Birthright: A War Story. Directed by Civia Tamarkin. New York: Women Make Movies, 2017. 100 minutes.
After Tiller. Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2013. 88 minutes.
Abortion Democracy: Poland/South Africa. Directed by Sarah Diehl. Berlin: Sarah Diehl, 2008. 50 minutes.
Portrayals of the control and exploitation of women through our bodies, sexuality, and reproduction—that is, reproductive oppression—are at the center of the films reviewed here.1 Birthright: A War Story documents how after Roe v. Wade activists have organized to restrict access to abortion, contraception, and sterilization by stacking on state regulations and advancing antichoice political candidates; After Tiller profiles the effect on the only four doctors who perform late-term abortions (after twenty weeks) of the murder of their colleague Dr. George Tiller in 2009; and Abortion Democracy: Poland/South Africa interrogates the consequences for female citizens based on how these countries regulate and implement abortion laws.2
By allowing women to share their own histories (in their own words), Birthright: A War Story, directed by Civia Tamarkin and written by Tamarkin and Luchina Fisher, reveals the practical complexities of new laws that have stripped away health services unrelated to abortion and have deprived women—especially poor women—of routine obstetric and gynecological care. The victims of the war on reproductive rights in the United States include new mothers (mostly poor women of color) who are charged with chemical child endangerment after drug tests are performed without consent during childbirth; women who are treated like criminals because their pregnancies did not reach full term either because of miscarriage or premature birth; women who are pressured to have a Cesarean section instead of a natural birth (that they might desire) for no medical reason; and women who are denied healthcare services, including abortion services and sterilization, by the Catholic hospital system.3
Instructors can use this film to call attention to many important issues, reminding us of the dangers of complacency. One scene showcases a room full of young women who did not know of Roe v. Wade, and another demonstrates how laws have made abortion inaccessible to many women—mostly poor women of color. Questions one might pose are: What strategies could we use to repeal the Hyde Amendment so that no more women, like Rosie Jimenez, die as a result of septic shock due to an unsafe underground abortion? How can we retain our bodily autonomy—our human rights—when many young women don’t even know what rights they have or what laws grant them those rights?
After Tiller, a documentary directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, profiles the only four doctors in the United States who have performed late-term abortions after the murder of Dr. Tiller in 2009. Late-term abortion, which results in a stillbirth of a premature fetus, account for less than 1 percent of abortions performed in a year and occur more often than not for medical reasons, having to do with fetal abnormalities that would mean a short, painful life for the baby after delivery.4 This documentary is particularly poignant in showing how the stigmatization of abortion care takes a personal toll on doctors. As a result, there is a shortage of abortion providers due to the intimidation, constant protest, and violence they face. However, the four doctors showcased, Dr. Leroy Carhart, Dr. Shelley Sella, Dr. Susan Robinson, and Dr. Warren Hern, view it as their mission precisely because it is threatened. But when these heroes and heroines retire, who else will believe that women, as Robinson put it, “are the world’s experts in their own lives” and must be allowed to make their own choices?
For those of us who want a clearer sense of history and a broader context, Abortion Democracy: Poland/South Africa is a documentary that focuses on two case studies: Poland and South Africa. In Poland, abortion was legalized in 1956 under Communist rule, and for years it had one of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe. However, the Catholic Church played a key role in the fight against Communism, and, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, pushed lawmakers to make abortion illegal in 1993, with exceptions only for serious threats to the health of the mother or the fetus and for pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. The election of Law and Justice in 2015, a conservative Christian democratic political party, has further limited women’s reproductive choices through legal tactics: introduce a divisive bill, endure protests, retreat temporarily, propose a new bill, and ultimately enact a version of the law it wanted, with less objection.
In post-apartheid South Africa, the 1996 Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act allowed trained doctors, midwives, and nurses to perform abortions on demand up to twelve weeks into the pregnancy, and doctors could perform abortions thereafter under certain circumstances. The act was amended in 2003 to allow any health facility with a twenty-four-hour maternity service to offer first-trimester abortion services, so South African women are — at least theoretically — able to obtain abortions for free from public facilities. However, because of conscientious objection —the right medical professionals have to refuse to perform abortion on religious or moral grounds—“over 40 percent of designated abortion care sites in 2011 weren’t actually providing the service.”5 Although in these cases healthcare professionals are legally obliged to refer the pregnant woman to someone who will offer the procedure, not all professionals do. There is also an overall lack of providers, leading to long waiting lists and many unwanted pregnancies being pushed over the twelve-week limit. Because of this, many women turn to illegal clinics.
When examining reproductive oppression in other countries, as feminist instructors we need to be mindful about US behavior around the globe.6 For example, most students might have not heard of the global gag rule, which prevents any NGOs receiving US funding from even mentioning the word abortion, let alone providing abortion-related services such as counseling, referral, and advocacy. The policy was revoked under the Obama administration and reinstated by Donald Trump during his first week in office. As instructors, we might ask, How has this policy forced women all over the world to turn to illegal clinics? How many deaths will be enough for inaccessibility to safe abortions to be considered a health and human rights crisis?7
These three films focus on abortion. However, reproductive justice is so much more than legal access to abortion.8 It is important to fight equally for the right to have a child, the right to control our birthing options (e.g., a midwife or an ob/gyn), as well as the right to parent the children we have. A documentary that depicts this in a compelling way is No Más Bebés, highlighting just how important it is to fight for the conditions to realize these rights.9 This film weaves interviews and reminiscences of ten women who were forcibly sterilized when they went to give birth and subsequently filed a lawsuit (Madrigal v. Quilligan) against Los Angeles County Medical Center (LACMC), Los Angeles County, the State of California, the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and doctors. No Más Bebés also shows how the sterilization abuses that occurred at LACMC were shaped by racial/ethnic, class, and gender biases.10
We do not have the luxury of ignorance after watching any of these documentaries. As Loretta Ross, cofounder of the reproductive justice organization SisterSong noted in Birthright, “You really can’t divorce the struggle for abortion rights, from the struggle for racial justice, from the struggle for civil rights, from the struggle for human rights, and really from the struggle for power in this country. It is a mistake to think that the abortion struggle is just about abortion or just about women.”
1 See Loretta J. Ross, “Understanding Reproductive Justice: Transforming the Pro-choice Movement,” off our backs 36, no. 4 (2006): 14-19.
2 An abortion is generally considered to be “late term” if it occurs after the twentieth week of gestation.
3 See Diane di Mauro and Carole Joffe, “The Religious Right and the Reshaping of Sexual Policy: An Examination of Reproductive Rights and Sexuality Education,” Sexuality Research & Social Policy 4, no. 1 (2007): 67-92; Carole Joffe, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us (Boston: Beacon, 2010).
4 “Abortion Surveillance System FAQs,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last reviewed November 19, 2018.
5 Sian Ferguson, “Abortion Is Legal in South Africa — But Illegal Clinics Are Thriving. Why?” Bright Magazine, April 3, 2017.
6 Michelle Goldberg, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (New York: Penguin, 2009).
7 According to the Department of Health, between 2008 and 2010, 23 percent of maternal deaths resulting from septic “miscarriages” in public health facilities were the direct result of unsafe abortions. See National Committee for Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths, Saving Mothers 2014-2016: Seventh Triennial Report on Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths in South Africa: Short Report (Praetoria, South Africa: Department of Heath, 2018).
8 See Sister Song's Reproductive Justice.
9 Barbara Gurr reviews No Más Bebés in Films for the Feminist Classroom, issue 7.1; No Màs Bebés, directed by Renee Tajima-Peña (Los Angeles: Good Docs, 2015), 60 minutes.
10 See Carlos G. Vélez-Ibañez, “‘Se me acabó la canción’: An Ethnography of Non-consenting Sterilizations among Mexican Women in Los Angeles,” in Mexican Women in the United States: Struggles Past and Present, edited by Magdalena Mora and Adelaida R. Del Castillo (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, 1980), 71-91; Virginia Espino, “‘Woman Sterilized as Gives Birth': Forced Sterilization and Chicana Resistance in the 1970s,” in Las Obreras: Chicana Politics of Work and Family, edited by Vicki L. Ruiz (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, 2000), 65-82; Elena R. Gutiérrez, Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-Origin Women’s Reproduction (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008); Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).