If there is one documentary you watch about the state of reproductive healthcare in America this year, make it ‘Birthright: A War Story’. If you live in the United States, you are most likely keeping track of the Republicans’ attempt to propose a new healthcare bill, which would seek to roll back many of the important provisions currently available under the Affordable Care Act. Healthcare is an issue that affects every single person.
And while some like to classify reproductive healthcare as a “women’s issue” only, as you will see from this documentary it affects couples, families, children. Last year’s powerful ‘Trapped’ documentary by Dawn Porter was an insightful look into the TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws which imposed a couple of measures reportedly created for the safety of women, but which were ultimately struck down in a major US Supreme Court case eventually. That film was timely as TRAP laws were becoming the “policy du jour” for many conservative legislators last year.
This year, repro health policies are becoming even more aggressively anti-choice and extend beyond just the issue of abortion. Republican lawmakers in Washington D.C are not only continuing the crusade against abortion providers, but also including crucial maternity measures, birth control, sex education and more to further reduce the ability for an American woman to make the best and healthiest decision for herself. ‘Birthright’ is the documentary exposing all of this, not only with factual insight, but first-hand shocking accounts from women across the country who have fallen victim to a system that is more interested in ideological points than taking care of citizens.
It examines how women are being jailed, physically violated and even at risk of dying as a radical movement tightens its grip across America. The film tells the story of women who have become collateral damage in the aggressive campaign to take control of reproductive health care and to allow states, courts and religious doctrine to govern whether, when and how women will bear children. The documentary explores the accelerating gains of the crusade to overturn Roe v. Wade and the fallout that is creating a public health crisis, turning pregnant women into criminals and challenging the constitutional protections of every woman in America.
The film was directed by Civia Tamarkin (below right), and written and produced by both Civia and her partner Lucina Fisher. It has just opened in New York and is about to be released in Los Angeles as well as other cities. We spoke with Civia about her passion for this subject matter and what made her want to make this film. Having marched in a number of women’s rights protests in the 60’s and 70’s, she first expressed how infuriating it is for her to see repro rights still at the center of cultural and political battles in 2017.
It was a different Supreme Court decision from 2014, the infamous “Hobby Lobby” case which determined a for-profit corporation could deny employees birth control in their insurance packages if the company’s owners felt it went against their religion, that sparked the idea to make a documentary not just about the attack on women’s healthcare, but the religious agenda behind it.
“I would speak to college students and young women about the issue and I found many of them did not know what was going on. Some didn’t even know that restrictions were being made on preventative measures like birth control, so it was essential for me to make this information public, especially since birth control is something that can prevent abortion,” said Civia.
In the film, we are taken through a timeline of the increased influence of the Religious Right movement in our current politics, documenting how religious conservatives were galvanized to become a powerful voting demographic for winning presidential elections, specifically by being corralled around the issue of abortion. But more recently, especially with the rise of the Tea Party which helped many republicans sweep to power in the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections, the focus has expanded to include preventative healthcare. This is particularly troubling to Civia.
“We are witnessing a holy war in the United States that is restraining women. People talk about sharia law, but it is already happening here with the continual blurring of the line separating church and state,” she said.
Lawmakers are not holding back about citing their religious beliefs when it comes to voting against women’s reproductive healthcare measures, as we see throughout the film, but the backlash of that is women who are denied emergency abortion care when her health or the health of her fetus is in jeopardy, something which we also see in the film. Civia says this no longer a women’s issue or even just a repro health issue.
“It is a human rights violation because it is goes beyond just the ability to make a choice, it violates the ability of a woman to have bodily integrity. In America, no one can be forced to donate bone marrow, so why are restrictions only being placed on women? It is akin to the way women are described in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – as breeders,” she said.
What we learn from watching ‘Birthright’ is that there is a lot more at stake than just access to safe and legal abortion, and these issues also affect even those who identify as pro-life. One of the women interviewed, Mary Jo,wanted to get her tubes tied after having multiple children, but because of her experience dealing with healthcare that was so restricted due to anti-choice laws in her state as well as the growing influence of Catholic-owned facilities which follow religious directives from the church, she was denied that choice.
It may sound a little far-fetched to some people to hear the current political climate being described as similar to that of the climate in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, but what are are seeing is the potential markings of a theocratic government, where laws and policies are being directed by religious leanings. Yet, as we learn from the historical timeline in the film, it wasn’t always this way in the Republican party. Before the uprising of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority crusades against same-sex marriage and abortion led by prominent male religious leaders, these issues were not calling cards for the GOP.
Ronald Reagan signed one of the earliest abortion legalization laws when he was governor of California in the 1960s. Both George H.W. Bush and his father Prescott Bush were vehement supporters of Planned Parenthood, but the former President quickly had to backtrack from his record when he realized a run for the presidency would now mean courting the Religious Right vote in order to win (which he did). President Nixon, while in office, signed into law Title X, the only federal program exclusively dedicated to family planning and reproductive health services, which was initially championed by then-Rep George H.W. Bush.
Title IX (which prevents discrimination on the basis of gender in high schools and colleges in any educational program or activity receiving any type of federal financial aid) was also signed into law by Republican Richard Nixon, and Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court case of 1973 which legalized abortion in all 50 states, was also decided on during his administration. Yet today, the Republican-controlled Congress and White House is looking to take crucial funding away from Title X and instead put money into abstinence-only education, which has been proven to increase the rate of STDs, pregnancies and abortions in teens.
As Civia and Lucina have brilliantly captured in ‘Birthright’, this history of conservatives chipping away at women’s reproductive health has lead to a public health crisis which cannot be ignored any longer. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the fact that America has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world (which is rising) which is even more egregious when you see ground-zero states like Texas are more interested in focusing on restricting abortion and birth control than addressing this major problem.
Change can only happen when enough people are galvanized behind a call-to-action, and an awareness of the dire situation at hand. This is why films like ‘Birthright: A War Story’ are a powerful form of awareness we need right now. As the debate over healthcare rages on, Civia implores each of us to stay alert and do what we can as citizens to ensure our leaders don’t continue to put our healthcare and choices on the chopping block.
“It’s a vicious cycle and all the dots are connected. If we don’t act now all the dominoes will fall,” she said. Head over to the ‘Birthright’ website to learn more about the film and find a screening near you.