A Girl Like Her. Directed by Ann Fessler. New York: Women Make Movies, 2012. 48 minutes.
No Màs Bebés. Directed by Renee Tajima-Peña. Los Angeles: Good Docs, 2015. 60 minutes.
Vessel. Directed by Diana Whitten. New York: Kino Lorber, 2014. 86 minutes.
Activists and scholars in the arena of reproductive justice assert that women’s health is inextricable from intersecting factors including but not limited to race, age, community, imperialism, environmental health, labor rights, and immigration rights.1 The frame of reproductive justice thus expands our conversation from a rigid focus on abortion and contraception rights while still keeping these issues in mind as exemplars of women’s autonomy and well-being. Students of reproductive justice, therefore, must remain informed about the history and current politics around these issues as they expand their own theoretical and activist frames to incorporate broader conceptualizations of women’s reproductive justice. Documentaries such as those reviewed here offer instructors, students, and activists this opportunity.
A Girl Like Her weaves the personal stories of women who experienced unplanned pregnancies during the 1950s and 1960s with popular culture, educational clips, and archival footage to reveal the emotional trauma of unwanted pregnancies in an era of almost inaccessible contraception and abortion services. In the case of the storytellers, the pregnancies resulted in live births and coerced adoptions. The lingering impacts of this experience on the women who share their experiences is made even starker by director Ann Fessler’s artful editing, which places these personal stories within broader cultural narratives, and by the virtual invisibility of the storytellers, who remain off camera throughout. Fessler’s documentary offers a very human side to the history that preceded Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade.
The weaving of the three narratives—pop culture, educational, and personal—uncover a searing double standard based on sex and class as well as age. The film emphasizes the structural limitations placed on women in the 1950s and 1960s, emphasizing of the lack of access to contraception and abortion services as well as women’s lack of rights generally. Most of the women whose unplanned pregnancies during these decades resulted in adoptions were from upwardly mobile white families, so these voices dominate and could leave the viewer wishing for more information about the diversity of women’s experiences. This limitation is exacerbated by the lack of general statistics, which might provide a broader context. Additionally, there is only a brief mention that many women continue to share similar experiences today, thus potentially leaving the viewer with a sense that these problems have been solved. Nonetheless, the film provides a powerful and pithy learning opportunity.
No Màs Bebés examines the history of coercive sterilizations at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the 1960s and 1970s. The documentary pivots around the 1975 landmark case Madrigal v. Quilligan that brought the forced sterilizations of Mexican immigrant women to the attention of the California legal system and the nation. Although the film highlights the stories of the sterilized women and the young Chicana lawyer who represented them, it also includes interviews with doctors, nurses, and interns who witnessed the sterilizations and attest to the racism and classism these women endured. No Màs Bebés provides a critically necessary intervention into mainstream reproductive rights discourse in several ways. Its focus on the racialized, classed experiences of Mexican immigrant women in southern California highlights the complexities of the abortion debates as they occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s; while some women fought for the right to obtain a safe abortion and contraception, others were stripped of the right to have children. These tensions continue to be relevant in many ways today, as surgical sterilizations remain disproportionately high in communities of color and poor communities.2 Further, the documentary invites students to consider the role of immigration—and particularly Mexican immigration—in U.S. history, and its intersections with gender, sexuality, class, and citizenship. Equally importantly, the film fills in historical gaps in mainstream knowledge about forced sterilizations while also highlighting Chicana activism. No Màs Bebés opens up essential conversations around the classed and raced reproductive body, conversations that are as disturbingly necessary today as they were forty years ago when Madrigal v. Quilligan was first brought to court.
Vessel brings us directly to the issue of safe abortion access. Diana Whitten’s documentary follows the organization Women on Waves (WoW) as a growing group of volunteers travel the globe providing safe, legal abortions aboard ship in international waters and later also provide abortion information accessible via the internet, both of which are unusual spaces that bring to light many of the legal and social issues surrounding abortion restrictions. The film documents how WoW is both resisted and at times supported by different national governments and local organizations, from sympathetic press coverage and police protection to military blockades and threats of violence. Vessel thus offers interesting insights into abortion activism as viewers watch Rebecca Gompers, WoW’s founder, build alliances and learn to navigate and manipulate the press and the law in order to provide services and information to women. Gompers and several volunteers discuss their work as empowering to women on both local and international levels; this is a theme of the documentary throughout.
Vessel gives an important glimpse into the politics of abortion outside of the United States with a strong focus on Europe. The film also documents WoW’s more recent work in parts of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, where viewers get to watch the group’s members conducting trainings and guerilla activism with local organizations. I wish more attention had been paid to the politics of race and location in these areas in particular; as the documentary doesn’t consider this, the viewer is left to wonder what such an analysis might reveal. Overall, the film focuses primarily on structural issues of legal access, but retains a sense of intimacy through its close focus on Gompers and the stories and messages shared by women seeking WoW’s help. Students will enjoy the graphics and statistics as well as the factual information about abortion and the moving commitment of WoW’s volunteers to empowering women around the world.
The broad frame of reproductive justice insists that we consider gender and sexuality from, for example, nonbinary and non-ablist perspectives, which none of these documentaries do. At the same time, each of these films—particularly No Màs Bebés—pays attention to a range of intersectional experiences among the women whose stories are shared, and each contains both structural analyses and personal stories, making them useful on different levels. All three documentaries present valuable opportunities to broaden our conceptualizations of reproductive issues and think further about the meanings of rights, gender, sexuality, race, class, age, citizenship, and justice. Taken together, they would enrich any discussion about reproductive justice and spark conversations about women’s power, and lack thereof, in society, as well as the role and purpose of feminism.
1 See for example Zakiya Luna and Kristin Luker, “Reproductive Justice,” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 9 (2013): 327-52; see also the website for Sistersong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective (http://www.sistersong.net).
2 Thomas W. Volscho, “Sterilization Racism and Pan-Ethnic Disparities of the Past Decade: The Continued Encroachment on Reproductive Rights,” Wicazo Sa Review 25, no. 1 (2010): 17-31