Feminist journalist and filmmaker Civia Tamarkin is calling out the anti-abortion opposition’s game.
Civia Tamarkin—an Arizona-based former broadcast journalist, filmmaker and reproductive rights activist—spends much of her time these days strategizing how to block the harmful anti-abortion and anti-democratic legislation barreling through the Arizona state legislature. In particular, she and others have been testifying in front of lawmakers, speaking out against the dozen anti-abortion bills that have been introduced so far this year.
As an activist since the ’60s, Tamarkin is no stranger to the fight. But now, she’s fed up with playing defense.
Ms. digital editor Roxy Szal spoke to Tamarkin to discuss the history and hypocrisy of the anti-abortion movement; the ways the fight for reproductive justice has changed over the years, and the ways it’s stayed the same; and the path to achieving universal access to a host of sexual and reproductive health care.
Roxy Szal: Tell us about yourself. Why do so many consider you to be an expert in abortion access and reproductive health?
Civia Tamarkin: I have spent most of my career as an investigative journalist. My reporting led to one of the first exculpatory DNA exonerations in the United States as well as the exoneration of a death row inmate. The last position I had was an executive at CNN. Before that, I produced investigative segments and series for ABC World News. I reported for Time Inc. publications, newspapers, and covered the fall of Vietnam.
When I left CNN, I started my own independent production company. One of the first films I did investigated how the Republicans were trying to undermine Title IX, going back to George W. Bush’s presidency. I’ve often focused on social and criminal justice issues within the broad realm of reproductive justice.
Szal: How has the fight for reproductive rights changed since you started your activism work?
Tamarkin: I had been an activist in the ’60s. I was marching to end the war in Vietnam. I was marching for women’s rights. I was marching for the ERA and for reproductive health care rights and certainly abortion, back in the days when the logo was “my body, my choice.” I was in the streets marching as a college student and then as a young mother in the early ’70s.
So, like most people, I just assumed that we had won the battle and had not paid as close attention as I should have. I raised a daughter who grew up with this same sense of entitlement—and I don’t mean spoiled privilege. She believed her rights were safe. She could apply to any college without gender barriers. I felt very proud that my generation had paved the way for the next.
Szal: How has that changed recently?
Tamarkin: Over the years, the Hyde Amendment, parental consent laws and then Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 were whittling away reproductive rights. But in 2010, when the Tea Party took power and we began seeing a spate of restrictive laws limiting access to reproductive health care, or mandating all kinds of extremist limitations and restrictions like TRAP laws, like mandatory sonograms, I began to really wonder what was going on.
For me, the last straw was the Hobby Lobby decision in June of 2014. I could not understand how contraceptives—which prevented unwanted pregnancies and therefore reduced the number of abortions—would be banned and redefined as an abortifacient. So, I wanted to investigate how we had come to this point.
As a journalist, I always tried to connect the dots. I felt that was important. That’s why I preferred to do long investigative series. I had a luxury when I was at ABC and even before that, that I could spend six months investigating and trying to connect the dots. That’s what I decided to do with this. I felt the public did not understand what happened; my generation, and certainly our daughters and granddaughters, that had felt so secure did not understand.
At that point, I had granddaughters in college who just took it for granted that if they had an unwanted pregnancy they would just go to Planned Parenthood or to an available clinic and terminate. [With Roe v. Wade], we thought we had won in the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land so there was the assumption that when you attain a right it is sacrosanct and you’re not going to lose it. We were wrong.
“[With Roe v. Wade], we thought we had won in the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, so there was the assumption that when you attain a right it is sacrosanct and you’re not going to lose it. We were wrong.”
Szal: Tell me about your 2017 documentary, Birthright: A War Story. What was the goal? How does it fit into the larger movement for reproductive rights?
Tamarkin: I did not want to do another abortion documentary. Storytelling had been the hallmark of the whole reproductive rights movement—but I felt what was necessary was to look at it beyond abortion. I wanted to look at the collateral damage that this had caused in terms of criminalization of pregnancy, in terms of the impact on birthing as well, which often has been overlooked but is indeed part of reproductive justice.
I wondered, “Where are the young people? Why aren’t they in the streets like we were. Why aren’t they shouting out and speaking up?” It’s their bodies, it’s their lives that are a risk now. now. I wanted to do a film that would sound the alarms, to mobilize a younger generation. People would say to me, “Why is a 70-year-old woman out there?” I said, “Because my 25-year-old granddaughter isn’t.”
I also wanted to show the strategy of the opposition movement. They never lost sight of their goal. They strategized step by step. They embraced the Republican Party and in turn, the Republican Party embraced them because they were part of that burgeoning Moral Majority at the time, and they had the numbers and they had the dollars.
“People would say to me, ‘Why is a 70-year-old woman out there?’ I said, ‘Because my 25-year-old granddaughter isn’t.'”
Szal: How has Republican abortion policy changed over the years?
Tamarkin: What is so interesting is very few people may be aware that many Republican Party leaders and in fact, the majority of the party supported abortion rights in the 60s and mid-70s. But with the rise of the religious right, the party saw an opportunity to enlarge their tent and their coffers–and they did an about-face. When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he legalized abortion. But when he ran for the presidency on the Republican ticket, his position suddenly changed. So did that of his vice presidential candidate. George H.W. Bush.
Prescott Bush, George H.W. Bush’s father, was on the board of Planned Parenthood with Margaret Sanger. As a congressman, George H.W. Bush himself, had pushed Title X and it was a well-known secret that Barbara Bush supported a woman’s right to make her own bodily decisions. Yet, George had to support an anti-abortion stance in order to run on the ticket with Reagan.
I think the most significant thing is how abortion opponents now have trained two generations. They started out with their “pro-life” youth camps and then they groomed these people to run for local office like school boards, which is why we have so many bans on sex education. They run for state legislatures. Then they run for Congress.
The result is that now we only have a very reactive and defensive movement that runs around plugging up the holes in the dike, filing injunctions against all these laws that are passed and fighting in court, but not strategizing enough to have the impact we need.
“We only have a very reactive and defensive movement that runs around plugging up the holes in the dike, filing injunctions against all these laws that are passed and fighting in court—but not strategizing enough to have the impact we need.”
Szal: You live in Arizona. So far this year, anti-abortion lawmakers are introducing legislation in overwhelming numbers—and Arizona is no exception. Can you give us a quick overview of what’s going on, on the ground in Arizona and what role that you’re playing?
Tamarkin: There’s an onslaught of dangerous bills being introduced in Arizona like so many other states, from voter suppression bills to abortion bans to bills that would limit access to reproductive health care and enshrine one religion’s view of when life begins into law. Arizona has always been a model state for anti-abortion legislation. But it’s happening across the country. There is a boldness in these Republican state legislatures.
Szal: But I thought Arizona was a blue state—at least this year, given its swing for Biden?
Civia Tamarkin: Arizona did not go blue this year. That’s a misconception. Arizona is like a red velvet cake with blue frosting. It went for Biden because, yes, we had a very strong ground game and we had a lot of young people involved—but the decisive factor was Cindy McCain and all of the people who had revered John McCain. Trump viciously maligned and denigrated him, and that was the backlash that sent people voting for Biden. That and the success we had in getting people out the vote at the top of the ballot. The problem is that most people do not pay enough attention to down-ballot races.
So, we were able to get Biden and Mark Kelly for Senate, but the state legislature remained Republican. Unfortunately, some are among the most extreme Republicans who still contend that Biden was not lawfully elected and have tried to overturn the election results. We have a fundamentalist Christian policy group here which has supported and lobbied for scores of bills that are anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ. The woman who runs that has a reputation for bringing Arizona legislators model bills drafted by national anti-abortion groups, like Americans United for Life or National Right to Life and bringing the bills to legislators that she’s close to. Arizona long has been one of the test models for extremist anti-abortion legislation. Of course, it has been done under the guise of protecting women’s health.
“Arizona long has been one of the test models for extremist anti-abortion legislation. Of course, it has been done under the guise of protecting women’s health.”
Szal: Meanwhile, the U.S. maternal mortality rate is astronomical. What are some of the bills the so-called “pro-life” Republicans are pushing through in the Arizona state legislature?
Tamarkin: The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Two to three women die each day and the number of women of color is triple that. And Arizona’s maternal mortality rate already ranks in the top ten states. The correlation between restrictive reproductive laws and maternal mortality rates has been documented by a number of reports.
Arizona was one of the first states to have a mandatory waiting period, mandatory sonograms, and a host of other restrictive laws, including a list of statements that doctors were required to read to patients, many of them untrue. There were restrictions passed, for example that would require a woman to be asked why she was terminating and then that reason reported to the state. She could decline to answer but nevertheless she had to be asked. There are laws that require providers to take extraordinary measures in terms of reporting, reporting any type of post procedure bleeding or follow-up care. These same state reporting requirements are not demanded of other physicians, including those doing high-risk surgery.
This year, bolder than ever and with the backing of some very extremist Christian militia groups, a bill was introduced that would make abortion first-degree homicide punishable by life in prison or the death penalty for both the mother and the provider. This bill hasn’t gotten out of committee because even anti-abortion policy groups were against it. So instead they introduced a number of bills, one of them would be state funding for crisis pregnancy centers as part of a funding for a 211 informational hotline in the state.
One of the more egregious bills, SB 1457, is the capstone bill designed to make a beeline for the Supreme Court. It says the unborn child at every stage of development will be recognized as having the rights and privileges and protections of every Arizona resident subject to interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court.
So, this is the personhood bill that they’re hoping will be on fast flight to the Supreme Court. This personhood bill could potentially criminalize pregnancy, because if a pregnant person lifts something heavy and miscarries, would that become involuntary manslaughter or third-degree murder? Who’s going to start interpreting this?
This bill also requires burial or cremation for the remains of an abortion. It precludes abortion because of race or sex or genetic anomalies. It does not take into account that there are genetic anomalies such as Trisomy 13 which are almost always fatal, have the potential for causing pain and suffering to the baby, and may pose a serious threat to the pregnant person’s health.
Then there’s the component of this bill that precludes referrals by university hospitals and medical students and that too is subject to a wide range of interpretations. What if an oncologist at a university hospital were to tell a pregnant woman diagnosed with breast cancer that she could not receive treatment during pregnancy? Would that be seen as an implied referral for an abortion? Would that physician then be subject to the penalty of three to five years in jail?
In opposition to bills like these, we have been making the same 14th Amendment right to privacy arguments. This time we took a different approach and had a rabbi testify that personhood is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because it is an attempt to enshrine one religious belief into law. Judaism, for example, does not recognize personhood until the fetus has passed through the birth canal and the head is outside. The mandatory burial of cells would also violate Jewish burial law.
Along with the rabbi, we had the head of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice testify and we have a letter signed by several members of the clergy stating that this bill is dangerous because it indeed runs the risk of discriminating against other religious views and sets a bad precedent by attempting to enshrine one religious view into law.
Szal: Why is there a sudden burst of legislative activity around these issues?
Tamarkin: This is the road to Gilead, a push toward the theocratic takeover of our state legislatures. They’re trying to introduce religious refusal bills, but they’re redundant. Arizona already has very extensive religious refusal laws and the Trump administration established the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services which protects religious refusal.
No one takes issue with the right of conscientious objection. The problem is there is nothing in the religious refusal bills that mandates medical facilities, especially rural hospitals, provide alternatives for emergencies. So, if a pregnant woman is in an accident and it is a matter of her life or the fetus’s and there is only one attending physician who refuses to treat her because of religious convictions, what will happen? These bills must mandate alternative providers of medical services.
At a Walgreens in Arizona, for example, a pharmacist refused to fill a prescription for a woman to abort her dead fetus. Now the company requires a backup pharmacist or prescription referral. Everyone has the right to act according to religious beliefs but what are the implications in terms of the Hippocratic Oath? What are the implications in terms of do no harm? It seems to be state sanctioned malpractice.
“This is the road to Gilead—a push toward the theocratic takeover of our state legislatures.”
Szal: Why now, in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic and economic crisis that’s disproportionately affecting women? What is the long game here?
Tamarkin: Republicans are capitalizing on the discontent that a significant portion of the population had with the election. They are also acting because of people who felt the election was “stolen” and are also dissatisfied with the turnover in the Senate. The majority of the states have Republican legislatures and they are all steamrolling ahead. We see it happening with voter suppression laws, and it is happening with reproductive health care access. It’s an opportunistic backlash.
These legislatures often operate on fake information. They deny science. They deny evidence. Many of these same states that are opposed to mask mandates and for many months bought into the idea that COVID was a hoax.
So, how do you fight it? How do you fight disinformation and stupidity?
With this Supreme Court, it is likely everything is going to go back to states’ rights, and that’s what lawmakers in states like Arizona are counting on. Arizona happens to be a state that has trigger laws on the books. Outright abortion bans that superseded Roe. But when Roe goes or Roe is left gasping even more than it is now, these trigger laws will resurface and states all across the country have them.
Szal: How can activists move from defense to offense? What techniques work best?
Tamarkin: Where is the public? Why aren’t people marching on these state capitols? Where is the outrage? We have seen more demonstrations from people who don’t want to wear masks than we have at state capitols where these laws are being passed.
I think there is a lack of reality about how Roe no longer exists for most women in this country. There are no providers in almost 90 percent of the counties in this country. People don’t realize the implications.
We have to change our marketing, our strategy and our approach. We have to stop using the word “choice,” and instead focus on “access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care.” It’s not just about abortion. Choice isn’t the word. What about women who very much would like to carry to term and cannot? That is not “choice”—that is access to the proper reproductive health care. Certainly, choice is not available to women who do not have the financial means to even get to a provider, let alone pay for service. To travel, to find child care, to spend, in some cases, 48, 72 hours waiting. These are not choices.
“We have to stop using the word ‘choice,’ and instead focus on ‘access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care.'”
We need to think about how we express ourselves, and we need to include birthing as well because when you have a fetus-first mentality then it precludes women from giving birth the way they choose. It results in courts mandating the where, the when, and the how of the birthing process.
There has been case after case of courts ordering women to undergo Cesarean sections when they wanted to do natural childbirth. So, we have to look at how reproductive justice impacts not just termination but birthing and we have to begin galvanizing a younger generation, the generation that is most affected.
The old imagery of back alley abortions and coat hangers, thankfully, is no longer the case. But we’re talking about criminalizing women’s bodies. We’re talking about criminalizing women’s health care.
There are cases around the country where women who miscarried and showed up at an emergency room were accused of terminating the pregnancy and faced potential criminal charges. A pregnant woman in New York who was driving under the influence. was charged with the manslaughter of her unborn child. The woman who falls and is investigated for attempting to terminate a pregnancy or women who took prescription drugs ordered by their doctors but positive for drug tests in a hospital and suddenly are under investigation.
A woman who ate a poppy seed bagel prior to going into labor couldn’t take her newborn home immediately because there was evidence of the opiate in her lab test.
So, where does this end? A pregnant woman who is trying to shovel snow to get her car out so she can drive her other child to school and unfortunately miscarries. Is she charged with the death of this fetus?
We are on dangerous, dangerous ground here and there is a generation of young people who do not comprehend what is happening. They are not “woke” to what is going on at all. This is not just about Roe. It is not just about abortion. It is about access to contraceptives. Who would have ever thought the pill would have been considered an abortifacient? Or an IUD? Or emergency contraception? They don’t even know this.
Szal: What other strategies can we use?
Tamarkin: The most important thing we can do today is to exert economic pressure on states like Arizona to let them know that any legislation that restricts abortion and access to reproductive health care absolutely will be countered by boycotts. The only thing that has proven effective against extremist laws are boycotts of economic development, investment and tourism.
It worked a few years ago when Arizona was forced to rescind a law allowing random “stop and search” checks of immigrants and it was effective in rolling back a transgender bathroom ban in North Carolina. The business community needs to exert force and make it clear that abortion bans and restrictions on reproductive health care make states hostile environments to do business, work and live.
“The most important thing we can do today is to exert economic pressure on states like Arizona to let them know that any legislation that restricts abortion and access to reproductive health care absolutely will be countered by boycotts.”
We need to start training young people early. We no longer have sex ed available in so many school districts across the country. So, we need to find ways to make it available to young people—to understand their physical rights to bodily autonomy, to understand the respect for others bodily autonomy and to take responsibility for ensuring their rights and other people’s rights. We need them to realize how this impacts their lives.
I met a woman on a plane once, and she was telling me how she was going to go with her daughter to look for baby furniture. I told her I was making a documentary film about the war on reproductive health care. She said, “Oh, I’m against abortion. That’s taking a life.” I said, “What if, tragically, your daughter were to miscarry but her body did not evacuate the dying fetus on its own and she was becoming infected or she was hemorrhaging. Would you not want a doctor to assist in terminating this non-viable pregnancy?” She said, “Well, of course.” I said “There are health care providers that would view that as an abortion.” She could not believe it.
So, we have to get the dialogue going. We have to start walking midway across this bridge and open dialogue and start talking about women’s health and women’s lives because that’s what it’s about.
Szal: What gives you hope that activists can in fact stop these restrictive efforts and that it’s worth the fight?
Tamarkin: I think that the generation that mobilized into action to elect the Senate, to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the generation that has demanded an end to the Keystone Pipeline, that is demanding police accountability and criminal justice reform is the same generation that needs to be as vocal and visible. Look what happened in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. We don’t see that happen when abortion rights are terminated in various states but we certainly have seen that kind of outrage over police brutality in various cities and states. Where is it when it comes to women’s health?
We need that same outcry. We’re talking about the intersectionality of racism, sexism and classism with reproductive health restrictions. Who is affected here? Women of color are affected the worst. We need reproductive justice advocates marching hand in hand with Black Lives Matter, with criminal justice reform groups, with human rights groups, with the LGBTQ community. It is all intersectional. There is power in numbers and in unity.Then maybe we will have the force and the focus to overcome this opposition movement.
Katie Fleischer contributed editorial assistance with this article.