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The Janes, a new documentary, looks at secret abortions

The HBO documentary follows ordinary women who provided free abortions in 1960s America before the Roe v. Wade ruling made them legal

Promotional art for the documentary The Janes. Image via AP (AP)

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Some 50 years ago, before the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion, a group of women from Chicago provided illegal abortions to desperate women in need. 

"We were just regular people," said Eileen Smith, a former member of the Abortion Counseling Service, a group more commonly known as the 'Janes.' "I mean, we didn't have PhDs, we hadn't studied or anything. We were just a bunch of people that came together to do something that we really cared about."

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Weeks after the bombshell leak of a Supreme Court draft document detailed how a reversal of Roe v. Wade could be on the way, a documentary from HBO is chronicling the risky work the Janes were doing during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes do a masterful job of putting the Janes in historical context, seeing how their desire to offer safe abortions grew out of the revolutionary ‘60s and yet how women's issues were often deemed secondary to male-led efforts. The directors' vision is straightforward, not using the Janes for anything other than what they were: quixotic Middle-American outlaws.

The filmmakers explain that the late 1960s were a time when a woman brought to a hospital after a rape would be lectured about her promiscuity. To get the Pill or a diaphragm, they had to be married. And it was a time when pregnant women were not allowed to work.

Enter the Janes, who performed about 11,000 abortions between 1968-73, operating between the mafia and the police. When the man they relied on to perform the abortions left, they taught themselves how to do it. Some in the group had lived through their own abortions and vowed to make it better for the next woman.

"Every time when you counseled someone, you had the sense of that woman's desperation. So, you thought, 'this is the right thing to do,'" said Martha Scott, a former Jane.

Scott and six other members were arrested but were released after a night in jail and never convicted.

"We were a bunch of middle-class white ladies," said Scott. "We kind of looked like a garden party or something, you know, it was like we wanted to be as unthreatening as possible."

Shortly after their arrests, the Roe v. Wade decision came down and the need for the Janes was no more.

The new leaked draft Supreme Court decision finds that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided because the U.S. Constitution makes no specific mention of abortion rights. If confirmed, that would trigger a wave of bans and restrictions in many states.

With new groups now seeking to find ways to help women have abortions safely, former Janes believe their endeavors over 50 years ago could prove to be more poignant and powerful than ever.

"I do think it's important that lots of people know that when something is going on that you don't approve of and it's very destructive for people that even the most ordinary person can make a difference," said Scott. (With inputs from Reuters and AP)

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