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Judith Arcana was 27 years old and recently separated from her husband when she began stealthily driving women for safe – but illegal – abortions. In 1970, she was an unemployed teacher on the South Side of Chicago, and she spent her days counseling women in need.
“I don’t think we were crazy,” said Arcana, now 78. “I don’t think we were stupid. I think we have found something very important, very useful in the lives of women and girls.”
“We have radicalized in the area of the female body,” she said. “We know that what we are doing is good work in the world. And we know that’s illegal. ”
Arcana was part of the Jane Collective, a disparate group of women that alternated providing safe abortions to thousands of women in Chicago from 1968 to 1973. Despite the law, women still got abortions. But they often perform them themselves and curl up in the hospital, or pay off the mobs with no guarantee of survival.
During these years, for Arcana and other women, if you live in Chicago and need help, you can call a number and speak to a woman who will offer a safer alternative. . Members of the collective advised and arranged the procedure, which they ultimately did – 11,000 in all in that time. But then in 1972, Arcana and six other members of the group were arrested, each charged with 11 counts of abortion or conspiracy to have an abortion, with sentences of 10 years each. Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision issued in 1973, saved it all.
Now, nearly 50 years later, members of the collective are sharing their stories in a pair of films at the Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday: the HBO documentary “The Janes”; and a fictitious account called “Call Jane,” starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, and is looking for distribution.
The movies are coming out at a particularly critical time for abortion rights. Supreme Court heard the debate in December about the legality of Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks; it is expected to issue a decision this summer. If the court upholds the law, the ruling would be opposed to Roe v. Wade, declaring abortion a constitutional right and barring states from banning the procedure before the fetus is viable (23 weeks).
The Sundance 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 seek an illegal abortion after learning that her pregnancy is life-threatening — her attempt to make sure. a legitimate person was rejected by the all-male hospital management. The film’s director, Phyllis Nagy (whose credit includes the script for “Carol”), said she wished she could give it to conservative Supreme Court justices. “I would sit there and say, ‘Now, talk to me,’ and it probably won’t make any difference,” she said. “But artists need to start having conversations. political conversation with society was not instructive,” she added. “Nothing else worked.”
The producers of “The Janes” hope people with different perspectives will allow themselves to look back on life before Roe v. Wade. “This is a glimpse into history; I don’t think it’s a supportive film,” said Tia Lessin, who directed with Emma Pildes, who was previously married to Arcana. Arcana’s sons, Daniel, and Pildes are the film’s producers. Lessin added, “It’s a real-life story of what happened and the time it took for women to have abortions and to enable other women to have abortions.”
“Do I hope that everyone’s lesson will be ‘let’s not go back there’? Sure. But I really hope it motivates people to join the conversation. Love the movie, hate the movie,” she said before Pildes jumped in: “Let’s talk about this. ”
And there’s a lot to discuss.
Jane Collective was founded 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 convey information. “I made what I thought was an arrangement,” she said in an interview. Just then another woman called. Then another. Booth negotiated the fees herself and learned the intricacies of the process so she could counsel women. After a few years, Booth, then a mother doing a graduate degree at the University of Chicago, recruited others to fill the growing demand.
“I worked full time. The number of calls is increasing. It is definitely too much for one person,” she added.
Marie Leaner, now 80 years old, is a Roman Catholic raised and taught to believe that abortion is a sin. At a community center on Chicago’s West Side, she ran a program for teenage mothers. She recalls: “I just thought it was a crime that these women didn’t want to hold their babies but they felt it was their punishment for falling in love or having sex with someone. “I decided I wanted to do something about it.”
Abortion Status in the United States
She recommends her apartment for check-ins and occasionally holds hands with passing women. As one of the few Black women on the group, she said, “I know that Blacks and browns wouldn’t be in service if they didn’t see themselves participating in it.”
Even years later, Arcana can still see the face of a 16-year-old girl who came to her house with two of her friends to ask Arcana for help. She was five months pregnant, and Arcana performed the trick 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 from where I live, and I’ll get out of there,” Arcana recalls. “She touched my shoulder and she said, ‘Because you know,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I have. I agree.’ I put her in that corner, and she went home to her parents. I don’t know what she said to them, but I will always remember that goodbye.”
Janes’ story has been told before – in the 1995 book “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service,” by Laura Kaplan; and in two films, “Jane: An Abortion Service,” the 1995 documentary, and the fictional “Ask for Jane” (2018) with Arcana as a consulting producer.
Arcana was surprised when Sundance chose to show both new films. For festival-goers, that seems like an obvious choice. “We felt like we were talking to each other,” said Kim Yutani, program director, who also picked up the French film “Happening,” an adaptation of the film. memoir Annie ErnauxThe book recounts her own illegal abortion in France in the 1960s.
“The presence of movies on our program is more indicative of a social moment than any other agenda of the programming team,” said Sundance director Tabitha Jackson. “If there’s one claim to be made, it’s the timeless claim of ‘we follow artists’.”
Nagy’s approach feels more personal. The director isn’t interested in anything like homework or what she calls “an advanced after-school special.” In her film, Joy spends less time fighting the system and more time battling her situation as a married college graduate whose life has been narrowed to the family duties as expected of a mother and a wife.
Still, Nagy doesn’t shy away from the gruesome details of the abortion. The first 40 minutes of the film are devoted to Joy’s fruitless quest to secure one, and another 10 minutes are dedicated to the procedure.
“I’m actually more interested in verifying medical facts,” says Nagy. (The film’s screenwriters, Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, shared early drafts with Arcana.) “I think you need to take that time to get to know her. But more importantly, know that this is sending women into a spiral. This is not something you can easily look away from.”
Sound made by Tally Abecassis.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/movies/sundance-abortion-films-jane-collective.html At Sundance, Two Movies Looking At Abortion and Collective Jane