Birth on the Border. Directed by Ellie Lobovits. New York: Women Make Movies, 2018. 28 minutes.
Abortion Access in the Maritimes. Directed by Stephanie Brown and Patrick McGuire. Toronto: Vice Canada, 2016. 33 minutes.
The Philippines’ Baby Factory. Directed by Mary Ann Jolley. Doha, Qatar: Al Jazeera, 2018. 26 minutes.
The intersections between Birth on the Border, Abortion Access in the Maritimes, and The Philippines’ Baby Factory are women’s lack of agency and control over their reproductive lives, gender-based violence, an abdication of responsibility by the state to uphold and enforce the rights of women and girls, and the influence of powerful forces—namely religion—on how medical systems and governments operate to disadvantage women.
Birth on the Border introduces viewers to Gaby and Luisa, two women from Ciudad Juarez who cross the Mexican border to the United States to legally give birth in Texas. This is important, they explain, because of their desires for quality prenatal care, to escape the obstetrical and interpersonal violence that they fear in their home community, and to give their children the opportunity to live in the United States. Referring to violence in both the birthing process and also in living in a city where women regularly go missing and are murdered, Gaby asks us to consider “How bad does it have to be. . . when you’re willing to crown when you are on a bridge?” We listen to Luisa describe through tears how she had to give up completing her degree to become a mother and face anxieties about crossing the border—even with legal papers to do so—not knowing how border agents would use their power. Class readings on obstetrical violence and the dangers of overmedicalized birth would deepen conversations about why Gaby’s and Luisa’s desire to have a more holistic birth with an Indigenous midwife in the United States is both important and also somewhat ironic given that births in the United States tend to be highly interventionist, with low midwifery involvement, and with unjustifiably high maternal mortality rates.1 Just as there is no resolution for what the future will hold for Gaby, Luisa, and their families, the film ends without offering a resolution to the viewer. We are left wondering about the two women, and the many others like them, who will continue to traverse international borders in the hope of finding compassion and opportunities for themselves and their children.
Abortion Access in the Maritimes challenges assumptions that because abortion is fully decriminalized in Canada there are no barriers to accessing abortion-related health care. The film begins at a March for Life rally at the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly in Fredericton and follows an abortion rights activist, Sarah Ratchford, as she infiltrates a “crisis pregnancy centre” undercover. She also speaks with local feminist activists who fundraised to purchase the only abortion clinic in the city when it was destined to close and with women, researchers, and healthcare providers who have personal familiarity with the challenges related to abortion access in the maritime provinces of Canada. The film lacks racial diversity and could have gone deeper with an intersectional analysis of how access to abortion is even more difficult for gender-diverse people, racialized people, and people without legal citizenship status. It does, however, illustrate that abortion access can be difficult even for people with privilege who live in a country with socialized medicine that guarantees “access to quality health care without financial or other barriers.”2 For example, we learn about feminist activists who endeavor to support people who need abortion care when they are abandoned by the healthcare system. Additionally, near the end of the film, an abortion provider calls out both the provincial and federal governments for using “women’s bodies as political fodder” by changing their stance on whose responsibility it is to ensure abortion access—which is often based on whether they have allies or opponents at the provincial and federal levels. She also highlights a report that indicated how much less expensive it would be for the healthcare system to provide abortion services in province rather than requiring travel to a neighboring province, and we are shown a press conference with the Premier of Prince Edward Island as well as its Minister of Health and Wellness, both of whom refuse to offer a direct response, instead stating that paying for women to travel out of province is “a very good key first step for us.”
In the opening scene of The Philippines’ Baby Factory we are introduced to Maymay, a girl playing Chinese garter with her friends in an impoverished neighborhood of Manila.3 We learn that Maymay became pregnant at eleven years old by her adult boyfriend, miscarried, and blamed herself because she didn’t know she was pregnant and continued to play garter. She views her miscarriage as “an affront to the Lord” and asks herself, “Why did I make such a sin as to play?” The entire film focuses on the lives, pregnancies, and children of children—of young girls who live in a country where the age of consent is twelve, abortion is illegal in all circumstances, and teenage pregnancy is on the rise. We visit Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, a facility that delivers thirteen thousand babies a year and has entire wards devoted to girls who are giving birth and to women and girls who are injured after unsafe abortion. We also learn how easy it is to get abortion medicines and tonics from local markets, despite its illegality, and meet an underground abortion provider who prays for forgiveness before doing an abortion and lights a candle for the fetus “because it is already a human being.” In the devoutly Catholic nation, we are taken into an abstinence-only sex education class, where the way a cord fits into the bottom end of a microphone is used to explain how women and men fit together, contraception is described as sinful, and the boys describe how they learn what they need to know about sex through pornography. The vice-governor of the province, a member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, is interviewed on camera about his belief that all forms of contraception are morally wrong. He goes on to say that he disagrees with the United Nations proposition that it is a woman’s right to be able to plan a family, stating “I would like to think that could be overturned in the future.” With over 80 percent of Filipinos identifying as Catholic, the church has enormous influence over governmental policy. Therefore, it is not surprising that although over five years ago the government passed a reproductive health law to support sex education in schools and grant access to free contraception, religious lobbying has hampered implementation.
Individually and collectively, the films invite viewers to consider how the rights of women and girls are not only disregarded but also infringed upon by governments through the healthcare systems. In advance of classroom discussions, a review of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals—particularly those that focus on gender equality and empowerment—would help situate the localized experiences of the women and girls in the films within the larger global context. Clear connections can be made about how a lack of access to contraception, abortion, and safe birth can lead to women’s limited capacity to control their lives. At times both heartbreaking and infuriating, the films are likely to elicit strong responses that compel viewers to consider why fighting for reproductive justice is something that requires sustained attention and action.
1 Cheryl Anderson, “Impact of Traumatic Birth Experience on Latina Adolescent Mothers,” Issues in Mental Health Nursing 31, no. 11 (October 2010): 700-707; Jessica Shaw, “The Medicalization of Birth and Midwifery as Resistance,” Healthcare for Women International 34, no. 6 (March 2013): 522-36; Annalisa Merelli, “The Reason Childbirth Is Over-medicalized in America Has Its Roots in Racial Segregation,” Quartz, November 27, 2017; Roberto Castro and Sonia M. Frías, “Obstetric Violence in Mexico: Results from a 2016 National Household Survey,” Violence against Women 26, no. 6-7 (2020): 555-72.
2 Canada Health Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-6 (Can.).
3 Chinese garter is a popular game among Filipino children in which participants must jump over a horizontal garter (or rope) that is increasingly raised in height. It begins with the garter being held close to the ground and progresses to the last level where the garter is raised as high above the head as possible.