“Abortion Democracy:” Feminist Film-Maker Inspires Us to Speak Out for Women

Marcy Bloom

Sarah Diehl's film skillfully contrasts abortion policies and laws in two countries, revealing how the legal status of women is a direct result of the silencing--or empowering--of women’s voices

Recently I had the opportunity to view the dynamic and thought-provoking film “Abortion Democracy: Poland/South Africa” by the talented German film-maker Sarah Diehl when it was screened at the University of Washington by that school’s chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice. Even for many of us who feel we are knowledgeable on domestic and international abortion rights and women’s health issues, this award-winning documentary was eye-opening.

The film skillfully and powerfully contrasts the differences in abortion policies and laws regulating abortions in two countries and describes their impact on the lives of women. “Abortion Democracy” reveals how the legal status of women is a direct result of the silencing–or the empowering–of women’s voices.  The message of the documentary serves to emphasize the critical need for safe abortion care and liberal abortion laws for women and girls everywhere. But it also illustrates a key and painful theme…the tragic paradox that the implementation of such laws may have a minimal impact on the actual accessibility of safe abortion care.

In Poland, one of the two countries profiled, abortion is illegal and legal abortions are virtually impossible to obtain. But illegal abortions are generally available–in fact, doctors even advertise in newspapers–although these procedures often occur in “bad settings.” Illegal abortions are also very expensive in Poland–yet another universal theme. Contrasted to South Africa, the other country that is spotlighted, abortion is legal but unavailable–particularly for black women–and women there actually have a much more difficult time obtaining information and services in public hospitals due to the ongoing effect of anti-choice language that reinforces the stigma of abortion. This contributes to the disrespectful and judgmental behavior of medical staff who refuse to perform or participate in safe abortion care.

One would initially think that the situation for women in Poland would be far more horrific than the one in South Africa, but we know that the reality of abortion rights and reproductive justice is never so clear.  The truth is that the reality for women and girls remains oppressive and disrespectful in both countries.

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Although it is well-known that woman frequently struggle to obtain safe abortions in many parts of the world (including, for example, in the U.S. where abortion has been legal but far too often accessible since 1973), my reaction to that reality as I was watching the film was: how crazy and twisted is this?  

Of course, it is all very crazy, very twisted, and so shockingly ignorant of women’s lives, needs, and choices.

In 1993, Poland banned abortion after the fall of communism and due to the increasing influence of the Catholic Church (note that the pope at that time, John Paul II, was a native of Poland and certainly his particular impact on Poland’s abortion laws was nothing short of enormous). Abortion had been legal under the communist government, but women were sold out in a deal between the Church and politicians eager to demonstrate to the world their version of a non-Communist “democracy.” These types of collusions are increasingly common and successful everywhere.  A few years later, in 1997, South Africa legalized abortion, reforming the health system after the fall of apartheid. In Polish society and media, women’s perspectives were essentially hidden and made invisible; in South Africa, they were invited to give public hearings in the parliament around the issues of reproductive rights and the need for safe abortion care. 

And yet, even with these contrasts, the women in both countries struggle–and they struggle mightily–for their rights and recognition as they live out the pervasive impact of sexism, religious fundamentalism, and violence. The talented German director, writer, and activist behind “Abortion Democracy,” Sarah Diehl of Berlin who has advanced degrees in African Studies and Gender Studies, is the impetus behind this compelling documentary. As a co-founder of the European Pro-Choice Network, she has interviewed for her film a knowledgeable and diverse panel of activists, medical professionals, journalists, economists, researchers, writers, and non-profit organizational workers, primarily women, who describe how women suffer from the abortion laws of the two countries and how the rights of the fetus remain far elevated above the rights of women. In fact, women who have abortions are frequently labeled as evil and consorts of the devil. It’s chilling stuff. The interviewees’ powerful comments on their particular countries about the stigma of abortion–on how women who seek abortions are often shamed and vilified–and the low status of women are incredibly disturbing. In South Africa, a young homeless woman named Liz was selected by Ms. Diehl as that country’s case study. Appearing very vulnerable and even naive, she was forced out of her home after she was raped and became pregnant. She roams the streets of Cape Town searching for a safe place to sleep and is now too advanced in her pregnancy to obtain an abortion.  Her story is poignant and heart-breaking.

Equally so is the story of Alicja Tysiac, the case study for Poland. As a 35-year-old mother of two whose eyesight was predictably and permanently damaged after she was unable to obtain a legal therapeutic abortion during her third pregnancy, her words serve to illustrate how little her life and health were regarded as she unsuccessfully sought a physician to perform the legal abortion she deserved and so desperately needed. Abortion is supposed to be legally permitted in Poland when the woman’s life and health are threatened, or if the pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest. But this rarely occurs (it is estimated that only 200 legal abortions occur annually for the entire country) due to the strong stigma of abortion as Poland’s greatest evil, a belief system widely perpetrated by powerful social and religious forces. Ms. Tysiac did not have the funds and class privilege of wealthier women to obtain an expensive illegal abortion. Although she sued the Polish government for this tragic denial of her right to a legal abortion as a violation of her human rights and eventually won a ground-breaking victory, including reparations, in a European Union court, she now faces permanent blindness. Her heart-breaking story illustrates how damaging Poland’s abortion laws and cultural attitudes towards women are.

Ms. Diehl is a committed feminist and is using her powerful documentary as a movement-building tool as she tours the world. She is the editor of two women-focused anthologies and passionately speaks of patriarchy, anti-choice moralism, ignorance, hypocrisy, and the importance of female self-determination when she discusses her work. “I think that abortion access and the overall abortion debate has to be seen in the bigger context of how female self-determination is questioned and compromised. It is really alarming that conservatives want to use this issue to oppose the idea of self-determination and equality for women altogether and to focus on abortion as the sign for decadence in modern life. Abortion is being hijacked by conservatives to campaign against women’s rights and women’s lives. They know that they can mobilize huge crowds against the women’s movement with the image of saving the life of the fetus even when this costs women their lives. The hypocrisy is so clear…A point in the anti-choice movement that I find interesting is the longing to see the embryo as the absolute perfect innocent life that has to be protected from the self-determination of women. That also causes people to see the womb as a dangerous place for the embryo and to see women’s rights and children’s rights as something opposite. That is a really dangerous development…

“In their rhetoric, women’s self-determination is the core problem that has led to the chaos and decay in modernity and the reason for the failure of nation-states…Being moralistic, anti-abortion rhetoric is their tool to make their fundamentalism saleable to a vast majority. They try to present abortion as the problem, not poverty and their societal-imposed lack of access to education, equal rights, and contraception.  The crazy thing is that conservatives want to always present the self-determination of women as the problem that causes abortion rather than view self-determination, empowerment, equality, and education as the solution to prevent unwanted pregnancies… We must take the language back, reverse anti-choice stigma and public opinion, and create our own empowering language to be able to effectively talk about women and their lives…Every woman in every situation must have a right to choose.”  

Ms. Diehl had no outside funding for “Abortion Democracy” and shot the movie on a portable camera with her own resources. She has been on tour since August 2008 and is currently in the U.S . With more than 67,000 women still dying from illegal, unsafe abortions annually worldwide, her film continues to illustrate the need for laws both protecting abortion and also allowing for safe and convenient access in obtaining them. The need for abortion remains in every society whether abortion is legal or not and Ms. Diehl’s talent and insights shine through as she emphasizes how key it is for women to keep speaking out because once a right is criminalized, stigmatized beyond reach, or completely banned, it is not easy to reinvigorate or recover.

Only a change in the fundamental social, religious, and cultural attitudes towards abortion, contraception, reproductive health, and women’s self-determination can ensure a woman’s right to true dignified reproductive choice. Ms Diehl continues this important human rights discussion in her next film (still in production) currently entitled “Pregnant Journeys” which will profile abortion rights and social stigma against women in Mexico, Tanzania, and her home country Germany. Stay tuned for more ground-breaking work from this visionary young woman.  You can contact her for more information about her work and a possible showing at sarah.diehl@yahoo.de .

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included a typo that misidentified Sen. Tim Kaine as a Republican. We regret this error.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Pro-Clinton Ads Question Trump’s ‘Respect’ for Women

Ally Boguhn

A CNN/ORC International poll conducted in March found that 74 percent of registered women voters polled viewed Trump “unfavorably.”

This week on the campaign trail, a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton released an ad attacking Donald Trump’s stance on reproductive rights, and the chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) offered little more than a shrug when confronted with news that the party’s presumptive standard-bearer had mistreated women.

Pro-Clinton Super PAC Releases Ad Questioning Trump’s “Respect” for Women

Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting the Clinton campaign, this week released its first two attack ads targeting Trump, highlighting the candidate’s mistreatment of women and his comments on reproductive rights.

The ads, which have aired in four swing states, “offer scathing critiques of Mr. Trump’s comments about women that will run for the next three weeks in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Nevada,” reports the New York Times.

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In one of the ads, titled “Respect,” a clip of Trump claiming that “nobody respects women more than Donald Trump” is followed by a series of the Republican candidate’s statements on reproductive health and rights, including his promise to defund Planned Parenthood, and Trump’s suggestion that abortion patients should be “punished” if the procedure is made illegal.

The ad comes as Trump faces renewed controversy over his comments about making abortion punishable. In a New York Times Magazine article published Wednesday, the GOP presidential candidate attempted to spin his prior assertion, this time suggesting that he “didn’t mean punishment for women like prison. I’m saying women punish themselves.”

Trump had claimed that though his “position has not changed” on the issues, doctors providing abortion care “would be held legally responsible, not the woman.”

A CNN/ORC International poll conducted in March found that 74 percent of registered women voters polled viewed Trump “unfavorably.”

Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus Claims “People Just Don’t Care” That Trump Mistreats Women

Priebus, appearing on Fox News Sunday, dismissed the mistreatment of women by his party’s presumptive nominee.

“We’ve been working on this primary for over a year, Chris, and I’ve got to tell you, I think that all these stories that come out and they come out every couple weeks, people just don’t care,” Priebus claimed after host Chris Wallace questioned the GOP party leader about a recent investigation from the New York Times finding that Trump had treated women poorly in his professional and personal life.

Times reporters conducted more than 50 interviews with women who had worked with or come in contact with Trump, revealing “unwelcome romantic advances, unending commentary on the female form, a shrewd reliance on ambitious women, and unsettling workplace conduct” from Trump.

After Priebus attempted to brush off the query by questioning whether people would be surprised that Trump “had girlfriends,” Wallace pressed him to address how the party would respond to the news.

“But, forgive me, it’s not whether or not he had girlfriends, the question is whether or not he mistreated women, whether he made unwanted advances, whether he humiliated women in the workplace,” Wallace countered. “I don’t understand why you say that people don’t care about that, and are you going to look into the allegations?”

“I’m not saying people don’t care about it, I’m just saying I think the reason he’s where he is at is that he represents something much different than the traditional analysis of individual candidates,” Priebus said. “And, yes, everything bothers me, Chris, but I don’t know the truth of these things, I don’t know other than reading an article whether or not these things are true. I think it’s something that Donald Trump is going to have to answer questions in regard to. All I’m saying, though, is, is that after a year of different stories, you know, nothing applies.”

Priebus’ dismissal of Trump’s behavior toward women was a “telling response” that “speaks volumes” about the way the Republican Party treats women, as Rewire editor-in-chief Jodi Jacobson explained.

“The real problem is that it’s the GOP leadership that just doesn’t care,” Jacobson wrote. “The reality is that Trump’s ‘problematic attitude toward women’ is not an isolated problem. For the GOP leadership, it is not a problem at all, but the product of their fundamental policies and positions. The GOP has been waging war on women’s fundamental rights for nearly two decades; it’s just gotten more brash and unapologetic about the attitudes underlying the party’s policies.”

What Else We’re Reading

Ari Rabin-Havt argues in the Huffington Post that Trump’s latest shift on his abortion punishment suggestion “is just borrowing from the playbook” of extremists like Troy Newman, who try to stigmatize abortion care.

“For survivors of abuse like me, Donald Trump’s interview with Megyn Kelly was excruciating,” Emily Crockett writes for Vox.

The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti questions how Trump’s history of mistreating women will impact voters.

Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch-backed group, is spending millions on the Ohio Senate race, where Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) is facing off against Democrat Ted Strickland. The Koch groups have backed GOP candidates in other key Senate races, including Nevada, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, and have reserved $30 million in commercial time for Senate races.

With petitions involving voting restrictions potentially making their way to the Supreme Court by September, the justices could play a crucial role in helping decide the fate of the 2016 elections.

The Huffington Post takes a look inside Planned Parenthood’s $30 million campaign to protect reproductive rights and health this election season.

Connecticut approved a “motor-voter” system that will automatically register eligible voters visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles for driver’s licenses or state-issued ID cards. An estimated 400,000 voters will be added to the state’s rolls, according to ThinkProgress

The Nation’s Ari Berman examines how automatic voter registration in Oregon “is revolutionizing American democracy.”