In 2021, the same year that the Supreme Court deliberated the legality of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court Decision that established abortion as a constitutional right, 28 TV shows featured episodes about abortion. The Abortion Onscreen Database, which tracks the topic, showcases just how prevalent abortion has been on screen in recent years: In Yellowjackets, a character attempts to perform an abortion using a wire from a bra, while the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale features a flashback of a character obtaining a legal abortion in pre-dystopian United States. It is shown to act as stark contrast to the lack of autonomy women experience in Gilead. But unsafe and illegal abortions are not solely fodder for the dystopian and the fantasy: Women around the world still do not have safe access to the procedure. The World Health Organization estimates that 45 percent of abortions conducted each year are illegal—meaning, they are done in unsafe and unregulated environments.
It is clear that the Sundance Film Festival programmers knew how important the topic is to viewers: three movies featured in this year’s lineup focused on illegal abortions, both in the U.S. and abroad. The Janes, a documentary from Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, spotlights the members of the Jane Collective, an underground network based in Chicago that facilitated illegal abortions between 1969 and 1973. This clandestine operation is also the focus of Call Jane—Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s feature directorial debut—which follows traditional housewife Joy as she seeks out the procedure and later joins the women. Happening (L’evenement), the sophomore film of Audrey Diwan, is based on the memoir of the same name by Annie Ernaux, charting her journey to obtaining an illegal abortion in 1960s France.
All three films showcase the devastating consequences of barring safe access to abortion, while also highlighting the power of solidarity and organization in the face of oppression. The Jane Collective is a powerful example of both priorities—no justification needed for why it inspired two of the three films. The members of the Jane Collective were not concerned with profit or fame: they operated in strict secrecy, spreading word about their services using advertisements in alternative magazines, bulletin notes on college campuses, and leaflets —it was important that they reached anyone who needed them. None of the members were trained doctors, but they taught themselves how to perform abortions so that back-alley doctors wouldn’t be able to price lower class women out of the procedure, and they largely operated on a pay-what-you-can principle.
The Janes were a ray of hope at a time where women’s health and safety was paid little consideration. Women were inadvertently maiming and killing themselves from self-administered abortions using household items. Yet no legislation allowing access to the procedure in a safe, regulated manner was passed, while hospitals opened septic abortion wards to clean up the messes made by unsafe, illegal attempts. It was a regular feature at a medical center: every major-city hospital had one.
In The Janes, former members recount their experiences in their own words. It is surreal to see how young the surviving members are; among them are members in their 80s, a chilling reminder that this chapter of American history is in the very recent past. Heather Booth, founder of the Janes, is only 76 years old, and in the film, she recounts a friend getting pregnant after being raped at knifepoint who received no support from the university’s health center. These harrowing events, she says, led her to organize the network.
Booth and her colleagues’ testimonies make The Janes an invaluable time capsule of a secret network that gave women relief and necessary medical care at a time when the legislature had disenfranchised them. We hear about pregnant women with illnesses, without the means to support more children, and in abusive relationships left to fend for themselves by a system that should have prioritized their care. The collective’s action in the face of oppression is an inspiring paragon that federal, state, or even municipal powerlessness does not leave one helpless in their own community.
These are the same powers that grant Joy (Elizabeth Banks) the lifesaving procedure in Call Jane, a fictionalized portrayal of the same subject matter. In the first act, Joy is delivered an upsetting diagnosis from her doctor: congenital heart failure—made worse by the fact that she is in the early stages of a pregnancy. The hospital’s council rejects her request for an abortion, so she seeks out an illegal one, supposedly organized by the mafia. Joy balks after seeing that the so-called clinic is a cartoonishly sinister apartment where a doctor straight out of a James Bond film awaits her. When she then finds the Jane Collective, she gets an illegal abortion with considerably more care, and joins them in their cause.
Happening is the only Sundance abortion film that does not focus on the Janes—though it focuses on the same kind of illegal facilities that existed in the 1960s, this time in rural France, where Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) attends school and gets pregnant after a one-night stand. The film stands apart from the other two in focusing on the isolating anxiety women experience when they want to terminate their pregnancies, but cannot do so safely. We see celebrations in both Jane movies; members keeping their spirits high despite the troubling times, motivated by the knowledge that they are doing important work. Anne’s narrative experience is different: when she reveals her pregnancy to her closest friends, they’re angry and don’t want to hear about it—just being associated with an illegal abortion in France at this time was grounds for prosecution, so even confiding in a friend endangered them.
This necessity for secrecy is terrifying. The flowering fields that Anne walks through are now isolating instead of beautiful; the urban sprawl of Chicago allowed the Jane Collective to reach women, but there is no lamp post or telephone booth in sight that can offer Anne a similar reprieve. The kind of organizational sisterhood we encountered in the previous two movies is absent from Happening. Instead, a different kind of solidarity emerges, one that centers on survival, not progress. Anne learns of an underground abortionist from a female student, and then a housemate nurses her through the night as she experiences excessive bleeding following the abortion. These girls are not concerned with improving legislation, they just want to study and to survive.
The stories of struggle and oppression at the center of these films are not relics of bygone eras.
These three Sundance films perfectly complement one another, showcasing stories that belong to both women who seek out abortions, and those who facilitate them safely when the law does not permit it. They join a burgeoning genre that concerns itself with telling diverse stories about abortion with nuance and care. The canon now ranges from 18th century France in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) to contemporary Chad in Lingui, The Sacred Bonds (2021), crossing genres from rom-coms Obvious Child (2014) to meditative dramas Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020).
Yet, the stories of struggle and oppression at the center of these films are not relics of bygone eras. Planned Parenthood hosts a map of the states that illustrates which states have restricted access to abortion in the US in the present day. Eighteen states, including Texas, Indiana, and Ohio, currently have severely restricted access to abortion with abortion bans after 6 and 20 weeks of pregnancy and two-trip requirements, where patients have to wait 24 hours after receiving counselling before they can access the procedure. These severe constraints are in place with Roe v. Wade in effect. If the decision is overturned, as is currently threatened, nine states have trigger laws that would automatically ban abortions. Only 14 states have laws that explicitly protect people’s right to access abortion. While the public consensus is pro-abortion—60 percent of Americans believe that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned—access to abortions has grown increasingly difficult to source in some states, and more than 150 clinics shut down between 2011 and 2016.
Unsurprisingly, clandestine networks like the Jane Collective are still active and running today. One underground movement instructs people how to terminate a pregnancy without seeing a doctor; another, AborTam, an underground abortion network in Mexico, is expecting an influx of Texans if Roe is overturned. And so while The Janes, Call Jane, and Happening are situated within the social upheaval and flower-power aesthetic of the 1960s, the stories they tell are alive and sadly relevant today.
From anti-abortion propaganda to riveting biographies, film has long been used as an intellectual battle ground over the legal state of abortion, the narrative feature proving to be a useful tool in promoting rhetoric. And so at a time where women’s right to choose is being threatened from Poland to America, it is no wonder that we are being inundated with such thoughtful works that ultimately achieve two aims: to remind us of women’s resilience in the face of oppression and to expose how restrictive and fragile women’s rights are when society doesn’t value their autonomy.