“Unlawful miscarriage” is a phrase that should be goofy and meaningless, like “number red” or “President Trump.” But in certain states in the U.S., an unlawful miscarriage is a felony. So is having taken any drugs during pregnancy, regardless of the amount or the baby’s health; that crime can land a woman 10 years in prison. Birthright: A War Story, therefore, is not just about the abortion fight. It’s about how “every aspect of pregnancy and childbirth… is being subject[ed] to state punishment,” according to one of the documentary’s talking heads.
“State” is the keyword here. The film tells us that pro-lifers, knowing that overturning Roe v. Wade would be an uphill battle, have been focusing on state laws instead. (In case you don’t know which states, there’s a montage of news anchors to tell you.) The exception is the June 2014 Supreme Court ruling that employers do not have to provide insurance coverage for contraception if it goes against their religious beliefs. If this is news to job-hunting ladies, they may want to pick their next gig carefully.
Birthright, directed by Civia Tamarkin, doesn’t try to be balanced in its analysis of women’s reproductive rights; it’s firmly one-sided. Pro-lifers are included in the discussion, but they come across as stupid and ignorant. Or dangerous: “Terminating the life of the abortionist I would not say is murder,” says Rev. Michael Bray of the underground terrorist organization Army of God in a clip. Nor, apparently, are the deaths of women who seek illegal abortions. The fetus has the right to live; the mother or anyone who assists her? Not so much.
Tamarkin, who also shares a writing credit with Luchina Fisher, includes one horror story after another told by women who physically suffered or were jailed because of draconian abortion laws that sometimes extend to miscarriages. At some point, you start to think, “we get it.” But then each story will have a different twist. And although it’s at first difficult to believe that women would be jailed for failed pregnancies—in this country, in the 21st century—Tamarkin is ready with examples, such as the woman who took rat poison while upset over a breakup. She delivered her baby, but it died soon after. Then the cuffs were brought out. The crime is called feticide.
The tactic of pro-life groups, the film says, is to give the fetus as many rights as possible. These laws would declare that life begins at conception and allow the government to intervene in a woman’s life the second she gets pregnant. “That’s an intrusion into the life of an individual that should shock every conservative in this country,” a lawyer says. Even now, pregnant women are allegedly avoiding doctors and hospitals for fear of intrusion and arrest. University of California, Irvine law professor Michele Goodwin points out that, in this political climate, it’s safer for some women to give birth in a developing country than in their own states. “From a public health perspective,” she says, “we’re really missing the mark.”
Birthright opens Friday at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.