As Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings raged on, the question on everyone’s mind was what will happen to abortion rights if he ends up on the Supreme Court? Kavanaugh’s opinion on the matter is clear, given the fact he called birth control an “abortion-inducing drug.” How did we come to this place as a country? In Reversing Roe, filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg dig into the history of America before Roe v. Wade, and what America might look like if that landmark case is overturned.
What the film covers
The film opens with images of newspaper headlines and video clips on the Texas legislature’s abortion restrictions. For years, Texas has been a major battleground, and throughout the film, the state will come up again and again. A sobering fact is stated: since 2010, legislatures have passed more than 300 restrictions on abortions. This is America today; what about the past? Reversing Roe travels back in time to trace the story of abortions in this country.
Before Roe v. Wade, only privileged women could access “therapeutic abortions,” the only form of abortion legally allowed. Everyone else turned to illegal and dangerous methods. Shame ran deep. Then Roe v. Wade went to the Supreme Court, argued by a 26-year old lawyer as a class action suit. To everyone’s shock, the conservative court declared abortion a constitutional right.
The film next tackles the decades-long backlash led by Catholics and eventually evangelicals. This gets into the most interesting part of the film, which describes how abortion went from being a purely social and moral issue to a political one. The Republican party was actually the pro-choice party, but the New Right movement needed voters to push their agenda of tax-exempt religious institutions. They went after Christians, who were not politically-active. This was how the Republican party of life we know today was created. If you’re curious to know more about their tactics, check out Samantha Bee’s interview with Frank Schaeffer, son of Christian-hero Francis Schaeffer.
The second half of Reversing Roe is a whirlwind of court cases and laws driven by the elections of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. The Supreme Court changes with the addition of justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and Neil Gorsuch. Through all of this, pro-choice and pro-life face off with opposing missions: save or destroy Roe. v. Wade.
The film’s weaknesses
Because there’s so much ground to cover, the film can a bit hard to follow if you aren’t familiar with abortion history already. There’s some jumping around through time that can be confusing, so pay attention to the date markers that pop up onscreen. The film is sometimes organized by theme and sometimes chronologically. The idea seems to be to show how history often rhymes in different decades, but for the sake of clarity, it would have been better if the filmmakers picked theme or time, and stuck with it. There are also a lot of names and interviews, which shows that the filmmakers did their research, though it can be difficult to track who is who.
Should you watch it?
The film’s weaknesses are simply the result of trying to condense half a century’s worth of history into 90-minutes. The film is almost the abstract to a larger body of work that people can choose to dig into if they want to know more. It’s a very thorough abstract, however, and hits all the major milestones everyone should know about, such as court cases, elections, and crimes. For that reason, anyone invested in human rights should watch this movie and use it as a springboard. The message of Reversing Roe is crystal-clear: a woman’s right to choose and to have control over her own life and body are in danger. Roe v. Wade is under assault.