The official synopsis of Birthright: A War Story describes the film as “the real-life Handmaid’s Tale”, but one doesn’t need to make allegories to Hulu’s hit adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel to comprehend the divisive nature of the topic that writer-director Civia Tamarkin tackles in this documentary. The war the film’s title alludes to is not fought on battlefields with guns and bombs, but in congressional hearings, courtrooms, and hospitals, with words and regulations. It is the war waged on women’s reproductive health – and the targets range far beyond just a woman’s right to choose.
As Tamarkin says in her director’s statement, “I think there has been this singular focus on abortion without putting it into the broader context of public health and reproductive justice, and that’s what we set out to do.” Yet while Tamarkin and team do a remarkable job at telling the stories of many ordinary women across the country whose lives have been affected by restrictions on what they can and cannot do with their own bodies, the film is unlikely to change the minds of the many fervent pro-life activists out there.
“My Body, My Choice”
If you’re at all aware of the current political climate in the United States, you know that one of the hottest topics of debate is and has been a women’s right to have an abortion. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade is constantly under threat of being reversed by an increasingly conservative, leaning court, while powerful politicians continue to push through legislation to restrict a woman’s ability to have an abortion in various states across the country.
Birthright: A War Story introduces us to women like Danielle Deaver, who was eager to become a mother for the second time but soon learned that her baby was dying inside her. Despite there being no chance that her baby – a much-wanted baby for Deaver and her husband – could be born healthy, or live for very long outside the womb, abortion restrictions in her state decreed that because the pregnancy was more than 20 weeks along, Deaver had to suffer through it and the resulting birth, only to watch her baby daughter die in her arms.
Would it not have been better to save them both the agony by allowing Deaver to terminate the pregnancy? Shouldn’t Deaver at least have been allowed to make a decision so crucial to her own well-being? Wasn’t her own mental and physical health just as important as that of her dying unborn baby? Birthright: A War Story shares several personal stories of women like Deaver, women who sought out abortions because their health or their baby’s health was at risk, or because they financially could not support another child in an already crowded and poverty-stricken household. The film is by far its strongest when it focuses on individuals as opposed to generalities, showing us the impact these laws have on the lives of very real people.
The War on Reproductive Health is About More Than Just Abortion
However, as previously noted, there is more to reproductive rights than just the right to have an abortion. Tamarkin also introduces us to a young mother who narrowly escaped a ten-year prison sentence for having smoked medical marijuana for her epileptic seizures while pregnant. After a post-labor drug test, her baby was wrenched from her arms and the young mother, barely recovered from labor, was placed in a jail cell and charged with the chemical endangerment of a child.
Another young mother was subject to the same threats of jail time simply for having taken half a Valium while pregnant. Yet another was subjected to repeated pressure from her hospital to have a Cesarean section instead of the natural birth she desired, despite their being no medical reason for her to not give birth any way she chose. Through these women’s stories, Tamarkin reminds us that a woman’s right to control her own body while pregnant is just as much under siege as a woman’s right to not be pregnant at all.
As previously noted, Tamarkin interviews many women and their family, friends, doctors, doulas and lawyers, detailing how their rights were eroded once lawmakers deemed the contents of their wombs more important than them. But she gives the other side a chance to weigh in too. Members of “right to life” organizations describe their reasons for fighting these battles, and the great pride they take in the alarming number of victories they have achieved over recent years.
And that, indeed, is the primary reason for Birthright: A War Story: to call attention to the fact that, despite women’s rights appearing to have gained ground in so many areas, in the area of reproductive health rights are being eroded every day – and often without us knowing anything about it. In one particularly alarming sequence, several young women are asked if they know what Roe v. Wade is. None of them can put a finger on it. Once the case is explained to them, they all agree it is an important one. Yet how can women successfully retain their rights when so many women don’t even know what rights they have, or what laws grant them those rights?
Birthright: A War Story is not strictly a pro-choice film; it is a pro-women’s reproductive health film. It focuses not just on a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, but a woman’s right to make any number of choices involving her own body. Whether she be pro-life or pro-choice, each woman on this earth deserves to be able to decide for themselves if and when to bring another life into the world, and under what circumstances. If you disagree with this statement, then you will no doubt dismiss Birthright: A War Story as a piece of liberal propaganda. But if you agree, you’ll be fired up and furious on behalf of the women featured in the film – which was no doubt Tamarkin’s intention.
Yet I somehow doubt that anyone who doesn’t already agree with Tamarkin will end up watching Birthright: A War Story, and because of that, the film often feels like it’s preaching to the choir. The message is important, and Tamarkin delivers it beautifully. But getting this message out to the people who don’t want to hear it, and convincing them it is the right one – that remains a challenge.
What do you think? Are movies like Tamarkin’s capable of making a real impact, or do they only end up reaching those who already agree with them? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Birthright: A War Story opens in the United States on July 14, 2017. Additional release dates can be found here.
The trailer for the film can be found here.