Birthright begins with trauma. The Deavers, a married couple living in Nebraska, were excited to expand their family, but a medical emergency ruined their happy ending when Danielle’s water broke at 22 weeks. Her membranes ruptured, leaving her fetus with less than a 10 percent chance of being born alive and putting her own life in immediate danger. The couple wanted to induce their labor, but their doctor refused because the Nebraska legislature passed a law that forbids medical professionals from doing anything after 20 weeks that could result in a fetus’s death. Although the Deavers didn’t want to terminate their fetus, they were swept up in archaic, inane “abortion ban” laws designed to make life a living hell for women.
What becomes of women who can’t access the healthcare they need? That’s the question at the center of Birthright: A War Story, a chilling documentary co-executive produced by former PEOPLE journalists Civia Tamarkin and Luchina Fisher. Over the course of two hours, Birthright shows how the religious right infiltrated the Republican Party to erode access to reproductive healthcare and undercut women’s agency. Birthright shows that The Handmaid’s Tale is a few laws away from becoming reality.
Ahead of the documentary’s premiere at the Texas Theatre in Dallas, Tamarkin and Fisher spoke with Bitch about the public health crisis that is facing women.
What was striking to me about Birthright is that it really begins at the dawn of the Tea Party, the ushering in of extreme evangelicals into Congress. What, specifically, about the Tea Party changed America’s approach to reproductive rights?
Civia Tamarkin: The Tea Party was the culmination of decades of infiltration within the Republican Party of the religious right, which goes back to [Ronald] Reagan’s days. So, they had been building and building, and at the same time, grooming an army of young foot soldiers that would come of age and begin running for office and begin paying back, if you will, the commitment they made to constituents who supported them. All of this just came into place as a reaction and a backlash to Barack Obama with the mid-term election sweeps of 2010. From the onset the Tea Party seemed to have an economic agenda, more concerned with trade issues and job issues, although by then, the economy had begun to turn around. In fact, they had recruited and groomed and forged and formed relationships and alliances with members of the religious right. The Tea Party was a religious right manifestation of all the issues that had been building over the years.
I could see that so much in the documentary. There’s a segment full of young women who have no idea what Roe v. Wade is. Do you think it’s purposeful that many teenagers, outside of those in the National Right to Life organization, aren’t taught about abortion as a medical procedure?
Luchina Fisher: Oh yeah, it’s not only purposeful, but it’s also part of the rise of power of the religious right, and the infiltration of local politics. They have absolutely managed to get their political candidates on school boards and affecting curricula.
CT: It’s not just sex ed. We had a case in Arizona where politicians objected to a reference of abortion in an advanced placement biology textbook. People were holding hearings at the school board, claiming that by teaching sex education, you’re trying to get kids hooked on sex, just as the tobacco companies were trying to get teenagers hooked on cigarettes. There’s definitely a concerted effort to put abstinence-only education in schools, and that has to do with the religious right blurring the line between church and state, which they have been slowly trying to accomplish. It’s an insidious erosion that we see with [Donald] Trump and [Mike] Pence constantly saying, “We’re going to bring back God. We’re going to bring back faith.” Birthright is where we’re trying to connect the dots between the religious right and the Republican Party. It was so important to us as journalists to put it into context.
About 20 minutes into the documentary, a protester says that former president Jimmy Carter isn’t a man of God because he supports increasing access to abortion. Does the anti-choice movement care, at all, about the separation of church and state in the Constitution?
CT: I think their agenda is to blur the lines and absolutely revise the principles of the founding fathers. We see it with Betsy DeVos wanting to support private schools, most of which are religious based. I think their agenda goes well beyond the medical procedure of abortion, and is an attempt to cross the line, blur the line, and eventually, eradicate the line between church and state.
LF: I love that Ross White, a lawyer from South Carolina, says that these intrusions in women’s lives should be an affront to every true conservative in this country. Isn’t conservatism about government being out of decision making? How can Republicans hold those two beliefs and justify them? It’s okay to intrude on women’s lives because of this religious belief, but everything else, no way? It says a lot of about this movement.
I’ve read that Hobby Lobby’s 2014 Supreme Court case inspired you to create Birthright. What specifically about that case really sparked your interest in the anti-choice movement?
CT: I am of the generation that marched in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s to get reproductive rights codified, legitimized, and protected by the Supreme Court. So when the Hobby Lobby decision came down, I was just shocked. I thought we’d already won this battle. What right does an employer, based upon his/her religious beliefs, to deny access to contraceptive coverage on employee health insurance plans? I just wanted to know how we reached that point, and how it just blindsided us out of nowhere. I wanted to put this into context and understand how this slow erosion happened. So, I called Luchina, who is a long-time friend and former colleague, and said we’ve gotta do something.
LF And I was more than ready to jump in because I’m from the generation who benefitted from Roe v. Wade, and I don’t think I immediately saw how all of the dots were connected. It wasn’t until I really looked in that I realized how deep and pervasive the opposition has been in creating legislation that has a wide impact and implication for women’s healthcare. It wasn’t until we worked on the documentary that I realized that being told upon my third pregnancy that I would automatically have to have a C-section wasn’t true. Yet, I didn’t question it back then. I didn’t have a realization that I had some rights and I should speak up. I deferred to the doctor who said that it was the law in New York. That isn’t true. The religious right’s laws even have an impact on how and when women give birth. I thought it was really important for women and their families to know this is happening.
CT: We both recognized right away that the issue wasn’t just this singular procedure of abortion, and that solely focusing on abortion obfuscated all of those other issues. This is not about a medical procedure. It’s about a woman’s right to bodily integrity, autonomy, and medical decision making. The argument over abortion has made people lose sight of the fact that this is really a human rights and public health issue, and both are teetering on a crisis. We didn’t want to rehash the same arguments about a woman’s right to choice. That’s been settled as far as we’re concerned. We needed to expand the dialogue, so that women, regardless of their view on abortion and political leanings, understand they, too, can be swept up and ensnared in this ideology.
All of the stories included in Birthright are really compelling, but Jennie’s and Mary Jo’s stories are heartbreaking. Jennie is arrested for self-inducing an abortion after being unable to access one in Idaho while Mary Jo’s Catholic doctor refuses to give her a tubal ligation, although she lives in extreme poverty. It really drove home how much of the restriction of abortion access is rooted in shaming the poor. Was socioeconomic class something you were considering as you were putting together the documentary?
LF: We know that women who are at the lower rung of economic status and women of color are disproportionately affected by these laws. In the film, we talk about what happened to Black women in the 1980’s during the crack epidemic. There was a secret program in South Carolina where Black women were drug-tested during prenatal visits, and their files were turned over to law enforcement. Nobody really spoke up for those women or made the connection between that and the idea of choice. Now, most of the women being arrested for chemical endangerment charges are white and disproportionately poor. For us, that’s why it was so important to frame the film through a reproductive justice framework rather than just looking at the one issue of choice and access. It is so much bigger than that, and that’s what the reproductive justice framework acknowledges: Do women even have the choice about where they live and raise their families? Are their kids going to grow up in safe neighborhood?
There’s a chilling line near the beginning of the documentary where someone asks, “What choice does the baby have? Who thinks about the baby?” That’s explicitly about the fetus becoming more important than the person carrying it. When you were creating the documentary, how did you counteract those really strong statements that aren’t rooted in fact?
CT: We included experts who raise the obvious conflict: You cannot have two constitutionally protected beings within one body. Therefore, you can’t add fertilized eggs, fetuses, and embryos to the Constitution without eliminating women. That push for the rights of the unborn jeopardizes the constitutionally and innate human rights of the existing person. Nobody speaks for the baby because the baby is not born. It is not a person, and this whole push to establish the personhood of fertilized egg, embryo, and fetus is nothing more than a work-around of Roe v. Wade. Anti-choice activists say that they don’t have to overturn Roe because if they establish the personhood of the unborn, then anything that happens to that fetus—whether that’s termination or any behavior that’s deemed inappropriate—then you’re guilty of homicide, child endangerment, and child abuse.
LF: This emphasis on the fetus has an impact on women’s lives. Danielle Deavers’s life was endangered because her membranes were ruptured, she still had to wait 10 days to give birth. If her doctors induced labor, they could’ve lost their medical licenses and possibly gone to jail. How do we determine what’s good for the mother? We’re looking at two to three pregnant women and new mothers dying each day. We have the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations, and that’s related to these laws being passed that impact the care we give to mothers.
It really starts before girls are even sexually active. Their sex education is limited; they don’t have access to contraception; when they get pregnant, they don’t get adequate reproductive health care; and when their child is born, they don’t have access to social assistance. Throughout the documentary, anti-choice politicians speak frequently about abortion being the “taking of life.” Yet, there are scientists and doctors who debunk their claims. Were you able to determine why anti-choice messaging is so persuasive?
CT: Because it’s religious doctrine. Religious beliefs are not backed by logic. People are entitled to their faith and beliefs, but there’s not logic or science girding it as a foundation. It’s an emotional argument based on fear. They use trigger words that are so impactful, like holocaust and genocide—and none of it is based on science. That’s what affects people. If we were being logical and reasonable, Trump wouldn’t be in office.
With the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, what is the likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be overturned?
CT: I don’t think it’s Gorsuch alone. I think it’s the precarious health and potential retirement of [Anthony] Kennedy and [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg. We knew Trump would get to select a Supreme Court justice after Republicans blocked Barack Obama from appointing someone, but this administration may get more than one appointment. And that would be disastrous.
What do you want audiences to take from Birthright?
LF: We always intended for Birthright to be a wake-up call. We want people to understand how deep and wide these laws are, and how it can impact every woman who may get pregnant. We want women to connect the dots and start asking questions about what’s happening in their own communities. It wasn’t enough for us to just educate people; we really want this film to have a social impact. We’ve been working with a social impact marketing team to bring the film to communities, including college campuses, that might not get to see it in theaters. We also have a lot of resources on the “take action” section of our website. You can click on a widget to see what’s happening in your state, and let their representatives know how you feel about it. Pressure has to be put on elected officials.
CT: Exactly. I would like women, even those who are personally against abortion, to know that they, their daughters, and their families can be victimized. If they are miscarrying and rushed to the emergency room at a Catholic hospital, their lives can be at risk. We want people to see that it’s not just a fight about abortion. It is the fight for women’s reproductive health and access to reproductive medical treatment, no matter what side of the issue you’re on. You have the right to medical decision-making, and this anti-abortion agenda is depriving you of that. I’m still an activist, and I want to see women take to the streets; boycott establishments like Hobby Lobby; and begin to rally. The Women’s March was inspiring, wonderful, and we were all out there, but what comes next? Where’s the action to come out of that sisterhood unity? It has to translate into action, including voting and getting behind candidates that will support their reproductive healthcare. We can no longer just bitch from the sidelines. We can’t be complacent. We have to stand up and take action.