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Civia Tamarkin’s ‘Birthright’ documentary fights for women’s rights

Civia Tamarkin’s ‘Birthright’ documentary fights for women’s rights

The reaction from a title like Birthright: A War Story is undeniably intentional in Civia Tamarkin’s new documentary. The war against women’s rights because of reproductive laws passed in recent years are having a horrific and alarming impact on the rights of women; both infringing on what was outlined when Roe v. Wade was passed (in 1973) but also having a larger impact on women’s personal reproductive, medical, and privacy rights in scary ways.

Birthright argues the war against women’s rights is real and Tamarkin carefully constructs an argument which is utterly convincing. Along with her extensive research to provide historical and political context, Tamarkin includes a multitude of diverse stories of women to show the tragic ripple effects of these laws.

Lesley Coffin: How did you go about researching this subject and finding how these stories and laws connected to the central issue of women’s reproductive rights and the anti-abortion movement?

Civia Tamarkin: My background is in journalism and I’ve spent decades investigating criminal and social justice, just following the trails to connect the dots. And that was the approach I wanted to take on this project. I’m of the generation that fought to get Roe v. Wade passed. And I was naïve not to see that the fight was far from over. I felt assured that women’s rights and our privacy was protected. But on the heels of the Hobby Lobby decision, I was outraged. I couldn’t understand how this could happen, how could contraception be part-in-parcel with religious restrictions? How could an employer withhold insurance coverage based on the company owner’s religious beliefs? So, I said I’d investigate how we got to this point, so that’s when I started investigating through research and looking at history, and then of course interviewing. And I began to follow the strategies that led to the many restrictive laws we have now, particularly the Hobby Lobby case. And then subsequently, all the laws to come down since then. I was interested in how they built this war machine and how it infiltrated and aligned with the Republican Party. First on the state levels and in public schools, and then in Congress, and now the White House, the Department of Health, and the Supreme Court.

Lesley Coffin: When you initially considering how to approach this documentary, did you ever consider focusing on the Hobby Lobby decision as a case study and then splintering out, rather than the kind of survey approach you ultimately took?

Civia Tamarkin: No, because I didn’t want to restrict things. I primarily wanted to present the larger picture, and show how everything is in-context. I’ve always tried as a journalist to show things in a contextual way so readers or viewers understood the broader picture, and why these individual cases should be important to them. I wanted to ultimately show that all women, regardless of their views on abortion and political leanings, are potential victims of the fallout that comes from the anti-abortion position. I wanted to show the wide sweeping implications that determine when and how women give birth. Women on both sides of the argument could be directly affected by these laws.

Lesley Coffin: And even the first story focuses on a woman who didn’t want an abortion but the procedure she needed was defined that why under these more restrictive reproductive health laws.

Civia Tamarkin: They defined it as an abortion, but most people would not consider that an abortion. And her being denied her rights wasn’t only cruel but put her life at risk as well. Even medical practitioners find their hands tied. They personally may not agree with the laws, but they are so restricted by these new laws. What Danielle requested was an induction, that’s not an abortion, of a nonviable fetus. But her doctors, after checking with their insurance carriers and state medical boards, met with a consensus that the law could be construed as one and cost them their licenses and even face jail time.

Lesley Coffin: You include a lot about the history of Roe v. Wade, and how laws have been passed and interpreted since then. Looking back do you feel that the law was written to be too open to interpretation and left the door open for these increasingly restrictive laws?

Civia Tamarkin: I can’t speak in detail about the legal language in that law, but I think the fundamental notion of privacy that was written into that law is protected under the first amendment. We have a right to privacy, especially in terms of our own bodies. Reproductive rights are the only area that the courts can order us to undergo or restrict specific types of medical procedures. We assumed at the times that the amendment would protect women’s reproductive, bodily rights because of the privacy laws of the constitution.

Lesley Coffin: The subject is so controversial and emotional for people on both sides. When it came to interviewees, did you find it difficult to convince them to put themselves front and center and go on camera? They are putting themselves in very vulnerable positions.

Civia Tamarkin: It was very difficult. Not for experts, most of whom are comfortable on camera and speaking about the subject. But it was difficult to find subjects who were willing to talk about what happened to them. The opposition to women’s reproductive freedoms have done an excellent job ostracizing and shaming these women. And there are women suing who were concerned about coming forward in a public forum. But we had an especially difficult time interviewing doctors because of the HIPPA laws or are concerned about causing problems for their medical facilities and the hospitals they are affiliated with. And it’s difficult to find women who could articulate their stories without getting so emotional they couldn’t give details and context.

Lesley Coffin: Did you document any stories that you ultimately couldn’t use?

Civia Tamarkin: Not many, but there are always more stories you could tell. This isn’t a documentary series or epic four/five hour documentary, so we had to be mindful of time we spent on each story. And we wanted each of the stories we told to spotlight something unique.

Lesley Coffin: As a filmmaker you are open and direct about where you fall on this “debate.” Did you ever struggle to understand the other side?

Civia Tamarkin: No, not at all. And I have no objection to someone being opposed to abortion that is their purgative. What I have a problem with are people trying to foist their personal views on others, particularly with this type of legislation. I understand their beliefs and ideological perspective, I understand their motivations. But I needed to document how this movement evolved and has made such a huge impact.

Lesley Coffin: Did you find it challenging to reach out and interview some of the law-makers responsible for these restrictive laws?

Civia Tamarkin: We interviewed Arizona State Representative Trent Franks, a congressman who proposed several of the fetal pain bills. We approached Charmaine Yoest, from Americans United for Life, who now happens to hold a high position in the Department of Human Services, but she declined. We tried to speak with Marjorie Dannenfelser from Susan B. Anthony. But Carol Tobias was a very gracious interview subject, and gave a very straight forward, informative interview. I’m not interested in being confrontational or defensive with subjects, it’s about information gathering.

Lesley Coffin: With the film’s release starting this week, what audience would you like to seek this movie out?

Civia Tamarkin: Every woman and every man who cares about a woman. We don’t want to speak to the choir. We want people who are opposed to the abortion to see that they too are at risk of losing their rights if these fetus first views prevail. It can apply to women who want a natural childbirth and are forced into a C-section by a court order or women who miscarry a wanted pregnancy but can’t get emergency medical care for a miscarriage in a catholic hospital. I want to stress that this isn’t a film about abortion, it’s a film about a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions. I want to move beyond the redirect of choice, which I think is a terrible term we coined because it has a cavalier attitude, and make a film about woman’s right to bodily integrity. A woman shouldn’t lose the rights over her own body and right to privacy just because she’s pregnant. A doctor said in the film that the state’s intrusion on pregnant women should frighten every conservative in the country.

© Lesley Coffin (7/15/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Arizona Pro-Life rally 

Middle Photo: Marjorie Dannenfelser in Birthright: A War Story 

Bottom Photo: Katie Darovitz in Birthright: A War Story

Photo Credits: © 2017 Women’s Doc, LLC