The issue of abortion rights is one I’m deeply passionate about, mostly because I grew up in two almost diametrically opposed environments on the subject. On the one hand, I was raised in a household of women (I was the only male amongst my sister, mother, and grandmother until I was 13, and had frequent contact with my aunts and great-grandmother), all of whom made sure I recognized how important it was to have equal rights and bodily autonomy, even though some were against the procedure itself. On the other, when I turned 13, my family moved to a very rural, conservative area with a heavily Catholic and evangelical population, many of whom believed there was no greater sin against God or crime against humanity than “killing” an unborn baby.
As such, I’ve experienced pretty much the entire spectrum of opinions on the matter, and regardless of who I meet and talk to about it, I always come back to the same conclusion – it’s got nothing to do with me, and it’s none of my business. If you’re against abortions, that’s fine. Don’t get one. That’s the end of your involvement in any of this, just as it should be for anyone else. Scientifically speaking, a fetus is closer to a parasite than it is a living human, and even if you want to personify it – which is your right – there is no way that a fetus should have legal protections that supersede those of living, breathing people. And if you truly believe that your version of God wants the practice to end – again, entirely within your rights to think that – then the burden is on you to prove His existence before you can claim to divine His will and enforce it on society.
A lot about the debate angers me to no end, especially because it’s never conducted in good faith. I hate euphemistic terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” because they’re utterly meaningless. Unless you’re a crazed serial killer, everybody is pro-life. And no matter what side of the issue you’re on, everyone is pro-choice. It’s just that some want the choice to be made by women and their doctors, while others want it made by clergy and the government. Just call it what it really is. You’re either for abortion rights or against them, simple as that. And in the end, it comes down to control. Don’t believe me? Look at the knots the conservative majority on the Supreme Court twisted themselves in to overturn Roe v. Wade this year, with most of them having lied under oath during their confirmation hearings about it being settled law, and Samuel Alito literally quoting medieval documents because no new legal argument was presented during the Dobbs case. The five people who voted to take away a Constitutional right (for the first time ever) were hand-picked to do exactly that, and they didn’t give the slightest shit about anything other than imposing their will on every uterus in the country.
In that respect, a film like Call Jane, which was likely written as a triumphant reminder of how far women’s rights have come, instead plays like a tragic prelude to history repeating itself. What should have been a celebration of people coming together in humanitarian cause ends up breaking your heart (assuming you have one) because it now serves as an elegy for those who fought for the basic rights of privacy and healthcare, and a sadly poignant indicator of just how easily decades of progress can be undone.
Elizabeth Banks gives a career-best performance as Joy, a Chicago homemaker in 1968 (she has a tangential view of the riots at the Democratic National Convention, and Richard Nixon’s election plays in the background). Happily married to a high-profile lawyer (Chris Messina) and raising a well-adjusted teenager (Grace Edwards), Joy is excited about the birth of her soon-to-be second child. That elation turns to terror as a series of dizzy spells lands her in the hospital, where she’s informed that the fetus is interfering with her metabolic functions, and that if she carries to term, she has, at best, a 50-50 chance of survival. She appeals to the hospital’s board of directors for an emergency termination, as abortion is otherwise illegal, and to a man they all vote against it, because there’s a chance at a successful birth and a healthy baby, Joy’s statistically probable death not even a concern in their eyes.
This scene does admittedly lay things on a bit thick, but there are subtle hints of brilliance within it. For many women, both back then and now, it is maddening to have the issue of their health decided by people who don’t even have the same anatomy, yet they still profess to know better. Joy even points out that they all talk about her in the third person as if she’s not even there. Further, it’s not lost on me that every member of the board is smoking during this meeting, in front of a pregnant woman. Joy herself drinks gin in an early scene. This is an interesting contrast, as the risks of birth defects from smoking and drinking weren’t entirely known at the time, but the cavalier nature with which the acts take place serves as a starting point to show that when people are willing to listen and follow the science, there’s a higher degree of empathy. The board members show none, while Joy’s journey is about learning this key lesson.
Feeling she has no other option, Joy finds a flyer with a number for “Jane,” and makes arrangements. She’s picked up by Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), who blindfolds her and drives her in secret to a back alley clinic, where the somewhat dickish Dr. Dean (Cory Michael Smith) performs the life-saving procedure to end Joy’s pregnancy. During her recovery, she meets Virginia (a wonderfully take-no-bullshit Sigourney Weaver), who explains that every woman working for her organization is “Jane,” the name being used as a pseudonym to maintain anonymity and safety as they facilitate their service. She employs volunteers from all walks of life, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, mothers and nuns, operating in the shadows and paying off cops and gangsters to keep going.
Virginia invites Joy to become a part of her commune, and for me this is where the film is at its best. Joy is initially quite hesitant, and is very judgmental of the first girl she transports. This is because the young woman is having an affair with her boss and her abortion is purely for birth control purposes, while Joy wanted her baby but made the difficult decision to terminate rather than risk her life. Joy is taught the very thing that needs to be particularly spelled out for the detractors. Abortion is a medical procedure, and must be treated as such, with no qualitative judgments on the patient. This translates into later meetings of the Janes where they discuss who to help based on need, with Virginia constantly reminding them that with such limited resources, the choice has to be random, no matter how much it pains them. Gwen is especially vocal about helping minorities and the poor, but there’s only so much they can do. It’s an eerily beautiful approach. Despite their passion, they must be as dispassionate as possible. Despite their empathy, they must operate without sympathy.
The difference between this group and those who work against abortion rights is that Virginia’s team is at least aware of the circumstances of the women involved, rather than conveniently and intentionally ignoring them, or worse, scapegoating them based on the worst imagined behaviors. In the minds of so many opponents, every woman seeking an abortion is the same as the irresponsible ingenue shtupping her boss. An old friend of mine, who does believe in abortion rights, once told me he still laments the practice because “it allows women to be whores.” My response to that is basically the operating mantra of Virginia’s entire practice. Everyone is already allowed to be a whore regardless. It’s just morally wrong to punish only one side of that exchange for it. And even then, what business is it of yours how anyone else chooses to live their life, so long as they’re not affecting yours?
That’s where the movie really gets the meat of its message across. There are some really over-the-top moments like Joy trying to translate her commitment to the cause into an entry-level rallying cry for feminism, or her husband’s temptation towards their widowed neighbor (Kate Mara) simply because she’s willing to come over and cook for them while Joy’s away at “art class,” but once those cringe moments are over, the good stuff is allowed to breathe. Joy finds an unexpected purpose in her life through advocacy because she’s willing to learn and to help without grasping at outdated straws (even for the 60s). The circumstances behind a woman’s choice don’t matter, only that she made the choice, and she should be supported rather than having willfully ignorant people throw up barriers for irrelevant reasons.
This is why the issue is still so raw for people 50 years after Roe, and even more so now that it’s gone. A film like Call Jane should stand alongside the likes of Vera Drake and the tremendous Never Rarely Sometimes Always because it keeps the focus where it belongs, on the women faced with these difficult decisions. When it’s all said and done, these are people, with real problems, lives, and emotions. They’re the ones experiencing this, so why not defer to them when considering their needs rather than someone who’s not even involved? It has always struck me as tragically and infuriatingly ironic that those who insist upon protecting the “life” inside the womb go to extreme lengths to ignore the actual life pleading for a little understanding. This film, while imperfect, is an essential demonstration of this problem.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Has the issue of abortion rights affected your life? Do you know someone who fears a return to the likes of coat hangers and tumbles down stairs? Let me know!