Birthright is an incredibly comprehensive, powerful and eye-opening documentary shining a much-needed light on the dangerous war on women being accelerated every day by anti-abortion lawmakers. To illustrate what they call the “real-life Handmaid’s Tale,” the film tells the authentic stories of a wide range of women whose lives and well-beings have all been gravely endangered as a result of anti-abortion legislation.
From women who were denied proper medical care once they had already miscarried and were left to nearly die of infection, to women arrested for child abuse because of faulty and non-consensual drug tests taken immediately after birth, to women forcibly given cesarean sections against their will, Birthright goes far beyond the single issue of abortion to spotlight how the anti-abortion movement is intricately connected to a vast number of other issues—and is endangering women’s lives.
The filmmakers, Civia Tamarkin and Luchina Fisher, are strong believers of turning one’s knowledge and anger into concrete activism, and they are adamant in their belief that to know of an injustice, yet do nothing to help stop it, is simply not enough. (Their website implores those interested in their film, for example, to fight Trumpcare by contacting their Senators, further connecting the topics in their film to the broader issues facing women at every level of government.)
Ms. spoke with Tamarkin and Fisher about what they hope to achieve with Birthright and how we need to restructure the way that we think about reproductive rights in order to create a fair, safe and just society.
What is the inspiration and meaning behind the title of your film, Birthright?
CT: The title has a dual meaning of first, a woman’s natural right and self-determination over her own body and secondly, of a fertilized egg’s right to be born. It highlights the conflicts between the guaranteed rights of the woman and the perceived rights of the unborn. The title also evokes the war against women that has been waging for generations. In fact, when Roe came down, opponents immediately issued a declaration of war and began building a war machine.
What was the defining moment that compelled you to create this film?
CT: It was immediately after the Hobby Lobby decision in June of 2014. I was outraged and shocked that this law had come down—that the Supreme Court had upheld a company’s decision to withhold contraceptive access from employees. As someone who had participated some 40 years ago in the marches and demonstrations to ensure the privacy of women’s reproductive rights, I could not understand how this erosion had taken place. It seemed to come out of nowhere. And I was determined to do something to try to figure out how and why this could happen and connect the dots. There was a whole generation that was not aware of what was happening. If I was unaware and I was part of the generation that was so involved with fighting for these rights in the first place, then I realized women must have been blindsided by this. So I reached out to Luchina and said we have to do something about this.
What was the process like finding women who were willing to share their stories?
LF: It was a long and arduous process to not only find these women but to also have them feel comfortable enough to go on camera. I think many of them had felt victimized by legislation and policy that were put in place and there is just so much stigma now surrounding anything having to do with reproductive healthcare that I think these women were reticent to come forward. In the end, I just have to applaud those who did speak out for their strength in representing so many women. What we ultimately ended up with was such a wide cross section of America. It’s happening everywhere in the country and with these women who ultimately were the ones to speak out, they were integral in allowing us to portray the truly vast cross section that exists.
How do you think the types of women and stories you sought reflect the overall goal of your film?
CT: This allowed for us to end up with the overarching story. From the start, we never wanted to do an abortion film. I wanted to take the issue far beyond abortion. I wanted to look at it not in the old lexicon of choice and rights because I think the word “choice” has become diminished over the years. It connotes a cavalier attitude—we make choices every day in myriad ways—some of them in the most mundane fashion. So I thought the word has become minimalized. What I wanted to do was look at this in the context of human rights abuses. When a woman cannot maintain her bodily integrity, that is a fundamental human rights abuse. If that were occurring in third world countries or in totalitarian regimes, there would be worldwide outrage and outcry over these kinds of human rights abuses. And yet, these kinds of violations that deprive women of medical decision making are the kind of subject that I think demands everybody’s attention. That is the kind of film we wanted to make.
LF: By having real women tell their stories, we wanted people to understand that there are real people affected by this. Words like “rights” and “choice” are often words that get thrown around, but they have a real impact on people’s lives and I think that is what comes across so strongly in the film. These women provide a human face for how this has really affected women and families.
CT: Despite what a few critics have said about the film having too many talking heads, I felt they were essential to connect the dots—to put the women’s stories in a vital context. Too often, we hear individual stories that are in a vacuum and do not allow someone to perceive the broader picture, which includes the evolution, the strategizing, and the impact of the opposition movement. To show that these stories are not isolated, but rather, representative, was key in portraying the truth.
Throughout the filmmaking process, was there anything that surprised you, or was everything what you had expected going into the project?
LF: For me, I was so surprised at the number of women who have been criminalized by laws during their pregnancies. In Alabama alone, there were more than 500 women criminalized at the time we were filming. When I went there to interview two of the women in the film, I was watching television and another arrest popped up of a woman who had been charged with chemical endangerment of a child. When you hear about things like this happening to one person, it’s extraordinary, but when it’s hundreds of women, that was something really disturbing and distressing for me to realize.
CT: As we researched more, the other thing that was so alarming was the cross section of these issues. Poor women of color are disproportionately affected by all the cut-backs in Medicaid and access to reproductive health. In terms of the criminalization laws, however, there’s a wide spread of who this affects across the country—from women that are forcibly hospitalized by court order, to women that have an accident at home, end up in the emergency room and are immediately suspect and reported to authorities for “trying to induce an abortion,” to women being forcibly institutionalized and put into solitary confinement under the Fetal Protection Act. These are abuses that are shocking to realize in terms of how widespread they are across the country. The fact is this is something that affects women across racial and economic lines.
How do you think this movement would benefit from adopting a reproductive justice framework—one that focuses on these issues through a human rights lens—as opposed to the reproductive rights framework on which it is currently based?
CT: You control a woman by controlling her reproduction. And when you’re not able to control her reproduction, she has access to education. She has access to economic opportunities. She has access to standard of living conditions. Reproductive justice encompasses all of that. It’s not just the right to determine whether or not you bear children. It’s the right to have children if you want to, to not have children if you don’t want to, to raise your children in an economically-advantaged, safe environment—basically, to be allowed to live within all of the things that human rights connote. The current outlook on reproductive “rights” needs a much broader context. It’s not about whether or not you carry a child. It’s about the right to give birth the way you want to, and to raise your children with all the safety and opportunity you and the child deserve.
LF: Reproductive justice works to look at the whole picture. It was really important for us to have Loretta Ross, who was the co-founder of the term “reproductive justice,” as part of the film. She was actually the one to tell us when I was interviewing her, “Please don’t make another abortion movie.” We all acknowledged that this is far beyond that. It’s important that we represent all types of people and recognize that the issue is just so much bigger in terms of its impact on people’s lives.
CT: Reproductive justice also equates with human rights. And that’s what it’s all about. There is no other situation where the state and the court can intervene in one’s medical decision making and one’s bodily autonomy. Yet somehow, in this day and age, 44 years after Roe, it is still fair game to control medical decisions involving a woman’s reproductive organs. And that’s a matter of justice. That’s where reproductive justice and human rights come into play, and that’s where the real and necessary change lies.
Birthright is wrapping up premiers in New York today but will be released in theaters in Dallas on July 25, Los Angeles on July 28, Long Beach on July 29, and in several other locations throughout September. Get tickets to a screening near you.