In 1965, before women in America had the constitutional right to choose abortion, a then 19-year-old student at the University of Chicago helped a friend find a doctor who was willing to carry out the procedure illegally.
With desperate women putting their lives in danger by seeking back-alley terminations, it wasn’t long before more were contacting Heather Booth. She quickly realised the demand for the service, and couldn’t handle it on her own.
And so the Jane Collective was set up: an underground network of women who helped other women facing unwanted pregnancies find safe access to abortion. Eventually, some of the members learned enough to carry out the procedures themselves.
The secret group worked together to provide an estimated 11,000 to 12,000 women and girls with safe and secure abortions before the landmark 1973 ruling known as Roe v Wade, which legalised abortion in the US.
Rape victims, women whose pregnancies were putting their own lives at risk, single mothers who couldn’t afford another child, young women who simply lacked education about birth control – there was no judgement. Women did not have to justify their reasons for not wanting to go through with their pregnancies.
Now, the story of the Janes is being told in a new film, Call Jane, starring Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver and Wunmi Mosaku.
Banks plays Joy, a wife and mother to a teenage daughter who finds a much-wanted second pregnancy has become life-threatening. When a board of male doctors refuses to terminate, telling Joy she must take her chances, desperate and afraid, she comes across the Janes.
The film has been in the making for several years, but following the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade earlier in 2022 (Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation) – paving the way for half the US to severely restrict or completely ban the practice – its release seems timely.
‘It was very, very risky’
There was a time when every state in America had anti-abortion laws. Critics of the laws accused authorities of punishing women for not managing their sexuality and fertility in ways the government, law enforcement, and medical and religious institutions approved of.
Many women did not know where to find help or were too ashamed or afraid to ask. Some were too poor, or fearful after hearing horrifying stories of back-alley and self-inflicted abortions.
A year before the Janes set up, a woman called Gerri Santoro, from Connecticut, died trying to obtain an illegal abortion; her photo became the symbol of an abortion-rights movement.
In Chicago, Illinois, the Janes changed things.
Call Jane producer Robbie Brenner consulted with some of the original Janes when making the film. “It was very, very risky,” she said. “They were thinking way out-of-the-box. What they did, and what they eventually accomplished in a relatively short time, was nothing short of revolutionary.”
‘Abortion is not controversial – curtailing the right to it is’
For Banks, known for starring in films such as The Hunger Games and the Pitch Perfect series, playing Joy was more than just a role; as the leader of the creative council for the Centre for Reproductive Rights charity in the US, the right to abortion is an issue she feels passionately about.
Speaking while promoting the film in the UK, she told Sky News she disputed the idea that abortion is a controversial subject.
“In fact, the majority of the electorate in America – and obviously here in England – support safe and legal abortion access,” she said. “We represent the majority opinion that is not very controversial whatsoever.
“I do think that there’s a lot of conversation around it right now, of course, because of our Supreme Court and the Dobbs decision.
“But I just always warn people about creating a scenario where we talk about abortion as if the abortion side of it is the controversial side; the side that’s controversial is not allowing women the access to safe, legal abortion healthcare that they need for any variety of reasons. That’s what’s controversial, is curtailing that right.”
‘We don’t have to justify it’ – how Lily Allen spoke in favour of the right to choose
Following the Dobbs ruling, many examples of why women might need an abortion – rape, life-threatening circumstances, harm to the baby – were given by those campaigning against the decision.
But some, including singer Lily Allen, questioned why women should have to justify the procedure at all.
Speaking out about having an abortion herself, the star, who is a mother of two daughters, wrote on Instagram: “I wish people would stop posting examples of exceptional reasons for having abortions.
“Most people i know, myself included, just didn’t want to have a f****** baby. AND THAT IS REASON ENOUGH! WE DON’T HAVE TO JUSTIFY IT.
“It shouldn’t have to be said, and I think all these examples just play into the hands of the baddies.”
What is Roe v Wade – and Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation
Roe v Wade was the landmark case of a Texan woman, Norma McCorvey, who was referred to by the legal pseudonym of Jane Roe to protect her privacy, but later spoke out publicly.
In 1969 she became pregnant with her third child and was unable to get an abortion because the state only allowed them if the mother’s life was in danger
Her lawyers brought a case against the local district attorney Henry Wade to the US Federal Court, claiming Texan abortion laws were unconstitutional. The district court for the Northern District of Texas ruled in her favour, but Mr Wade appealed against the decision at the Supreme Court.
After hearing the arguments, in 1973 the court revealed seven of its nine justices had voted in favour of Ms Roe. This meant a change to the constitution, that regardless of any state laws banning abortion, every woman in the US had the right to one within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – and some rights beyond that.
On 24 June 2022, six out of nine Supreme Court justices voted in favour of upholding a 2018 Mississippi state ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
But the case did not only affect Mississippi. In arguing its case, the state went a step further, asking the court to overrule the two most fundamental pieces of abortion legislation in the US – Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey, a 1982 case which built on Roe v Wade by putting more abortion rights into the constitution.
By ruling in favour of Dobbs, the Supreme Court effectively scrapped the guarantees on abortion rights, putting laws into the hands of individual states instead.
At least 12 states have now banned abortion, while others have imposed restrictions or are made moves to make the procedure illegal.
There are those who feel differently, even in the UK, where abortion has been legal for decades.
Earlier this week, anti-abortion demonstrators took part in a pro-life protest in Parliament Square in London on the 65th anniversary of the bill being passed.
Call Jane shows women being accepted by the Janes to have their termination no matter what the reasons behind the decision.
“I find it fascinating that women are sort of infantilised in this way when it comes to their own bodies and healthcare,” Banks told Sky News. “That we somehow don’t know what’s best for us. So a group of men need to be sure that we’re making the proper decision. You know, it’s insulting, frankly.
“It also is insulting to imagine that women are somehow pregnant all alone, and that no man was involved and isn’t involved in the decision to end the pregnancy either, which is nearly never the case, you know?
“I mean, I find that fascinating that we’re sort of… the act takes two but then everything beyond that is only about the woman. We are responsible for everything afterwards. And, you know, every unwanted pregnancy is a result of irresponsible ejaculation. And if this movie can remind anybody of that, I’m happy for it.”
‘Abortion is a normal part of millions of women’s lives’
The film also shows different women having different feelings about having a termination. For some it is a painful choice, but a simple decision for others.
“It is, of course, scary for some women,” says director Phyllis Nagy. “And we do have lots of stories like that already. So we thought that we had a responsibility [with Call Jane] to normalise the procedure and to show a group of women getting together to solve an unsolvable problem, or seemingly unsolvable.”
“I also think Phyllis really wanted to make abortion healthcare feel very normal as part of, you know, many, many millions of women’s lives, a decision that’s made every day,” says Banks.
“And that is not some scary, troubled moment for most women. It’s just, ‘oh, some sperm met an egg and the cells are dividing, and that wasn’t my intention. And so I would like that to stop’. That’s all.”
Call Jane is out in cinemas from 4 November