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Troubled Times 

The timely HBO documentary, "The Janes," is about a collective that helped women obtain safe abortions in the 1970s. This week, a free screening and Q&A at the Byrd with the co-director and an original Jane.

click to enlarge Original members of the Janes in Chicago in the early 1970s. They risked their personal and professional lives to help women and keep them safe while abortion was outlawed.

Original members of the Janes in Chicago in the early 1970s. They risked their personal and professional lives to help women and keep them safe while abortion was outlawed.

Heather Booth was a student at the University of Chicago in 1965 when a friend’s sister was pregnant and nearly suicidal. She was not prepared to have a child and abortion was illegal in Illinois, as well as almost every other state at that time. Booth was able to find a provider willing to perform an abortion, word spread, and soon other women were calling her for help.

From 1965 until 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, Booth and dozens of other women, known as the Jane collective, helped provide close to 11,000 safe, low-cost, but illegal abortions in the Chicago area. The acclaimed HBO documentary “The Janes” tells their story, and it will be screening for free this Thursday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Byrd Theatre. The film has been mentioned as one of 15 shortlisted Oscar contenders for best documentary feature this year.

click to enlarge Original mugshots for Jane members in Chicago.
  • Original mugshots for Jane members in Chicago.

When co-directors Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin first started working on “The Janes,” Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land and abortion had been a constitutional right in this country for almost 50 years. However, the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June of 2022 changed all that, handing the issue to the states to decide and opening the door for the criminalization of abortion.

That reality has come to pass in many states, and many others have significantly constrained women’s reproductive rights. While abortion remains legal in Virginia, the General Assembly reconvenes this month and abortion rights activists fear that Republican leadership, including Governor Glenn Youngkin, may propose legislation aimed at stiffening abortion laws in the commonwealth.

This week's free public screening of “The Janes” at the Byrd is an effort to promote awareness of the devastating effects of the criminalization of abortion. One of the most sobering scenes in the film recalls septic abortion wards where “countless women were quietly dying” after unsanitary procedures, as Pildes narrates. While parts of the film feel tense and harrowing, what emerges most memorably is the passion, drive and ingenuity of the “brave and decent” women who risked their personal and professional lives to protect women’s reproductive liberty.

The organizer of the Byrd screening, Ann Meade Trahan, is a Richmond native who recently returned to the city after 20 years away.

“It feels good to come home, but the fight to maintain reproductive health freedom is real in Virginia,” she says. “I am fortunate to know Emma [co-director of ‘The Janes’] and felt like I could do a small part to bring attention to the abortion issue with this vibrant, prescient film.”

Trahan also connected with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia (PPAV) which helped to organize and promote the film screening. '

Co-director Pildes, who was nominated for an Emmy for HBO's "Jane Fonda in Five Acts," as well as Diane Stevens, an original Jane member, plan to attend the Richmond event and will take questions from the audience after the screening. The Q&A will be moderated by Rae Pickett, communications director for PPAV.

The Virginia Reproductive Equity Alliance (“VREA”), a coalition of Virginian reproductive rights and justice organizations, is calling on allies to come together at the Virginia Capitol on Jan. 23 for a day of advocacy and action. There will be opportunities to lobby legislators, be recognized in the General Assembly and learn from reproductive justice partners about how abortion advocacy goes beyond legislative session.

"The Janes" will be shown for free at the Byrd Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. Donations to PPAV and other advocacy organizations are encouraged. You can RSVP here; and walk-ups are welcome until capacity is reached.

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