateful to have something to contribute to the conversation. And we feel really fortunate and humble to tell these women's story.

Passionistas: What's the lesson that we can learn from the film in the midst of the current situation with Roe vs. Wade?

Tia Lessin: The remarkable thing about Roe vs. Wade is that it created federal protection for abortion. That means that every state had to subject career and other respect a woman's right to choose. And without Roe V Wade, as we see, you know, it's every woman for herself, your healthcare is dictated by your zip code and the state you live in and whether or not the people representing your state in the state legislature give a damn about women's autonomy and women's choice, or want to use that issue for politically.

So what's going to happen. What's clear. It's not a question of, if it's a question of when Roe V. Wade is overturned and it in this month is that large swaths of this country are gonna be without abortion care, like existed. pre-Roe only, in some ways there are much more punitive consequences for women and the providers who serve them.

People are subject to criminal prosecution. If they cross state lines for the spinach. Doctors potentially are subject to that prosecution for serving patients out of state. And everyday citizens are being incentivized with bounties to turn in their neighbors and friends and colleagues. If they suspect that person has had an abortion it's madness, none of those laws existed pre-Roe. In Ohio, there's a bill under consideration that prohibits abortion in cases of incest and rape, because the legislator who defended it says, you know, there's, there's always contraception in the case of rape and incest. Anyway. So in the context, I think we're hoping that the story helps to pass on some of the lessons learned from that era and engage audiences in the fight.

Hear the full interview Tia and Emma.

Watch “The Janes” on HBO and HBO Max.


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