Film & Television

New Documentaries Reveal the Horrors Women Face

Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, co-directors of the new HBO documentary The Janes, could have started their film with staggering figures from 1960s America. Like the fact that as many as 1.2 million illegal abortions — either back alley or self-induced — were performed each year. That many hospitals, like Cook County in Chicago, had wards devoted to “septic abortions.” Or that botched abortions caused 17% of pregnancy-related deaths in 1965. 

Instead, they underscore the dangerous and often deadly threat of unwanted pregnancy pre-Roe v. Wade through one compelling story.

Dorie Barron understood that what she was doing wasn’t safe, but she recalls, “I had no other options. I wanted it over with. I didn’t care how it was done. I was that desperate.” She was able to get a phone number from a friend and told she had three options, “A Chevrolet” for $500, “A Cadillac” for $750, or “A Rolls Royce” for $1,000. Barron could only afford the Chevrolet (for comparison, the average monthly rent at the time was $150), and she was given directions to a motel. “They spoke all of three sentences to me the entire time,” she remembers, “Where’s the money?’ ‘Lie back and do as I tell you.’ And ‘Get in the bathroom.’” She and another woman were left, “Out in the middle of nowhere, bleeding.”

In Chicago in the 1960s, abortion, which was considered a felony homicide, was run by the Mafia. Until 1968, when the Janes decided to take matters into their own hands.

Many of the Janes, like Barron, had been through the terror and trauma of illegal abortions themselves, others had seen the life-threatening aftermath of such procedures. An underground collective of smart, compassionate, and fearless women, they facilitated more than 11,000 abortions before the Supreme Court’s landmark decision of 1973 rendered their services no longer necessary.

The Janes operated carefully and clandestinely, having chosen the code name “Jane” because it was simple and old-fashioned. Ads, signs, posters, and flyers advised, “Pregnant? Need help? Call Jane.” While abortion was clearly a money-making enterprise for the mob, the Janes provided services regardless of the woman’s ability to pay, asking their more affluent clients to help fund procedures for those who couldn’t. They devised an elaborate system of anonymous phone calls, index cards, counseling, and rotating safehouses. They relied first on the services of renowned civil rights physician Dr. Theodore R.M. Howard. Then on the skilled and compassionate “Mike,” codename Dr. Kaplan. And, eventually, they learned to perform the procedures themselves. “After all, this was women’s work,” one former Jane observes in the film. And despite their lack of formal medical training, the Janes never lost a patient.

Several of the Janes appear in Lessin and Pildes’s film. Now in their 70s, they look back on their daring endeavors with pride and a gentle sense of humor. “It was an outrageous undertaking,” one declares, “Travelling under the radar of the Chicago Mafia and the Chicago police department. A case where men underestimating women’s abilities worked very well for us.” However, the risks they were taking were all too real. When seven of them were arrested in 1972, each was charged with eleven counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion, and faced up to 110 years in prison. Working with civil rights attorney Jo-Ann Wolfson, and leveraging the fact that they were upstanding citizens, wives, and mothers, they were able to stall until Roe was passed and the case against them dropped.

“We were thrilled,” one Jane recalls. “And, we thought it was over.”

Anyone who has followed recent news from the Supreme Court will recognize that women’s reproductive rights are being threatened again. But, the very concept of “women’s reproductive rights” was (and to a frightening extent, still is) non-existent for members of the FLDS, the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints.

Warren Jeffs’s infamous cult is the subject of a new docuseries on Netflix, directed by Emmy-winner Rachel Dretzin. The title Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey comes from the mantra promoted by the extremist sect’s first “Prophet,” Warren’s father Rulon.

Keep Sweet traces the history of the FLDS from its founding 25 years ago through the capture, trial, and conviction of Jeffs in 2007. Parts of the story are familiar from news of the day, but Dretzin fills in many of the gaps with countless photos, footage of FLDS celebrations, and home movies of its members. By far the most effective — and often heartbreaking — elements however are the first-person narratives of people who found the opportunity and courage to leave.

We hear from a few men, former members who were perceived as a threat and excommunicated, their wives and children reassigned. We also meet local law enforcement and Mike Watkiss, an investigative journalist. But, it’s the women whose stories reveal the real horrors of the FLDS. Married to first cousins or much older men (Rulon took teenage wives into his 80s and 90s), they were told they must “submit” or be subjected to eternal damnation. They could be reassigned at the will of the prophet. Their children could be taken from them, as hundreds were when Warren relocated to Texas and the YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch in efforts to outrun the FBI. And, those who were lucky enough to escape entered an outside world without the skills, resources, or even common knowledge they needed to build a new life.

The four-part series may be a bit longer and a bit more sensationalized than it needs to be. But, it’s masterfully put together. There is, in the end, some justice as Warren now faces life in prison for the rape of a 12-year-old “wife” among other crimes. However, through the help of several of his favorite wives, he’s still able to preach. His continued influence and the continued faithfulness of his flock are sobering. Meanwhile, the women who testified against him and bravely tell their stories here — women like Elissa and Rebecca Wall, Ruby Jessop, and Alicia Rohbock — are nothing short of heroes.

As one of the Janes would tell them, “Sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority. And sometimes there are unjust laws that have to be challenged.”

Amen, sister. Amen.

The Janes is available to watch on HBO Max.

Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey is available in four parts on Netflix.

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