Film Review: Birthright: A War Story

A necessary, if not always well-constructed, examination of the perilous state of reproductive rights in the United States.
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Civia Tamarkin’s Birthright: A War Story is a documentary about the many ways in which women have been denied reproductive rights since the rise of the “Tea Party” Republicans. The film begins with the intertitle “All wars have collateral damage…” and proceeds to depict several women who did not receive proper medical care during their pregnancies or while giving birth—but not because their doctors were incompetent. Some women were on the verge of miscarriage or discovered that their babies would be stillborn yet were denied induced labor, which is a standard medical procedure in such cases. Others were forced by their doctors into C-section deliveries even when they were dilating normally. One woman, a single mother on Medicare with three children, was denied a tubal ligation after her fourth child was born.

These women, and others like them, are victims of state laws that limit access to abortion, or they live in areas where the only hospital that accepts their medical insurance is owned by a religious institution. These facilities refuse to perform any procedure that would endanger the fetus, regardless of its condition or the health of the mother. Reproductive rights organizations did not anticipate what a former Centers for Disease Control researcher in the documentary calls the religious right’s “state-by-state strategy” to limit access to contraception and abortion. That plan not only skirts Roe v. Wade, as Tamarkin illustrates, but it disproportionately affects poor women who are unable to pay out-of-pocket for contraceptives, pre-natal care or delivery. The strategy also increasingly affects all women in states where they can be arrested for “endangering” their fetus or ending their pregnancy.

Birthright, which is an advocacy documentary, views reproductive rights as inseparable from human rights that guarantee personal sovereignty. It is comprehensive in its approach, although Tamarkin is more attuned to TV-style reporting than filmmaking. She is not adept at condensing information using cinematic techniques and relies instead almost solely on talking heads. Also, large segments of the documentary are devoted to the genesis of the religious right in the Republican party, to Jesus camps for young people and to pro-choice politicians, such as President George H.W. Bush, who switched sides in order to get elected.

While reproductive rights are a political football and information about the players adds dimension to the subject at hand, it is off-topic in a documentary that purports to examine the “collateral damage,” namely individual women harmed by the religious right, psychologically and physically. The lengthy film (105 minutes) is at its best, cinematically and in terms of content, when Tamarkin interviews these women and details the crimes committed against them, then quickly cuts to a pundit to explain aspects of the woman’s predicament. In the interviews with the women, there are not so many cuts to picture as there are in the interviews with experts and advocates, among them Andrea Freidman, a lawyer and reproductive rights strategist; Michele Goodwin, an author and a law professor; David A. Grimes, a former researcher at the Centers for Disease Control; and Nancy Northrup, CEO of Center for Reproductive Rights.

A funereal orchestral score, mixed over every frame, lends a lurid quality to portions of the documentary and is especially distracting in instances where the story is drawn out, as it is in an opening interview with Danielle and Robb Deaver. They looked on as their baby, given a 10 percent chance of survival, died shortly after delivery. Nebraska state law limits the period during which Danielle could have induced labor, and she was beyond it when baby Elizabeth’s vulnerability was discovered. Danielle became quite ill at the end of her pregnancy as a result of being forced to carry Elizabeth to term.

In 2016, the medical community scratched their heads when confronted with new data that proved beyond a doubt that the United States is one of the few developed countries in which maternal mortality rates have not dropped or remained stable. In fact, between 2000 and 2014, maternal mortality rates rose 27 percent in the U.S.. Some doctors attributed the increase to African-American women who have nearly twice the maternal mortality rate of white women; others pointed to the rise in obesity among women that increases the chances of high blood pressure during pregnancy, and still others to the rise in heart disease among women. Rather astonishingly, no one mentioned the “fetus first” argument of the religious right, or what others, including the filmmaker, call the “war on women.”

No one mentioned Michigan’s Insurance Opt-Out Act, which prevents insurance companies from paying for abortions even in cases of incest or rape. While Texas’ attempts to wipe out reproductive rights by cutting funding to family planning clinics made national headlines, Nebraska’s restrictive laws did not, nor did Louisiana’s successful war on women. That state has three family planning clinics for about one million women of child-bearing age, whose incomes in 2015 were half those of men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Cuts to these clinics, as Tamarkin skillfully illustrates, endangers the health of women given how they provide low-cost cancer screenings.

Birthright arrives at conclusions that so-called “progressive” media, relying mostly on white male perspectives, have not adequately explored. If Tamarkin sparks paranoia about the decline of women’s rights 44 years after the passage of Roe v. Wade, she does so for her nine granddaughters; of a generation that came of age in the 1960s, she fears younger women are not aware of the struggle that led to that Supreme Court victory. So much has changed since then that it took the filmmaker more than two years to find women willing to testify about their encounters at hospitals owned by the Roman Catholic Church or other religious institutions, and at the hands of so-called “healthcare providers,” doctors whose religious beliefs supercede their ethical responsibility to their pregnant patients. The women feared being stigmatized, and doctors supportive of reproductive rights were concerned about losing their jobs.

Members of the religious right had no such qualms. An advocate of the Personhood movement, which believes that life begins at conception, says in the documentary that overturning Roe v. Wade is not necessary for stopping abortions. While the antipode to that position, Tamarkin’s radical feminist rhetoric in Birthright, will no doubt appear equally strident to some, she proves the veracity of that advocate’s statement, which is the quintessential religious underpinning of anti-abortionists. Ironically, Tamarkin does so most effectively not with the many reproductive rights experts, but instead in the obvious reticence of the women who describe the crimes committed against them. The camera captures it, again and again, in small gestures, in the lowering of the women’s eyes and in their determined efforts to remain in control during their testimony.