The Middle of Everywhere: The Abortion Debate from America’s Heartland. Directed by Rebecca Lee and Jesper Malmberg. New York: Women Make Movies, 2008. 52 minutes.
Silent Choices. Directed by Faith Pennick. Blooming Grove, NY: New Day Films, 2007. 60 minutes.
Motherland Afghanistan. Directed by Sedika Mojadidi. New York: First Run Features, 2006. 74 minutes.
The feminist concept of reproductive rights encompasses the right to have an abortion, when it is a woman’s choice, and the right to a healthy pregnancy and childbirth.1 Reproductive rights enshrine a woman’s self-determination, choice, and well-being; yet these rights are far from being realized for many women across the globe. This review focuses on three documentaries that have tackled reproductive rights in contexts where the concept of choice is entwined with religious beliefs, legacies of racism, and war and poverty. Rebecca Lee and Jesper Malmberg’s The Middle of Everywhere and Faith Pennick’s Silent Choices shed light on the intricacies of the abortion debate in the United States, whilst Sedika Mojadidi’s Motherland Afghanistan presents a heart-wrenching account of the risks Afghani women experience during pregnancy and childbirth.
Though the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 established that American women have a right to have an abortion, the debate on this reproductive rights issue is far from resolved. Lee and Malmberg’s documentary captures a moment of heated debate and political lobbying in a predominantly white Christian town in South Dakota in 2006, when residents in the state voted on a bill to overturn Roe v. Wade and outlawed abortion. Even though the state has the lowest abortion rate in the country, the issue gained visibility as a political tool to coalesce the vote of the religious right. At the same time, pro-choice grassroots campaigners mobilized voters by framing abortion as a public health issue and a fundamental right.
The contentious pro-life versus pro-choice debate is illustrated in the documentary through interviews with two strong-willed women who stand on completely opposite sides of the issue—Kate Looby, the Director of the only Planned Parenthood clinic in South Dakota, and Leslee Unruh, the Executive Director of the Vote Yes for Life Campaign. Statements extracted from interviews with both show that the same argument can be mobilized differently to advance two juxtaposing positions. While pro-choice Looby defended abortion as a basic pillar of reproductive rights, pro-life organizer Unruh claimed that abortion deprives women of choice since most are coerced into it and exercise little to no choice. Similarly, the pro-choice argument about limiting government interference in women’s private lives permeates Unruh’s pro-life statements about abortion as a matter of personal belief and morality, not government policy.
Notwithstanding the filmmakers’ attempt to objectively present the two points of view, the pro-life discourse remained flagrantly anti-choice and anti-feminist. Despite the support pro-life organizers received from the religious right, the attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade failed as South Dakota residents declared with their vote that abortion should remain safe, legal, and a woman’s choice.
Pennick’s Silent Choices transposes the viewer from white, Christian, Middle America to the realities of black women in the United States, where abortion is shrouded by a deafening silence. Even though African American women receive abortions at a higher rate compared to white women, abortion is ironically labelled in the black community as a “white woman’s issue.” The documentary dispels historical myths that make the contemporary silence and denial even more perplexing. Black women have been devising ways to control their fertility long before the advent of the birth control revolution in the 1960s. During the early decade of the twentieth century, a lively debate about family planning ensued in many black communities and some prominent black men and women supported it.
Why then is abortion often silenced and deemed a personal issue, a white issue, or even a betrayal of one’s race? Pennick’s critical investigation of this question relied on interviews with African American women who had an abortion and those who chose not to, pro-choice activists, and pro-life religious advocates. The results show that abortion in black communities cannot be understood outside the contexts of slavery, genocide, and sexual stereotyping. For example, black women often hide abortion from their mothers and closest friends to protect themselves from accusations of licentious sexuality and to fend off the “dirty girl” label.
In the era of the Civil Rights movement, abortion was a taboo subject as black women bore the responsibility of producing soldiers for the revolution to ensure black political power. Black nationalists, and some prominent black feminists whose choice was stripped away from them through forced sterilization, came out strongly against abortion. As women’s reproductive rights have become compromised during other revolutionary times, in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s abortion in the black community remained underground and women who performed it often felt a sense of shame for acting in an "anti-revolutionary" manner.
In addition to the fight against white supremacy playing an important role in keeping black women’s reproductive rights in the shadow, Silent Choices shows the Black Church as responsible for promoting an anti-choice agenda. In interviews with Reverend Clenard H. Childress Jr. and the young black mothers hosted in his church, Pennick contrasts the abortion-is-anti-revolutionary argument with the Church’s anti-choice position based on such arguments as women’s natural propensity to sacrifice and the religious view on the beginning of life. Through these juxtapositions, Pennick illustrates how racism, patriarchy, and religion intersect to silence African American women who choose to terminate a pregnancy. Silent Choices is no doubt a loud cry to place abortion on the reproductive freedom and justice agenda in black communities.
Nowhere does reproductive justice seem more violated than in Afghanistan, a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. In Motherland Afghanistan, Sedika Mojadidi documents the efforts of Dr. Qudrat Mojadidi (the filmmaker’s father), who makes frequent visits from the United States to Afghanistan to train OB/GYN physicians who provide health care to extremely deprived women. The documentary is first set in the Rabia Balkhi Hospital in Kabul and later in Al-Shuhada Hospital in the marginalized Hazara region. Mojadidi’s film succeeds in placing Afghani women’s health and reproductive choice in a historical context of Soviet occupation, followed by years of Taliban rule, and finally the United States imperialist war on the country.
At Rabia Balkhi, ironically renamed the Laura Bush Hospital after a trifling $300,000 donation from the US Department of Health and Human Services, women arrive with untreated painful fistulas and dead fetuses in their wombs, only to find poorly trained medical staff, lack of medical equipment, and an appalling state of hygiene.2 Under such conditions, the concept of women’s choice and reproductive rights carries a completely different meaning than in the US. The story of Sharifa exemplifies the amount of suffering Afghani women experience. The seventeen year old arrived at Al-Shuhada Hospital malnourished, exhausted, and experiencing premature labor. She gave birth to a live baby girl who stopped breathing a few days later. In a country where only one out of five babies lives to see their first birthday, the concept of pro-life is rendered nebulous. Sharifa shed a few tears to mourn the loss of her baby before she was scolded by her husband to “stop crying and listen to what the doctor is saying.”
Together, the three documentaries present a nuanced view of reproductive rights and open doors to exploring how religion, racism, war, and poverty intersect to determine women’s choices and well-being. The US documentaries are excellent tools to use in a feminist theory course or a feminist-centered women’s health course to contextualize the abortion debate and discuss the value of intersectionality as a theoretical tool to understand women’s reproductive experiences. The documentary on women in Afghanistan is ideal for a global health course, a women’s health course, or even an American studies course to encourage young American students to confront the impact of US imperialism on women in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
1 Whereas many white feminists have focused their reproductive rights activism on abortion, third world feminists and feminists of color have argued that the rights to bear children and to survive childbirth are also fundamental to reproductive justice.
2 A fistula is an opening between the vagina and bladder (vesicovaginal fistula) or vagina and rectum (rectovaginal fistula) that is caused by prolonged labor.