One of the defining characteristics in the abortion debate is the rigid nature of perspectives: for people on each side, it is so clear and irrefutable that they are on the correct side that they are often completely unable to understand why someone of any moral character would stand in opposition to them. The strategies for furthering one’s side tend to be quite different, though; those in favor of reproductive rights make arguments, and those opposed make laws.
A bit glib, I admit, but it does seem that the pro-choice side of the fight spends significantly more time trying to make their case, and the documentary Birthright: A War Story is the newest example. To the credit of writers Civia Tamarkin (who also directed) and Luchina Fisher, the film is more a call to action for those who have gotten complacent than a misguided attempt to convert those who are opposed to abortion. The arguments in the film are strong, and the issues brought to light are tremendously important, but some flaws in the construction of Birthright undermine both.
Right off the bat, director Tamarkin’s structural choices in laying out the film are somewhat uneven. She starts with a heartbreaking first-person narrative about the way a Nebraska law aimed at limiting abortion led to a miscarriage and health risks. The vignettes featuring the stories of real women are undoubtedly the most powerful part of the film, but after this first one, the film pivots into history and politics for a long stretch of time, sacrificing that personal and emotional momentum, instead ensuring for some reason that viewers know that Barbara Bush was actually pro-choice.
This first half of the film is also the densest with professional interviews. Doctors, scholars, attorneys, and politicians all weigh in about their work, research, and experiences. Many of the historical points seem unnecessary, but some of the context is helpful. There are even a couple of anti-abortion interviewees included for – well, I’m not actually sure why, since the filmmakers don’t generally seem too concerned with parity, and none of these interviewees seem to have been asked any interesting questions. If the head of the National Right to Life Association was pressed about how she could justify the impact of the laws she’s so proud of on pregnant women, her response – or lack thereof – doesn’t seem to have made it into the film.
That said, there are a couple of standout interviews that really help to build the framework of the documentary: Andrea Friedman, identified as a reproductive rights policy strategist, does an excellent job of honestly assessing the shortcomings of the pro-choice movement and the resulting implications. Lynn Paltrow, the founder and Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, does perhaps the best job of anyone in the film of capturing what seems to be Birthright’s thesis when she discussed the way the anti-abortion movement “is doing something far greater than only depriving women of the right to choose abortion. It’s establishing precedent for punishing them for experiencing miscarriages, stillbirths – for not being able to guarantee a healthy birth outcome.”
In other words, “Look how crazy this got while you weren’t paying attention. Now we’re putting women in jail for taking medication to try to prevent seizures while they’re pregnant.” And once the film finally does return to the unbelievable but true personal stories, it absolutely packs a punch. There is also an alarming segment on Catholic hospitals late in the film that most definitely doesn’t align with anything I learned at Catholic school.
Birthright could be stronger if it were more balanced, but Tamarkin and Fisher deserve credit for knowing their audience, and they do a solid job of capitalizing on that understanding to get some important information across. The stories in the film deserve to be told, and even if the storytelling isn’t perfect, it’s hard to imagine anyone watching this film without being moved – maybe even to action.