‘Call Jane’ Tells a Compelling Story of a Suburban Woman’s Pre-Roe Call to Activism

A courageous group of women who worked outside of the law to provide safe and affordable abortions in the half decade before Roe is told in “Call Jane,” a fact-based drama about the Jane Collective. For those unfamiliar, as the Janes (and other reproductive rights activists) are mostly excluded when one learns about American and women’s history in school, the group ran an underground abortion clinic in Chicago from 1968-1973, helping thousands of women in need before the passing of Roe v. Wade. Now that the landmark ruling has been overturned by the Supreme Court, their story is as timely as ever, and director Phyllis Nagy does them justice with her eye-opening film.

“Call Jane” centers around Joy Griffin (Elizabeth Banks), a suburban Chicago homemaker happily married to a lawyer, Will (Chris Messina), and mother to a teen daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards). At first glance, she does not seem like someone who would be drawn to left-wing activism, let alone break the law. Educated and refined, her life consists of attending PTA meetings at her daughter’s school, visiting with her widowed neighbor Lana (Kate Mara), and helping Will with his legal briefs. When the story begins, she happily awaits a second child. However, her seemingly charmed life takes a nightmarish turn after her doctor diagnoses her with a life-threatening heart condition brought on by her wanted pregnancy. 

With only a fifty percent of survival if she goes through with giving birth, Joy’s only reasonable option is abortion. In order to obtain one legally, she has to appeal to the all-male hospital board. In a harrowing scene in which Joy sees herself dehumanized, they basically pass what could be a death sentence on her, cheerily speaking of the small possibility that she could deliver a healthy baby. With no other options for a safe abortion, she calls a number on the flier telling women with unwanted pregnancies to call and “ask for Jane.” After she is driven blindfolded to an undisclosed location and has the procedure done by a male doctor, Dean (Cory Michael Smith), she goes to rest and eat pasta with the Janes. There is no one person named Jane, just a group of brave women and their leader, longtime progressive activist Virginia (Sigourney Weaver). 

In an interview with Entertainment Voice, Nagy explained why a privileged white woman was made the protagonist for a film about underground activism. “Joy Griffin, the character Elizabeth Banks plays, is, in many ways, the prototype Jane Collective client in 1968. It would have been a white woman who could afford the procedure, which was very expensive, 600 dollars. That’s a lot of money still, but certainly in 1968.”

Joy, who is able to get away from home while her husband is working and her daughter is in school, uses her privilege to help other women in need, at first by giving rides and performing basic tasks around the clinic. Eventually, she learns how to perform abortions herself, making the Janes less reliant on the expensive doctor and able to offer more pro bona and discounted procedures to underprivileged women. Even after she becomes consumed by her work with the Janes, she is able to stay under the radar for a while, telling Will and Charlotte a fib about going to an art class.

Banks is wonderful to watch as Joy transforms into an activist. This is not some big melodrama about the dangers of illegal abortion or someone getting radicalized, but a story about an women being called to duty much in the same way an average citizen would be compelled to risk it all and enlist during wartime. 

Nagy explained, “The experience of going through the medical establishment, being turned away and having to find a solution all on her own, finally finding the Janes, I think would turn most people with the time and the inclination, which she had, into someone who wants to help other people. I think that’s the place we start from, a woman who rediscovers, along the way, a sense of purpose.”

As for Weaver’s character Virginia, Nagy explained that she was created to be Joy’s foil, an older woman who has devoted her whole adult life to activism, so much so that she calls the clinic her daughter. With her dry wit, frankness, and ability to keep a sense of humor throughout some of the darker moments, Virginia is a worthy role model for women viewers. Weaver, who herself was involved in activism during her college days, brings some of herself to the role, and is a pleasure to watch.

“That character is, to use a good old-fashioned New York sixties word, she’s a real broad,” said Nagy. “She’s seen it all. She’s funny. She’s warm. She’s like the mother you never had. She’s cool, but stern, and needs to be.”

While “Call Jane” is only a two hour film, it captures the spirit of the Jane Collective and drives home why access to safe abortions is neccessary. Nagy and her team made a point to show that an abortion is a routine medical procedure, nothing frightening. They also tried their best to include different perspectives In addition to Joy and Virginia, a third important character is Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), a Black member of the Janes who fights for Black women’s access to their services, even the women who are unable to pay what their white counterparts can. Gwen even goes head to head with Virginia in a memorable scene. There’s also a nun character played by Aida Turturro in the mix (yes, nuns were a part of the Jane Collective), but she does not get nearly enough screen time. Those wishing to learn more about the group and how vital they were to Chicago women’s reproductive health during this period should watch HBO’s documentary “The Janes” to hear first-hand accounts from the women.

Call Jane” releases Oct. 28 in theaters nationwide.