Battleground: The Fight Over Roe V. Wade

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Battleground: The Fight Over Roe V. Wade
"The film makes no secret of its pro-choice approach. Giving the majority of its time to anti-abortionists feels like giving them enough rope."

One of the difficulties with making documentaries about politics is that they can take years to put together only to be superseded by events at very short notice. This film was completed before the overturning of the Roe vs. Wade ruling on abortion rights in the US Supreme Court in June 2022. It should not, however, be looked upon as out of date. Exploring, as it does, the movement which led to that decision, it could not be more relevant.

It opens with audio recordings of a meeting between Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Evangelical Christian leaders, a part of the process of religious encroachment into the political sphere which is now fairly well documented. We then move on to Trump speaking at an anti-abortion rally in Washington, a good place to get a flavour of the movement. What may surprise some viewers is how youthful it is. There are reasons for this but they are not addressed here, which is fair enough, as there’s plenty of other material. The marchers wield signs ranging from the familiar ‘End abortion now’ and pictures of foetuses to the more surprising ‘Pro-life is pro-woman’ and ‘Abortion is a sacrifice to Satan.’

There is, naturally, a large religious element, and likewise a cultural one. Most of the young women have identically groomed straight hair, no make-up, and the same clothing style (which is far from ubiquitous in their generation more widely). Older ones have heavily powdered faces and wear pearls. One prominent interviewee, however, is an atheist Democrat who says that she gets hate mail from everybody. Supportive of sex education and LGBTQ+ rights, she says that she sees herself as a feminist, and although she subsequently reveals that she grew up in a cult – the Worldwide Church of God – she says that it was actually her loss of faith which persuaded her to start campaigning against abortion, because it made life in the here and now seem more important to her.

Although she and others speak at length, there is never any reference made to the fact that abortion can be necessary to save lives, with the exception of a couple of girls who insist that of course they’re not opposed to it in that situation. They seem blissfully unaware of the laws which have now made abortion illegal in precisely that situation. There’s a real sense of naivety about most of those we meet, as they voice their arguments in passionate but simplistic terms. Some of them were raised to think this way, they say; the bulk of the others seem to have been converted at college, often following pregnancy scares.

Students For Life is one of the organisations attending an anti-abortion conference featured here, alongside the likes of the Susan B Anthony List and the Heritage Foundation. Stalls offer posters, flyers and little plastic foetuses. Speakers approach the topic from a variety of angles. One speaks about the support they want to offer to single mothers after the ruling is overturned, and how they are ready to ensure that unwanted babies are adopted. There is no opportunity for the adoptee survivors’ networks campaigning against this to make their voice heard, but the film makes no secret of its pro-choice approach. Giving the majority of its time to anti-abortionists feels like giving them enough rope.

We see further protests. Students camp out overnight at the Supreme Court to ensure a good position for media coverage following a decision. A big group of predominantly white people holds up letters to form the words ‘black preborn lives matter.’ “Having a baby is more of a way to empower women,” says one girl far too young to know from experience, with no explanation of how this would work.

Evangelicals make up a quarter of US voters, we are told, and 41% of Americans expect Jesus to return to Earth by 2050, so they are acting frantically lest they be judged and found wanting. Nonetheless, a lot of them seem to have been involved with abortions themselves.

In contrast to this, director Cynthia Lowen includes a small number of powerful stories in support of choice, some of which viewers (of all stripes) may find distressing. Nancy Northup of New York City’s Centre for Reproductive Rights reflects on what’s likely to happen if the Roe vs. Wade decision is overturned, essentially imagining the situation which the US is in today. Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, reflects on how the country’s federal governmental structure enables the tyranny of the minority (polls routinely find that a large majority of Americans support reproductive choice), identifying trans people’s rights and voting rights as similarly skewed issues.

Although, for the most part, there’s no sense of the filmmakers trying to interfere with how the anti-abortion case is presented, one is inevitably left wondering if any more coherent arguments were left out. The music also makes negative associations in places. They are, however, revealed as individuals whom most people would probably find pleasant in other regards, and there is an effort to reveal some diversity amongst them. One woman asserts that she is against abortion but very much in favour of promiscuous sex – she just thinks that people need to be “more careful.” Whilst many of those we meet are enthusiastic in their support of Donald Trump, some of them change their minds over the course of the film, horrified by the assault on the Capitol building, though they remain grateful for his decisions in shaping the Supreme Court.

With lots of material out there focused on pro-choice campaigners but really very little examining the anti-abortion movement, this is a valuable contribution to current discussions.

Reviewed on: 28 Jun 2022
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A documentary about people who worked to overturn the Roe versus Wade ruling on abortion in the US.

Director: Cynthia Lowen

Year: 2022

Country: US

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