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With Roe hanging in balance, ‘The Janes’ takes on added significance

A 1972 photo of members of the Janes, Chicago activists who provided illegal abortions in the days before the Roe v. Wade decision. The group is the subject of an HBO documentary premiering in June.Martha Scott/HBO

In the years right before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, a group of women in Chicago — including mostly antiwar and civil rights activists — decided to help women get abortions safely. They called themselves Jane, and they were responding to the high number of women who were going to hospitals with life-threatening injuries caused by back-alley or self-administered efforts.

For about five years, Jane — profiled in an HBO documentary called “The Janes” — formed an underground network that helped provide some 11,000 safe abortions, breaking the law to save lives. They scheduled appointments, counseled the women, and followed up with them afterward, all done with a pay-as-much-as-you-can sliding scale.


“The Janes” premieres at 9 p.m. on June 8.

The documentary profiles members of the collective as they recall their work and stories of some of the women who relied on them. It also features some of the women — as one person in the preview says, “daughters, wives, mistresses of police, state’s attorneys, judges” — whom the Janes helped. In the spring of 1972, seven of the Jane women were arrested.

Directed by Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin, “The Janes” was made before news that the Supreme Court is likely going to overturn Roe v. Wade. Now, sadly, rather than simply looking back at a dangerous time, it may also become a blueprint of how to move forward. The documentary sounds like essential if not happy viewing.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.