Back in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale was considered a work of fiction, but the new documentary Birthright: A War Story questions whether that’s still the case. Dubbed “the real Handmaid’s Tale,” by its director, award-winning investigative journalist Civia Tamarkin, the film shows how decades of pro-life activists chipping away at Roe v. Wade has impacted women’s reproductive rights in the United States. Birthright makes the case that there really is a war against women, a religious one, and it affects every single woman — not just those who identify as pro-choice.
“It’s ludicrous that the same party that wants to limit access to contraception and to abortion claims that they’re doing it for women’s health,” Tamarkin tells me over the phone, referring to the Republican party. “That they would propose a healthcare law that limits maternity coverage, prenatal coverage for women on Medicaid, and qualify C-sections as a pre-existing condition, which in effect makes monthly health insurance premiums prohibitively costly for so many women. There’s a disconnect here for what’s happening.”
Tamarkin and her co-writer, fellow social justice journalist Luchina Fisher, wanted to connect those dots to show that the onslaught of anti-choice laws in recent years — 288 new abortion restrictions were enacted since 2010, according to the Guttmacher Institute — aren’t just curtailing abortion. Many of these laws impact women health's overall, and, Tamarkin says, are influenced by religious groups that are putting their agenda first before anything else.
And so what the filmmakers want every woman watching their doc to understand is that abortion laws passed by state representatives, often with support of the religious right, can be deciding factors in how your pregnancy is handled when you walk into a hospital. One in every six hospital beds in the U.S. is part of a Catholic hospital system, according to a 2016 report from the American Civil Liberties Union and MergerWatch — and their directives come from the church, not the medical board.
According to the ACLU, the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which is decided on by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, "prohibit a range of reproductive health services, including contraception, sterilization, many infertility treatments, and abortion, even when a woman’s life or health is jeopardized by a pregnancy." The Washington Post notes that "hospitals vary in how closely they follow the Catholic directives" and grant exceptions in cases of medical emergency, which is required of all hospitals by federal law. But the definition of "emergency" is not defined, leaving room for interpretation, and Birthright tackles this grey area.
The doc opens with Danielle Deaver saying, “My story doesn’t have anything to do with abortion,” but as she unfortunately learned, a 2010 fetal pain bill passed in Nebraska, which was backed by anti-abortion supporters in the state, made it impossible for her to induce labor. She was told her baby had a 10 percent chance of survival after losing too much amniotic fluid at 22 weeks, but the law, passed only eight months prior, made it illegal to terminate a pregnancy after 20 weeks.
By law, the doctors couldn't operate on Deaver until there was a serious risk of “substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function," otherwise it would be considered an illegal abortion by the state. After 10 days, Deaver got an infection connected to her pregnancy that nearly took her life. It was only then that doctors delivered her baby, who passed away minutes later in her arms.
Deaver's experience is, sadly, not an anomaly. In 2015, the ACLU sued the Michigan-based Trinity Health Corporation, one of the USA's largest Catholic health systems, for "refusing to provide emergency abortions to five women whose incomplete miscarriages put them at high risk of serious complications." The judge denied the ACLU's case.
To Tamarkin, this is an example of the “religious war” going on, during which women have become collateral damage. She cites the 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling as an example, where the Supreme Court decided businesses have a right to their own religious beliefs and don’t have to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees despite the Affordable Care Act’s mandate. Tamarkin's fear is that this "war" will only get worse with with Donald Trump in office.
“We have a president who views women as sexual objects and we have a vice president who refers to his wife as mother,” Tamarkin says. “If that isn’t the archetypal Madonna whore complex in Washington, in the White House, I don’t know what is.”
It’s a funny line, but it’s not a joke. Fisher thinks Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale has inspired women to show up to hearings in Offred’s red robes and bonnets because under this administration, losing your reproductive rights doesn’t seem that farfetched. It’s why she hopes her documentary shows that the choice debate isn't just about abortion, but about women’s rights overall.
"It's tricky because I think there are a lot of women that still identify with the patriarchy for reasons that in some way benefit them," she says. "It really has to be that women see what it’s costing them."
With Birthright, Fisher wants to encourage each and every woman to inform herself about her reproductive rights. Knowledge is power, which is why the film's website provides a "Take Action" section that includes links to places like the Center For Reproductive Rights and a widget to help you contact your state representatives. Fisher wants women to understand what decisions are being made on their behalf and what's really at stake.
"This has been a very successful widespread campaign to really keep woman in the dark about what’s happening," Fisher says. "This is a wake up call." Or, perhaps more accurately, Birthright is a call to arms for women who want to keep The Handmaid’s Tale a work of fiction, and not prophecy.