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‘Birthright’ Film Offers Incomplete Look at the War on Abortion

Steph Herold

We need documentaries that go further, by challenging the notion that women are just victims of the state, that abortions are primarily a sad and tragic affair, and that the only reason to care about abortion restrictions is because they affect “respectable” women who want to pursue motherhood.

Director Civia Tamarkin’s new film, Birthright: A War Story, traces the legacy of abortion as a cultural and legal battleground from before the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling to today. Shown in New York City last week and premiering in a slew of other cities over the next few months, Birthright joins recent documentaries Trapped, Jackson, and After Tiller in attempting to showcase the people most affected by the last decade’s tidal wave of abortion restrictions.

Birthright succeeds in making connections between abortion restrictions and state punishment of pregnant people. The film profiles six women who were either ruthlessly prosecuted by their states for actions they took during pregnancy or were treated despicably by clinicians during pregnancy, including forced c-sections and denial of care for a miscarriage that almost lead to death. Making the connection between anti-abortion laws and the criminalization of pregnant people is a compelling and necessary narrative.

However, the film is an incomplete if historically astute documentary of the erosion of abortion rights in the United States, as it leaves crucial questions about race, power, and strategy unexamined.

Birthright opens with shots of women’s faces overlaid with audio of news clips about abortion restrictions. This previews the documentary’s focus on sharing individual women’s stories—indeed, several women share their abortion stories on camera, including Danielle Deaver and Jennie Linn McCormack. Both of these women had relatively high-profile cases related to their abortions: Deaver was forced by Nebraska law to watch her baby die due to a 20-week abortion ban, and McCormack was prosecuted in Idaho for self-managing her abortion. Their stories are important to tell.

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Yet missing from the film are the everyday stories of people who seek abortions—people who don’t want to be pregnant, have to get through a few hurdles set up by anti-abortion legislatures, come up with the money for their abortion, travel to the clinic, get child care, and, eventually, have their abortions. I realize this might not be high drama for a documentary about a “war,” but it, too, is the reality of abortion access in the United States, and it felt oddly missing from this documentary.

McCormack plainly states that she doesn’t regret her abortion, yet she’s the only one who makes that statement—there are no other women (not to mention people who don’t identify as women who’ve had abortions) in the documentary who talk about their abortions in these plain terms, perhaps because there aren’t that many people who’ve had abortions profiled in the movie. This is a strange happenstance for a movie explicitly about the effect of abortion restrictions. While the stories of pregnant people affected by abortion restrictions are important, the lack of abortion stories sticks out. Who understands the impact better than people who’ve sought abortions?

Of the people in the movie who share their abortion experiences, there appears to be only one woman of color: an anonymous woman in an unidentified Spanish-speaking country. This is another peculiar anomaly given that the majority of people who have abortions in the United States are people of color.

Birthright does an impeccable job of curating a diverse array of academic and subject matter experts on abortion, but abortion isn’t just an intellectual exercise or a progressive talking point. It’s an experience that some 1 million people have every year, and those people deserve to speak for themselves in a movie on the topic.

The film also documents the strategies that the anti-abortion movement has been ramping up over the last 30 years—namely getting loyal anti-abortion soldiers into elected office at every level of government. Yet despite interviewing several reproductive rights strategists and organizational leaders, the documentary doesn’t shed light on what the pro-choice movement was doing during that time besides losing in court. The pro-choice movement clearly had a strategy during the last 30 years, and considering the intellectual heft of the commentators in the documentary, it was a real lost opportunity not to see these experts reflect on that strategy and share what we’ve learned since then.

Featured in the film are interviews with several anti-abortion elected officials and organizational leaders to share pieces of their strategy, from grassroots projects like anti-abortion youth camps where young people are trained in talking points to national legislative campaigns to chip away at Roe. These anti-abortion talking heads make several egregious claims in the film; Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, says directly to the camera that they have scientific proof that abortion causes breast cancer and leads to increased suicide risk. Despite decades of evidence that neither of these claims are true, Birthright doesn’t provide any on-screen fact-checking, instead cutting to a pro-choice physician who says these claims are false, leaving the viewer to wonder if this is up for debate instead of long-proven scientific fact. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) claims in the film that the abortion “war” is similar to the Civil War, a racist contention that goes completely unchallenged in the film.

I’m not sure if the filmmakers think that these claims are so egregious that any viewer would assume that they are false, or if they were trying to present a kind of “both sides” view, but either way, it seems irresponsible to let these claims stand on their own without a few words on the screen to explain the falsehoods.

Finally, the film harps on a familiar, tired, and blatantly untrue line, which is that young people don’t care and don’t know about abortion. Two pro-choice commentators make this claim in the film, and the camera crew embarks on several “person on the street” interviews with young people, asking them if they know about Roe. This is a particularly unfair question, since about 40 percent of all Americans don’t know what Roe is, according to 2013 polling by the Pew Research Center.

While it may be true that more young people don’t know the name of the U.S. Supreme Court case that gave them the right to have an abortion than people over 30, that certainty does not directly correlate with them not caring about abortion. Young people make up the majority of people getting abortions, and young people are on the front lines of abortion care and abortion rights activism. It’s both insulting and distracting to have the film try to rope in young people as oblivious colluders with the anti-abortion agenda when there’s no evidence of that in polling or in activism.

In an on-screen interview, University of California, Irvine School of Law Professor Michele Goodwin says, “the consequences of the war on women have been ignored.” And she’s right—Birthright makes it painfully clear that anti-abortion laws go beyond pushing abortion out of reach but also enable the state to surveil and punish people for their pregnancy outcomes. But given the numerous documentaries about mounting abortion restrictions and their impact, it’s no longer enough to showcase the horrific effect of abortion restrictions. We need documentaries that go further, by challenging the notion that women are just victims of the state, that abortions are primarily a sad and tragic affair, and that the only reason to care about abortion restrictions is because they affect “respectable” women who want to pursue motherhood.

It’s time that our abortion documentaries reflect the reality of people who have abortions, not just who might be most sympathetic on screen. We need documentaries that value and uplift the work that young people are doing to transform the abortion rights landscapes, documentaries that are honest about the strategic improvements and shifts needed and currently under way in the abortion rights movement in order for us to succeed. We need documentaries that confront issues of race and power head on instead of leaving them as one-off comments.

It’s time that we expect more from abortion documentaries besides tales of legislative failure. Our experiences are more than that.

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