Breaking the Silence. Directed by Ewa Pytka. Warsaw: Astra Network/Python Studios, 2007. 60 minutes.
Rosita. Directed by Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater. Olney, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2005. 58 minutes.
The Abortion Diaries. Directed by Penny Lane. Oakland: Backline, 2005. 30 minutes.
Although they are related terms, reproductive rights and reproductive justice are two different concepts. While reproductive rights is a legal framework that is based on the individualist concept of choice, reproductive justice is a human rights framework that places reproduction within “a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on [the] power” of individual women and entire communities.1 Within the latter paradigm, reproduction must be situated within an historical, social, political, economic, and transnational context, and understood in connection to other social justice issues, such as LGBTQ rights, economic justice, and environmental justice.
It can be challenging teaching students the differences between the two frameworks, as many of them come to courses on reproduction with the language of “choice” already firmly imprinted in their minds and may have a difficult time fully understanding the institutional forces that constrain individual choices. Moreover, students often have many assumptions, prejudices, and misinformation about reproduction, particularly about women who are dealing with unintended pregnancies. Much of this is based on anecdotal evidence at best. The following documentaries, along with carefully chosen readings, and crafted lectures and assignments, can help move students beyond these preconceived notions.2
Breaking the Silence directed by Ewa Pytka examines reproductive and sexual rights in Central and Eastern Europe by profiling the countries of Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Moldavia, Georgia and Ukraine. Covering six countries in less than an hour, the film can, realistically, only serve as a brief introduction. Nonetheless, it still manages to show the commonality of issues among the countries (i.e., abortion, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and violence) as well as highlight the challenges that are unique to each country due to cultural, social, and political differences. For example, the film shows how the specific cultural beliefs, taboos and stigmas about gender and sexuality have had a negative impact on reproductive and sexual health outcomes in Georgia.
Based on the book Historia de una Rosa by journalist Maria López Vigil, Rosita, directed by Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater, tells the compelling story of Rosa, a nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl who became pregnant as a result of rape in Costa Rica in 2003. Told through news footage, interviews with Rosa’s parents and key members of the medical, legal, religious, and feminist communities, and the words of Rosa as told to Vigil, the film chronicles the legal, political, and media maelstrom that arose when her parents, who were immigrants working as coffee pickers in Costa Rica, sought to obtain a “therapeutic abortion” for her.3 The film raises questions about whose life takes precedence, and deftly shows how other social justice issues, such as sexual violence, immigration, and economic justice, affect reproductive health.
Both films are illustrative of how various institutions can work in collusion with one another to limit human rights. For instance, the Catholic Church figures prominently in both films. In Breaking the Silence, we learn that the Church, working in coalition with right-wing politicians, has been very influential in restricting access to abortion in Poland and Lithuania. In Rosita, again we see the Catholic Church’s overreach in politics and medical practice, as it pressured the governments and medical communities of both countries in order to prevent the “therapeutic abortion” from happening—even though the medical community had originally determined that the potential physical, biological, and emotional risks of a nine-year-old carrying a pregnancy to full term were too great.
Personal stories can be very effective in humanizing social and political issues, which is why Penny Lane decided to direct The Abortion Diaries. As Lane puts it, “I began this film as a way to come to terms with my own abortion. When I began to share my story, I found that many women I knew also had stories to tell, stories they’d never told anyone.” 4 Interweaving excerpts from Lane’s personal diaries, the film presents the candid abortion stories of twelve women, who range in age from 19 to 54.5 These stories drive home that abortion is not just about health; it represents a society’s conceptions about gender, sex, sexuality, relationships, motherhood, and social stigma, among other things. This film can help to dispel some of the myths about the abortion decision-making process.
All of these films can be used effectively in the classroom when paired with facts, statistics, historical, and cultural analyses, and behavioral research. The Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization produce regional and country profiles and reports, and the Center for Reproductive Rights maintains a website with an interactive map that describes the abortion laws in most of the countries in the world (worldabortionlaws.com). All of these sources are useful for discussing reproductive justice in a transnational context and are great complements to the first two films. Additionally, there is a growing body of research that examines the reasons why women obtain abortions that can be assigned in conjunction with The Abortion Diaries.6 In the end, the overall goal is to get students to think about reproductive and sexual health within a broader context.
1 SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, “What Is RJ? Why is Reproductive Justice Important for Women of Color?” (accessed December 11, 2013). A more detailed discussion about the differences between the two frameworks can be found at Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (now known as Forward Together), “A New Vision for Advancing Our Movement for Reproductive Health, Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice,” (Oakland, CA: Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, 2005).
2 Kimala Price, “Teaching about Reproduction, Politics and Social Justice,” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy 19, no. 2 (2009): 42-54.
3 Although abortion is illegal in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, both countries at the time allowed abortions for cases in which the life or health of the pregnant woman is at risk. Nicaragua has since eliminated all exceptions to the prohibition of abortion.
4 This quote is from the introduction included in the “About” section of the menu on the film’s DVD.
5 The interviewees are not as diverse in terms of race and ethnicity as I would like. Only two of the interviewees are women of color, one African American and one Latina.
6 Some examples of these studies are: Lawrence B. Finer, Lori F. Frohwirth, Lindsay A. Dauphinee, Susheela Singh, and Ann M. Moore, “Timing of Steps and Reasons for Delays in Obtaining Abortions in the United States,” Contraception 74, no. 4 (2006): 334–344; Akinrinola Bankole, Susheela Singh, and Taylor Haas, “Reasons Why Women Have Induced Abortions: Evidence from 27 Countries,” International Family Planning Perspectives 24, no. 3 (1998): 117-27, 152; Stanley K. Henshaw and Kost Kathryn, Trends in the Characteristics of Women Obtaining Abortions, 1974 to 2004 (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2008).