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Still from Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion.
(dir. Stephen Fell and Will Thompson, 2007). Used with permission from First Run Features.

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Journal Issue 2.1
Spring 2010
Edited by Deanna Utroske, Julie Ann Salthouse, Jillian Hernandez, and
Karen Alexander
Editorial Assistant: Katherine O’Connor


Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion. Directed by Stephen Fell and Will Thompson. New York: First Run Features, 2007.
Jane: An Abortion Service. Directed by Kate Kirtz and Nell Lundy. Juicy Productions for the Independent Television Service, 1996.
Like a Ship in the Night. Directed by Melissa Thompson. New York: The Cinema Guild, 2007.

Reviewed by Cynthia R. Daniels


Unborn in the USA provides a fascinating inside look at the national pro-life movement, the filmmakers following activities in thirty-five states during one year. The film begins with an in-depth portrait of the pro-life organization Focus on the Family’s summer training institute for pro-life (explicitly Christian) college students. The film follows a trained troop of students as they display highly charged fetal images on a Colorado college campus. College students will find fascinating the interactions between pro-life advocates and college students passing by as they respond to the giant fetal displays. Particularly intense is an exchange between a young woman who had an abortion at the age of thirteen as the result of a rape. The interweaving of religion with pro-life politics becomes even clearer as the filmmakers document some of the more extreme elements of the movement, most frighteningly, the Army of God, one of whose members was convicted for the murder of the abortion provider Bernard Slepian. Eerily prophetic is the scene outside a Wichita, Kansas, abortion clinic, run at that time by Dr. George Tiller, who would later (after the film release) be murdered by an anti-abortion activist.
            Also intriguing is a look inside the pro-life politics of Concerned Women for America, which casts its anti-abortion politics in “pro-woman” terms. Women are portrayed as regretful victims who were unaware of the harmful psychological and physical effects of abortion (including a claim of an association with breast cancer, which the filmmakers correct in a brief visual script). The film is most powerful when it lets pro-life advocates speak for themselves. Some pro-life students might find the documentary skewed toward the more radical edges of the movement. But it seems very clear from this accounting that for pro-life advocates there is no middle ground if the heart of this movement’s claim is that “life begins at conception” and that “abortion is a murder.” This film is highly recommended for all college courses addressing women’s rights, reproductive politics, or religion and politics.
            Jane: An Abortion Service is a film that gives an interesting (what some might find disturbing) historical account of abortion in the United States through the documentation of an underground abortion service that came to be known as “Jane,” in Chicago in the years before the 1973 Roe v Wade decision. Students will be surprised to learn of the existence of this collective of women who trained themselves in abortion procedures and who performed, by their own account, more than ten thousand abortions over ten years. The service began in the early 1960s, when some of the members began providing women with references to doctors in the Chicago area who were willing to provide abortions. Calls for such referrals multiplied as word spread of the service. Desperate women seeking abortions would call and ask for “Jane.” Women would be blindfolded and taken to a building where payments up to $1,000 would be handed over to a physician. Jane members recall assisting in the abortion procedures and gradually coming to recognize that perhaps the ones they were paying were not credentialed physicians.
            By 1970, the Jane collective began performing the procedures themselves for women in the early stages of pregnancy. The film does an excellent job of conveying the sense of collective civil disobedience they experienced in providing this critical service to women. As one collective member cast it, “Jane was a success story.” By 1971, they had rented two apartments for the sole purpose of performing abortions. By the time of the Roe v. Wade decision, nearly 75 percent of their clients were low-income African American women. A bit gruesome is the abortion story of one woman, apparently in her second trimester, where a Jane provider recounts extracting “small body parts” from the woman’s body and going on to perform a “dilation and extraction.” In late 1972, detectives arrived at the collective and members of Jane were charged with homicide, charges that would be dropped in the aftermath of the Roe v Wade decision. This film is a fascinating snapshot of the early years of the modern women’s movement, and one that will generate heated discussion in any college class.
            Like a Ship in the Night presents the stories of three women in Ireland who travel to England seeking abortions. These women represent a diverse range of women caught in Ireland’s extreme prohibitions on abortion, a crime punishable by life imprisonment both for a woman seeking an abortion and for anyone who assists her. The power of the film lies in its careful portrayal of the lives of these three Irish women: a working-class mother of five who simply can’t raise one more child, a young painter in the prime of her career, and a young woman from a rural county impregnated by a man ten years her senior. For students viewing this from the United States, it will feel like a trip back in time before Roe v. Wade. Each woman faces the challenges of raising over $1,200 for the procedure and fabricating deceptions for her trip to England. Each is confronted with tremendous external barriers as well as internalized pain over her decision.
            The film is powerful in its presentation of the compassionate services of those women in England who daily travel to the airport to pick up the estimated eight thousand Irish women who make this trip each year. The escort service is reminiscent of the Jane abortion service active in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. While each of the three profiled women remain faceless throughout the film, the faces of other Irish women who have had abortions are presented to demonstrate the range of women, young and old, who have made the same journey. The film ends with the story of “X,” a fourteen-year-old girl in Ireland who became pregnant by rape and who won the right to have an abortion from the Irish Supreme Court (on very limited grounds of the threat of her suicide). A growing pro-choice movement is portrayed as the struggle for abortion rights continues in Ireland. The film makes a powerful case for the emotional traumas produced by abortion prohibitions. In the United States, it will also serve as a reminder of the ever-present danger of growing restrictions on the right to abortion.


Cynthia R. Daniels ( is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Rutgers University. She is the author of At Women’s Expense: State Power and the Politics of Fetal Rights (Harvard University Press, 1993) and Exposing Men: The Science and Politics of Male Reproduction (Oxford University Press, 2006).





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