That a majority of Americans want to keep the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision on Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion, as polls indicated this summer, may not matter if a new configuration of nine judges rules differently.
Which makes the appearance of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s historical, interview-laden survey of America’s abortion-rights saga, “Reversing Roe,” a timely one, considering the decision’s status in the country right now. Seven states have a single operable clinic. Restrictive regulations on remaining providers are relentlessly pushed and passed in state legislatures. And a rightward shift in court appointments might make the next generation of judicial deciders more hostile to a woman’s right to full autonomy than ever before.
Early in the film, we meet Colleen McNicholas, a hard-working Missouri-based doctor who regularly travels to choice-constraining states such as Kansas — where physician George Tiller was murdered in 2009 — to provide abortion care in areas where she senses a war is being waged on ready access to reproductive health.
From there, the directors don’t merely rehash a debate, they dig into how it morphed over the last half a century from a reasoned societal push to strike down bans that endangered women’s lives to a holy war for evangelicals with the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, and finally as a partisan litmus test for wishy-washy politicians, with the Supreme Court as the Supreme Battleground.
Our sense of the abortion opponents’ side — featured prominently in the movie via interviews with its staunchest advocates — is that it’s solidly religious and Republican in makeup. Therefore, it’s astonishing to learn that when the emergent abortion rights movement in the 1960s led to Roe vs. Wade, prominent Republicans and enlightened clergy were at the forefront of abortion rights gains. (In 1967, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the country’s most liberalized legalization law; New York’s first legalized clinic, opened in 1970, was run by a coalition of religious leaders.)
But with the rise of Jerry Falwell and the clinic-sieging tactics of Operation Rescue, abortion became a wedge issue tailor-made for new populist, factually inaccurate rhetoric on the right. It won Republicans elections, but at the expense of bedrock conservative values such as an abhorrence of government intrusion. Suddenly, abortion was as politicized as taxes, and organizations such as Planned Parenthood — whose abortion services aren’t federally funded — could be easily demonized to score points.
But as contentiousness turned into real-world consequences, “Reversing Roe” reminds us that the more women get involved regarding their rights, the more likely we’re to see a fair, principled fight. The movie gets plenty of emotional resonance out of Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’ passionate 13-hour filibuster to stop a draconian bill targeting abortion providers in 2013. (It eventually passed, but she energized rights advocates.) And, as is pointed out, it made all the difference that by 2016, three female justices were on the Supreme Court to hammer at spotty evidence and help rule in Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt that an “undue burden” had been placed on Texas women seeking abortions.
It’s fairly obvious where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie. The inclusion of interviews with anti-abortion voices (some who appear scarily robotic) interspersed with reasoned, wary Planned Parenthood leaders seems more to make the history complete than present a both-sides sheen. The takeaway of “Reversing Roe” is that Stern and Sundberg are issuing a warning, one backed by a grim timeline, forcefully presented, that makes it all too clear what’s at stake if a landmark ruling on women’s rights is overturned.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes