When I was in 9th grade, we did a unit on rhetoric and debate. We were put in pairs, given an “issue,” and each given a side to argue. My partner and I got “Should abortion be legal?”
I got “No.” I absolutely mopped the floor with my opponent, and it felt really bad. She was a shy public speaker and, like most 14-year-olds, not a blazing comet of rhetoric. I was raised by a litigator and was, by nature, both logical and very comfortable in front of crowds. The girl didn’t stand a chance. I would have won the debate whichever side they’d given me, and my goal was “win the debate.” It wasn’t to persuade a roomful of teenagers that abortion should be illegal.
Abortion shouldn’t be illegal. It should not be legislated any more than appendectomy or orthodontia. If you don’t understand why, you should really watch Civia Tamarkin’s documentary, Birthright: A War Story.
If you do already understand why, you won’t be missing much if you skip it. It’s not particularly artfully made. (Visually, it was almost irrelevant; I could have simply listened to it with my eyes closed and gotten the same information.) It’s … diffuse, skipping from historical footage to personal anecdote in a way that feels almost cursory, or like it’s trying to cram half a century’s worth of national debate into a couple of hours. It would probably have been stronger if it focused more keenly on the women who provided their personal stories and explained why and how abortion legislation had damaged them. (Though it was interesting to learn, or to remember, some of the historical points—I’d forgotten that George HW Bush was allowed to join the Reagan ticket as Vice President only if he swore to keep it under his hat that he was pro-choice.)
What this documentary does very well is to refocus attention from what many people probably believe is the entirety, or at least the main component, of the “debate” over abortion legality: the rather philosophical one over the “personhood” of a fetus and at what point we transit from being a clump of cells to a person with legal rights. What Birthright clarifies deftly and chillingly is that the “personhood” conversation is the tip of a really terrifying iceberg. I happen to live in a relatively sane urban center where, as much as we’re all impacted by pandemic dysfunction in health care, we tend to have options, even if they’re not always great. But situations that are mostly theoretical for women in major cities are very, very real for the rest of us. Criminalizing abortion leads to a loss of the medical knowledge of how to perform one safely, which can lead to maternal death. But that’s just the beginning. The subjects interviewed for this film include a woman who was put in jail for child endangerment because her bloodwork showed a false positive for benzodiazipenes (her infant was healthy); a woman who almost hemorrhaged to death when a doctor sent her home twice while she was having a miscarriage (also known as “spontaneous abortion”); and an epileptic woman who’d lost her first child (miscarriage) and believed it was due to her seizure meds so when she got pregnant again, she turned to cannabis to control seizures. The baby was healthy, but she lived in a state that had not legalized cannabis for medical purposes, so she was separated from her child and carted off to jail. Basically, there are real, and profound, and devastating effects on women that have nothing to do with elective abortion and everything to do with … well, our right to life, actually. Ironically, any card-carrying conservative should be staunchly against criminalizing abortion because of the amount of control it confers on our government to interfere in the private lives of human adults.
When I was a high school freshman tasked with arguing a “pro-life” stance in a classroom debate, I’m sure I talked about personal responsibility and that my classmate talked about happenstance—rape, birth control failure. Neither of us understood that this argument was an utter distraction and that elective termination of unplanned pregnancy was basically a red herring. We were old enough to understand that sex led to babies and that sometimes a conundrum arose in which a baby was catastrophically ill, or the mother/family didn’t have the resources to raise a child, or a woman might become pregnant because she was jumped in a dark alley on her way home. We could understand that in a society founded on separation of church and state there was something fishy about the fact that all the “pro-life” arguments were couched in terms like “sin” and “against God.”
We didn’t really get that the debate wasn’t about the value of life. At least not in the way they claimed it was. Hell, at that age I probably thought people who screamed that it was all about controlling women were being a tad … well, hysterical? I mean, we have control over what we do with our bodies. Don’t we?
If we’d been far enough along in life to have given birth to a child, we would have known that the answer to that is an emphatic no. And that the parameters of the debate were wildly out of whack.
The strength of Birthright: A War Story is the spotlight it places on what’s really at stake in this exceedingly misguided debate. “A woman’s right to choose” means much, much more than the right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy. This documentary is distinctly polemical—every woman on camera is a victim of the system and every “pro-lifer” is a wingnut—and ultimately it would have strengthened the film’s message to balance things a bit more, but that’s make its message any less important. Imagine having a miscarriage—which, if you have never had one, is a crushing experience—and being unable to see your doctor because it might prompt social workers or even police officers to start digging through your trash to see if there were any beer bottles in there and charging you with felony child endangerment if there were. Imagine dying of sepsis because your OBGYN would lose her license for treating you. Imagine missing life-threatening conditions because you can’t get blood drawn without the results being available to law enforcement. These things aren’t crazy imaginary scenarios.
Don’t watch this documentary expecting an artistic masterpiece. Do watch it if you want to understand what we’re really talking about when we talk about overturning Roe v. Wade.
Director: Civia Tamarkin
Writer: Luchina Fisher, Civia Tamarkin
Release Date: July 14 (New York), July 28 (Los Angeles and other select cities)