For those of us born at the tail end of the 20th century, a world without legal abortion is tough to imagine. Bluntly showing a society in which unwanted pregnancies can quickly become death sentences and where even talking about abortion can lead to jail time, newly released biopic “Ask for Jane” makes sure we know exactly what this world looked like.
The film, directed by Rachel Carey and released one short year after Lilly Rivlin’s documentary “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” tells the story of the Jane Collective, an underground, illegal abortion service run out of Chicago between 1968-1973. Created by a college student who connected pregnant women with abortion doctors through her dorm room phone, the “Janes” developed into a volunteer network dedicated to providing safe abortions to women at the lowest possible cost. In 1971, after discovering that one of their “doctors” faked having a medical license, a number of the Janes even became “abortionists” themselves, doing the procedure for whatever price each woman could afford to pay. The makeshift clinic was eventually raided in 1972 and led to the arrest of seven volunteers who would become infamous as the “Abortion 7.” Despite facing up to 110 years in prison, the Janes continued helping pregnant women while out on bail. All charges against them were dropped shortly after abortion was made legal nationwide. In the final years before Roe v. Wade was decided, the Janes provided 11,000 women with safe abortions.
Far from devolving into partisanship, “Ask for Jane” stresses that the right to abortion is imperative for every woman regardless of whether she is Democrat or Republican, Catholic or atheist. All women can find themselves pregnant when they don’t want to be. All women are on the losing side of the war. The film shows teenagers, rich Park Avenue wives, low-income workers, survivors of rape, college students, women of color, mothers—every imaginable type of woman in the clinic waiting room. Speaking at a talkback following a screening of the film in Manhattan, creator and star of “Ask for Jane” Cait Cortelyou pointed to this diversity as the most important aspect of the movie. “I was interested in humanizing those stories,” she said, “because I feel like a lot of the conversation has gotten away from the individuals who are affected by the policies that are made.”
Yet, beyond reinforcing the necessity of safe, legal abortion for all women and introducing audiences to a badass activist group that is ignored in high school history class for the sake of covering more white guys, “Ask for Jane” distinguishes itself by representing a brutal and holistic picture of women’s reproductive welfare that extends far past abortion itself.
The lack of knowledge surrounding sex, for instance, is consistently cited as a major cause of unplanned pregnancy throughout the film. One of the characters—all of whom are fictionalized—works at a Catholic high school where she smuggles sex ed pamphlets to students, raging that abstinence-only education leaves kids clueless and at risk. Today that simple fact remains true, with those schools and states teaching girls to keep their legs closed having higher teen pregnancy rates than their condom-wielding, pill-popping counterparts.
The overwhelmingly patriarchal nature of society at the time (today too, let’s be real) further stands as a clear impediment not only to women’s autonomy but also to their general health. A newly engaged character asks an elderly, male gynecologist for a birth control prescription. He refuses to give her one on the grounds of her unmarried status. Luckily, he assures her, if she returns with a husband who will give his permission, she can get the pill. Similarly, a pregnant mother of two learns that a tumor in her abdomen can be removed, but she runs the risk of losing her baby in the process. Though she immediately agrees to the surgery that will save her life, it’s not up to her. As the legal owner of her body, her husband gets to decide whether she lives or dies.
Today, in the midst of the most virulent wave of anti-abortion legislation since Roe v. Wade, “Ask for Jane” serves as a reminder that such a vicious restriction as the outlawing of abortion does not emerge in a vacuum and cannot be fought in isolation. Rather it is a by-product of a society run by and for men that considers the purpose of women to be childbearing. Period. Women are denied education regarding their own anatomy and safe sex. They are refused birth control. Men decide what women may or may not do with their bodies. It’s not just that abortion is illegal, it’s that all of society is built for women to have kids—whether they want to or not. And if there is a push to take us back to the days of criminalized abortion, there is a push to restore the larger social order that came with it, something that must be fought with the same fervor as anti-abortion legislation itself.
“Ask for Jane” is not a movie for viewers to leave behind in the theater with sticky floors and popcorn containers. Rather, it is the motivation for burnt-out activists to keep fighting in the face of crushing opposition. It is the hope that all women will unite on this issue and fight for the protection of legal. It is the source of anxiety propelling the idle to action, turning “heartbeat” bills and abortion-provider deserts from headlines on our phones to a bleak reality accessible even to those who never lived in a United States that criminalized abortion. And, most importantly, it is the game plan, reminding us to direct our energies not only to abortion, but to the availability of birth control, comprehensive sex ed, and the abolition of patriarchal culture. To keep the fight for women’s reproductive health on track, movies like “Ask for Jane” are crucial. In the words of Gloria Steinem herself: “It is a movie that should be seen by every American.”