According to a new feature-length documentary, Birthright: A War Story, “women are being jailed, physically violated, and even put at risk of dying as a radical movement tightens its grip across America.” This radical movement is the pro-life, religious Right, which, we are led to believe, is intent on stripping women of their most basic rights.
It might seem like the same old story, but this time there’s a greater sense of urgency. In Birthright, we are told that abortion restrictions are not only on the rise but are also symptoms of a much bigger, more terrifying problem: institutionalized misogyny, a “real-life Handmaid’s Tale.”
Birthright is therefore a call to arms, a “women need you” propaganda piece. And so it argues that the pro-choice position is essential for any woman who considers herself a feminist. But as Birthright vilifies its opponents in the narrative of Pro-life v. Women, it ignores one important fact: Many of those who oppose abortion are women.
Nevertheless, we hear that the force driving the pro-life movement is both oppressive and systemic. By quoting pro-life leaders selectively, focusing on their strategies rather than their underlying principles, Birthright constructs a terrifying strawman while tactically evading the real point of contention: abortion itself.
Somewhat predictably, therefore, the movie begins with a tricky case, neither rape nor incest but “a non-viable fetus.” Sinister music underpins the tragic story of Danielle Deaver from Nebraska, whose water broke at 22 weeks and was told that her baby had a 10 percent chance of survival. Mrs. Deaver requested an induced labor so that “nature could take its course.” But as her baby was still alive, that would violate Nebraska’s ban on abortion after 20 weeks. Her request was refused, much to her distress, and her baby, named Elizabeth, died ten days later, shortly after a natural delivery.
Confronted with Deaver’s emotional turmoil, we are told that this story “isn’t about abortion.” And so Birthright begins: by suggesting that stricter state laws and hospital policies related to pregnancy are all part of a national conspiracy to control women’s bodies.
The remainder of the movie aims to prove that through witness accounts. An incoherent jumble of case studies ensues. Among them are women who were neglected or mistreated during their pregnancies. Another was denied sterilization services from a Catholic hospital; she couldn’t afford to drive to another hospital and so felt she had no option but to become pregnant again.
The unborn are not defined at any stage in Birthright, or even properly acknowledged. And so the pro-life argument remains largely unaddressed.
We are then shown the stories of two women who were charged with “chemical endangerment of a child” when they tested positive on drug tests shortly after giving birth. During their respective pregnancies, one had taken half a Valium, and another had smoked cannabis. Both had done so for medicinal purposes and, rightly so, neither woman was prosecuted. Yet Birthright seems to imply that these poor women would never have been hassled at all if only unborn children were not considered persons. Their cases may well have been mishandled by the authorities. But, unfortunate as that is, it is about as relevant to the abortion debate as a mother falsely accused of feeding her two-year-old rat poison is to an argument in favor of decriminalizing child abuse.
Void of any real evidence, Birthright clumsily attempts to stitch each incident together with opinions from leading pro-choice advocates. The experts, who include Tarah Demant, of Amnesty International, and Civia Tamarkin, the movie’s writer and director, tell us that the same misogynistic ideology — made manifest in the pro-life movement, they assert, though they never outline how — is at work in each case.
Among the most outlandish moments is a segment in which the filmmakers imply that the progress of the pro-life movement directly correlates with the U.S.’s low global ranking on maternal health care. Of course, they draw on no comprehensive studies to back up such claims. They rely solely on a handful of anecdotal case studies and authoritative-sounding but unverified assertions by pro-choice talking heads.
Neither are the unborn defined at any stage, or even properly acknowledged. And so the pro-life argument remains largely unaddressed. The mainstream pro-life position is that the most fundamental human right is the right to life, that the unborn child is an innocent human being, and that innocent human beings ought to be protected from violent death, regardless of whether they are wanted. The pro-life movement also argues that abortion is harmful to women, as did many of the early feminists, and advocates for practical alternatives.
Birthright refuses to tackle the pro-life movement head-on or to make any remotely good-faith effort to understand its viewpoints. It treats pro-life Americans as an insidious social force rooted in a hidden agenda of naked misogyny.
Of course, the war over abortion is, in part, a war over words. Since Roe v. Wade, rhetoric on both sides has been evolving. With newfound sensitivity to feminism, pro-life advocates increasingly frame their arguments less in the language of “abortion is murder” and more and more in the language of “women deserve better than abortion.” Similarly, advancements in ultrasound technology have forced the pro-choice movement to abandon “it’s a clump of cells” and adopt “abortion is besides the point.”
Yet what the creators of Birthright fail to grasp — perhaps deliberately, perhaps not — is that, for the pro-life movement, abortion isn’t part of some wider war on women. Abortion is a war on women. And as long as it endures, women will fight it.