Roe v. Wade: Where Are We 50 Years Later?
Growing up, abortion access was never something I worried about. But on May 2nd, 2022, a Supreme Court draft detailing the overturning of Roe v. Wade was leaked. I was a high school junior sitting in English class when I found out. I didn’t take it too seriously at the time.
However, the following month, in a case called Dobbs v. Jackson, the Supreme Court did indeed overturn Roe v. Wade, removing the federal right to abortion in the United States. By this time, I had questions. What exactly was the Roe v. Wade case? How long had abortion been legal in the U.S.? How was I going to be affected by this change?
Everywhere I turned on social media people were saying history was repeating itself, but I had no idea what that history even was. That’s when a teacher recommended I watch the 2022 documentary, The Janes, which helped answer some of my questions.
In honor of what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade (January 22nd, 2023), I was fortunate enough to speak with activist and Oscar-nominated director, Tia Lessin, who co-directed (along with Emma Pildes) The Janes. If you want to learn what it was like pre-Roe v. Wade in the U.S. and how we are currently heading back to those times, this documentary is for you.
If you want to learn what it was like pre-Roe v. Wade in the U.S. and how we are currently heading back to those times, this documentary is for you.
Pregnant and in Need? Call Jane.
First, a little information about The Janes. It follows a group of college-aged women living in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, when abortion was illegal in the U.S. Back then, it cost hundreds of dollars to get an illegal abortion, most of which were arranged solely for the money to be made. Many of those who received these abortions, often through the mafia, have spoken about not feeling cared for or even told any details about the procedure they’d be undergoing.
Those who could not afford the cost or who weren’t sure where to turn often tried to terminate the pregnancy themselves, with chemicals or sharp objects. They were lucky if they didn’t end up in the septic abortion ward of the hospital, where people who’d had failed illegal abortions often died.
The women profiled in the documentary organized an underground abortion and counseling service called the Jane Collective. The Janes wanted to create immediate change for pregnant people in need in their community. In 1969, a young woman named Heather Booth, along with a group of fellow activists, began providing access to affordable, safe abortions.
Over the course of a few years, the Janes helped around 11,000 people. While these operations were still illegal, patients spoke of how comforted and supported they felt by the Janes, making it one of the best medical experiences they’d ever had.
Giving Their Voices a Platform
Documentaries are a great way to learn about lots of topics, including reproductive rights. I’ve now watched The Janes three times—it’s that interesting—and have learned something new each time. I enjoyed that it was told through a series of interviews with people ranging from Jane members to their spouses to patients. Hearing their testimonies makes the situation that much more real and vivid.
After watching the documentary, I chatted with co-director Tia Lessin, who spoke of the urgency she and her team felt to tell this story. “These voices won’t be around that much longer,” she says. “We really wanted to capture them and give their voices a platform. Amplify them so that their story won’t be lost.”
Lessin, who has explored topics in her work like education, health care, racial inequality and natural disasters, has a long history of abortion rights advocacy. In 1989 she was arrested in front of the Supreme Court for protesting a case that would remove public funding from abortion clinics. More than 30 years later, she continues to highlight social issues like reproductive rights via her films.
We Are Going to Do Something!
The documentary not only focuses on the women’s rights movement but also the anti-war and civil rights movements. The Jane Collective was primarily run by a group of young, middle-class, white women. However, they do an excellent job of recognizing their privilege and the many Black and brown people who could not afford safe abortions or to travel to access one (once abortion became legal in states like New York).
The Janes highlights a group of women who saw a problem within their community and worked to provide a solution. They took great risks to help people access safe, affordable abortions. “It’s not only a story of tragedy, but also a story of resistance and sisterhood and community,” Lessin explains. “People who said ‘no,’ we are not only going to talk about it, we are actually going to do something!”
Never Again…Yet Here We Are
There was huge relief when Roe v. Wade was passed. But now, 50 years later, we are moving backwards. Already we are starting to see maternal death rates rise in states that have tightened their abortion laws since Roe v. Wade was overturned; some states have banned abortion regardless of the reason.
Millions of people like myself who were not alive before Roe v. Wade became law and afforded us the right to a safe and legal abortion are unaware of the hardships many people faced during that time. Filmmakers like Lessin have found ways to share this information in the hopes of educating us and making an impact.
I am angry that our rights to bodily autonomy keep getting taken away. I wish we didn’t have to fight for this all over again. My only hope is that we can make things right this time.
“This is going to be your fight that we are leaving you,” Lessin tells me. “I have a feeling that the people of your generation are going to make the changes that are needed.”
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