This documentary shows how close we are to a real-life “Handmaid’s Tale”

Jul 18, 2017     Birthright   0 Comment     Reviews

If one were to put together the headline snippets about the Trump administration kowtowing to conservative interest groups when it comes to Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive rights, the picture would begin to frame what’s been building for years: an assault on the right of women to control their bodies in the land of the free.

But for an even clearer portrait of this ground “war” that has been building since the passage of Roe v. Wade, one ought to check out “Birthright: A War Story,” a new documentary that opens on July 14.

The film doesn’t pull any punches. It warns of a threat that would have existed even under a Hillary Clinton presidency, thanks to the 33 Republican governors who are willing to restrict reproductive rights in their own states. And with Trump in the White House, “Birthright” director Civia Tamarkin warns of a possible totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of “A Handmaid’s Tale.”

Salon spoke to Tamarkin about the film, a harrowing clarion call if there ever was one, and the grim state we’re in.

Please frame the thesis of the film and what’s been happening in the USA since 2010. And please break down the title and why you chose such militant language.

The thesis of the film is that the aggressive movement to restrict women’s access to reproductive health care has created both a human rights and public health crisis in the United States. Women are being jailed, denied their rights to privacy and bodily integrity and deprived of medical decision-making as this right-wing movement tightens its grip across the country. It is definitely an assault on women’s constitutional protections and freedom.

The title “Birthright: A War Story” is a double entendre referring to the dual — and dueling — arguments between a woman’s natural right of self-determination over her own body and a fertilized egg’s right to be born. It is a conflict between the guaranteed rights of an individual and the perceived rights of the unborn; a conflict between the two entities within one body. The title evokes that battle, which has been waging for generations. It also reflects the divisive ideological fight that has been compared to a civil war. The so-called “militant language” echoes the terminology used by both sides. They call this “a war.”
When Roe v. Wade became law, opponents immediately issued a declaration of war. This documentary reveals how they gradually and strategically built a war machine — forging alliances between Catholics and Evangelicals, grooming an army of youth camp foot soldiers, infiltrating the Republican Party and, in some instances, even committing terrorist acts by bombing clinics and killing doctors who provided abortions. They invoked the words “genocide” and “holocaust” as a battle cry. As one Republican strategist explained, “You organize as if you were trying to defeat the Communists.”

Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the movement had organized, mobilized, gained footholds, and in 2010 they mounted a full-scale offensive. The backlash against Barack Obama brought a Republican midterm election sweep of state legislatures. With it came a barrage of restrictive laws limiting access to abortion and family planning. States passed about 300 laws over the next five years, almost as many as in the nearly 15 years before. And the restrictions extend beyond abortion to access to contraceptives and family planning information and elimination of sex education in schools. Advocates of reproductive rights and reproductive justice admit they were blindsided and never saw the onslaught that was coming. They admit that they are having a difficult time holding the defense line.

Is Roe v. Wade in danger of being overturned?

Yes, there definitely is a clear and present danger of Roe being overturned under the Trump-Pence administration. With the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and reports that Justice Kennedy is considering retirement, opponents of Roe are lying in wait. They have a vast organized nationwide network of lawyers waiting to bring a challenge. At the same time, state legislatures are busily crafting one bill after another to nibble away and encumber Roe in anticipation of the Supreme Court sending abortion rights back to the states.

Beyond that, a growing contingent within the opposition movement doesn’t believe it is necessary to overturn Roe to achieve their goals. They are pushing for state Personhood laws that would declare that the “child in utero” is a person protected under the state constitution. Then Roe would become inconsequential in the face of homicide laws that would make the unborn child the victim of a violent crime.

What were the greatest challenges to making the film?

I did not want to do yet another abortion story. I wanted to go outside the usual lexicon and framework to tell the story of reproductive rights in the context of human rights and reproductive justice. As we began production, we were surprised by the difficulty of getting people to go on camera or even cooperate with the production of the film. As long-time journalists, we were experienced interviewers and had a track record of persuading people to tell their stories. But in this case, many of the women who were victimized by the restrictive laws of this growing radical movement were too afraid or too ashamed to recount what happened to them. Doctors, clinicians and women’s advocates were fearful of losing their jobs. They feared being ostracized or worse, being harmed if they “went public.” At the same time, the attacks on Planned Parenthood and the vociferously anti-abortion rhetoric of the Republican presidential candidates compounded the concerns of potential interviewees. It took a lot of research, referrals and persuasion to find the perfect interview subjects and stories to tell.


Published on SALON

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