Birthright: A War Story


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Birthright: A War Story
"It's a bold attempt to get beyond the usual polarised politics and look at how laws intended to reduce abortion impact wider society."

"In every war, there are casualties," intones the narrator at the start of Civia Tamarkin's documentary. Most of the casualties of America's culture war are women, but as this film shows, they also include men, and children. No matter where the weapon is aimed, anybody can be caught in the blast.

There have been many documentaries about abortion. Any new one would struggle, now, to measure up to the harrowing After Tiller, and fictional works like 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days have explored the consequences of women deciding to seek help outside the law. But Tamarkin is interested in something bigger, and with that in mind, this film is relevant not only to supporters of the right to a safe abortion, but to those who think it's desperately wrong, because many in the latter camp will be equally horriified by the tales told here. It's a bold attempt to get beyond the usual polarised politics and look at how laws intended to reduce abortion impact wider society.

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Films like this inevitably contain distressing material. Tamarkin has elicited some deeply personal testimonies from her subjects, beginning with a couple whose much-wanted pregnancy was declared non-viable after complications at an early stage, but who were forced to continue it for months, even when it caused life-threatening fever, because of a change in the law. Other women talk about facing police investigations after they miscarried, being accused of child abuse for taking medication whilst pregnant (even when their babies were fine), and being forced to have surgery against their will. One explains how she was denied the option of being sterilised - the ultimate way to remove the possibility of abortion - even though another pregnancy could be dangerous to her and she already had numerous children to support. Behind all this lies a story of contraception becoming unavailable, of Medicaid cancelling women's health services, and of doctors phoning bishops for advice when contemplating how best to treat their patients.

Roe vs Wade will probably never be overturned, one commentator says. That doesn't really matter. Assorted young women speculate as to what Roe vs Wade is, with one, upon having it explained, expressing indignation at not having been taught that in school. One is reminded of the saying about it not being necessary to burn books when they can simply be left unread. What is depicted here is a movement as politically savvy as it is scientifically illiterate, with consequences for women that reach far beyond abortion access itself. Though Tamarkin does allow a few of its supporters to put their side of the story, this is done somewhat simplistically, and if there is something important missing from the film then it is a deeper analysis of their motives. There is a point at which the notion that it is all about a sincere dedication to saving lives becomes difficult to sustain.

The film's other weakness is a heavy-handed score which undermines, rather than enhances, the impact of these powerful stories. There is plenty of real horror on display without the need to try to add to it. Much of the film's strength comes from the ordinariness of its subjects, of the homes we glimpse in the background, and of the situations they describe prior to the point at which events spiralled out of their control.

At a point when protesters are beginning to don the garb of the red women depicted in The Handmaid's Tale, Birthright is a stark look at how far the rights of half the US population have been eroded, and it should make anybody - no matter their feelings about abortion - sit up and take notice.

Reviewed on: 08 Jul 2017
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A documentary about the legal and political situation around abortion, miscarriage and women's rights in America.

Director: Civia Tamarkin

Writer: Luchina Fisher, Civia Tamarkin

Year: 2017

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US


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