When do we get real? Let’s start with questions at the heart of this sobering new documentary: Do we know that America now has a pregnancy police? These are ordinary police officers sent to handcuff women suspected of “child endangerment” during pregnancy, taking medication to induce miscarriage or any number of opaque offences. Do we realize that pregnant women are being drug tested without their knowledge, the better to support such charges, and arrested on the word of informers and the strength of false-positives? Do we notice that women are fired from their jobs, forcibly hospitalised if suspected of alcohol or other drug use during pregnancy and put in solitary confinement or on suicide watch—wearing paper clothing no matter that they are bleeding vaginally or lactating, all in view and without sanitary protection? Do we understand that women in the United States are going to jail because of our wombs?
I am not making this up.
Summarizing in the New York Times, Helen T. Verongos wrties: “The thesis here is that, after Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, opponents of the decision spent the next 40 years organizing an incremental offensive on multiple fronts to restrict access to abortion, contraception and sterilization by piling on state regulations and putting forward political candidates to further their cause.” Verongos also notes another well-developed story from Birthright: A War Story, writing, “While women’s clinics and providers were attacked by violent extremists and closed as funding dried up, more insidious, less publicized changes, including the mergers and acquisitions that brought hospitals under the control of religious groups, were having far-reaching effects.” The writer is being polite. These hospital mergers are overwhelmingly to the advantage of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Where were we as our victory was snatched so comprehensively?
In our present politics, there’s scant evidence that important lessons from even our most recent history are galvinizing corrective action by us in the corridors of power. No, a feel-good, pussy-hatted march isn’t enough, and it never was. Frustration does not supplant strategy. For all the optics of the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and confreres were political adepts as effective in White House meetings as on the mall. Can we say the same for prochoice leadership? Is there even a meaningful grassroots movement committed to the politics necessary for reversing the decline in our reproductive rights?
The National Right to Life Committee believes we’re toast.
NRLC President Carol Tobias makes a strong case in Birthright, the important documentary sparking your reviewer’s angry, melancholic, impotent thoughts. In its rivetting 100 minutes, director Civia Tamarkin and her journalist co-writer Luchina Fisher bring us four-plus decades of our political failure and introduce us to the real world consequences of our longterm naivete. Sure we had a bubbly celebration at Roe v. Wade, but where were we when we needed to secure the future? Where are we now?
In a remarkable interview—arguably a journalistic coup—Tobias tells us exactly how her ideologues stepped into the post-Roe vacuum, that they changed the narrative from coat-hanger deaths to fetal hearbeats and systematically captured local politicians and state legislatures. (Veteran antichoice activist Richard Viguerie crows that George H.W. Bush agreed to renounce his family’s traditional support for reproductive rights—Daddy Bush actually served on the Planned Parenthood board—to step into the Reagan vice presidency.) Tobias’ official bio notes that antichoice majorities were elected to both chambers of Congress during her earlier tenure as NRLC political director. She taunts us that we lack the stamina for this level of political success.
Indeed, Tobias and her allies have put prochoicers so definitively on the defensive that the “conversation” is hardly about women any more, but instead about unborn personhood and child endangerment. It is about locking up “bad” mothers—that is, women. If you value women, this interview —and its accompaning footage—is bone chilling.
Or, maybe, it will motivate you to get busy.
With an enviable confidence, Tobias predicts longterm victory against women and other “collateral damage” through those future generations of activists curently attending antichoice boot camp. If the NRLC promotional video seen here reminds you of other youth indocrination initiatives, what are you going to do about it?
Civia Tamarkin sees the struggle for reproductive rights as a war. Tamarkin’s earlier documentary credits include On the Basis of Sex: The Battle of Title IX, also co-written by Luchina Fisher. “I was part of the generation that marched to get Roe v. Wade passed,” she explains in a July 2017 BUILD Series interview available on YouTube. “And when the Supreme Court handed down the Hobby Lobby decision which said that employers did not have to cover birth control in insurance policies, I was shocked, and what I was so surprised about is that women were not taking to the streets. Why are people not understanding what is happening?”
Tamarkin began to ask around, which is what award-winning investigative journalists like her do. She asked young people (some of whom are seen in the film) what they know about Roe v. Wade and what they know of the right to privacy to practice birth control (via Griswold, which gets is due). “I was astonished,” she says now. Invariably, her respondents opined that these reproductive choices were given rights, not vulnerable to being taken away—birthrights.
For real? And yet, this blissful ignorance was what so many of their activist mothers wanted for them, hoping that these issues had been settled. As if.
The opening of this critically well-received film offers a preamble asserting that “all wars have collateral damage.” This war is no different, Tamarkin and Fisher state. We are not invited to dispute that we are at war. According to Wikipedia, “in American military terminology, [collateral damage] is used for the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants or damage to non-combatant property during an attack on a legitimate military target.” The phrase was popularised in the 1991 Gulf War, notwithstanding the objections of many who found it an unhelpful euphemism.
In Birthright, women may be the principal victims of collateral damage, but so are the poor, persons of color, children, husbands, parents, families, maternity care, prenatal care, babies left motherless and individuals murdered in churches, at home and at work (doctors, clinic escorts, receptionists, security guards). “I could have lost the love of my life,” one young husband tells us in a halting voice, gesturing to his wife, still distraught after having to give birth in circumstances harrowingly familiar to the 2012 Savita Halappanavar case in Ireland in which the mother did die.
Tamarkin unwittingly evokes Irish law again in her BUILD interview. The nationwide calls for fetal personhood statutes, designed to render Roe irrelevant, create the conflict at the heart of this film, she says. “You now have two constitutionally protected beings within one body. Whose rights prevail?” Ireland has 35 years of domestic and European litigation addressing exactly that question without arriving at any resolution. If the United States really wants to go down this road, we would be well advised to first examine the Irish experience.
Meanwhile, antichoice violence is considered so serious a threat by the Department of Justice that it classifies antichoice-related crimes including kidnapping, arson, bombing and other property damage as domestic terrorism.
“Everywhere abortion is made illegal, women are imprisioned,” Lynn Paltrow reminds us. At National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Paltrow works to ensure that pregnancy does not cause women to lose their constitutional and human rights. Her concerns align completely with Tamarkin. “The fallout affects you whatever your views on abortion or your political leanings,” the filmmaker says. “It affects your privacy rights, your constitutiona rights.”
For her part, Paltrow—one of several level-headed talking heads—has her hands full. With experience at ACLU and Planned Parenthood, she too warns that abortion is used as a divisive wedge issue and that we are never to believe in promises from antichoicers, including hospital merger managers whose duplicity and cynicism is revealed here.
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Three years in the making, Birthright is an exemplary work of journalism and first class filmmaking, suitable as much for college study as public viewing. (“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press,” says Thomas Jefferson.) Extreme though the scenario this film presents may be, it is no longer simply the dystopian vision of a major novelist or of longform streaming television.We are living the nightmare and Margaret Atwood is having a moment.
But telling it like it is cannot be the whole story. What happens now?
Here’s looking at you … kid?