When the T.V. adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” began streaming on Hulu last month, many were quick to draw parallels between the Donald Trump administration and the fictional theocracy that controls the United States in the book and show.
To Civia Tamarkin and Luchina Fisher, the team behind the new documentary “Birthright: A War Story,” which tracks the rapid swell of abortion restrictions in the U.S., those comparisons are entirely justified. Their documentary explores the myriad ways that the pro-life movement has worked to roll back access to abortion for women in the U.S. and to put the rights of the fetus, rather than the pregnant woman, first.
“What you are seeing is that this has been, in many ways, a holy war in which the Catholics and the evangelicals have created an entire movement to promulgate their pro-life philosophy,” says Tamarkin, director and co-writer of the film.
“Beyond that, when you have state legislatures and courts not only banning abortion but inhibiting and restricting contraceptives, then in effect what you have … is government determining whether, when and how women will give birth,” she adds. “That is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ This film is the real-life version of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’”
Tamarkin and Fisher started work on the film following the 2014 Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, which saw conservative Justice Samuel Alito write the majority 5-4 opinion in favor of the Oklahoma-based craft store. Under the decision, the government cannot force for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby to provide contraceptive coverage for their female employees if their religion opposes such medication. With the case, Tamarkin said she “began to see that the winds of war were really rising.”
A leaked document obtained by Vox this week shows that the Trump administration is possibly preparing to widen the scope of companies that can opt out of covering contraceptives in their health insurance, whether it’s for moral or religious reasons.
The film opens with the words: “All wars have collateral damage. This one is no different.” Tamarkin and Fisher make the point that the state of women’s reproductive rights in America has now moved beyond simply pro-choice and pro-life issues. Since Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion in the U.S. legal, there has been a sustained effort to overturn it. The anti-choice movement has mobilized and embedded itself into the Republican Party; formed coalitions with the various state legislatures; and infiltrated the political mechanism, says Tamarkin. The film also shows the rise in Catholic healthcare systems, and the proliferation of pro-life youth camps that “groom these children to continue this battle for them,” says Fisher.
“We did not want to rehash the entire abortion issue, we wanted to show the fallout, the spillover, the collateral damage that has become part of it, which very few people are aware of,” says Tamarkin.
Among the women we meet in the film is Danielle Deaver, who was forced to give birth to a baby she knew wouldn’t survive. Nebraska’s 20-week fetal pain law—which bans abortion after 20 weeks—meant that although Deaver’s water broke at 22 weeks and one day, and her baby’s lungs had collapsed, it would have been illegal for a doctor to induce her pregnancy. Deaver’s husband, Robb, remembers the baby gasped. Then, “we watched her pass away,” he says.
In another case, Alabama’s chemical endangerment law, which was designed to target parents who use or make meth around children, was used against a woman who took half a Valium late into her pregnancy.
Fisher and Tamarkin hope these stories will illustrate just what’s at stake for women’s health in America. They also hope younger women realize that just because Roe is the law now, access to legal abortion in the U.S. is no longer a guarantee.
“The younger generation does take for granted that they can get their contraceptives if they need to, they can get a legal abortion,” says Fisher. “I don’t think they’re aware of just the difficulties and barriers that had been put in place.”
“This is no fantasy, this is real.”
“Birthright: A War Story” will be released in theaters starting July 14 in New York, followed by additional cities across the country including Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and more to be announced.