The Anti-Choice Movement's Bag of Dirty Tricks
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Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion, the recent documentary by Stephen Fell and Will Thompson, is an eye-opening, must-see portrait of the pro-life movement's win-at-all-costs philosophy. It goes beyond the movement's robotic way of staying on-message and reveals anti-choicers' unrepentant, and often subtle, employment of dirty tricks. What makes these tricks so disturbing -- and, arguably, effective -- is that most of them aren't coming from extremists perpetuating bald-faced lies. Instead, it's the reasonable-seeming, public-relations-type woman who pushes misinformation about a link between abortion and breast cancer. It's the young student with a Northface backpack who displays horrifying visuals of aborted fetuses on university campuses. It's the nonthreatening, formerly pro-choice 19-year-old who shares her own heartbreaking abortion story.
In its even-handed depiction of the movement's moderates and extremists, this film offers one bitter-pill lesson: appeals to science and reason, however ethical, simply do not influence the masses as well as blood-and-guts emotionality. For example, in response to anti-choice images of broken fetal arms strewn in blood, reproductive justice activists show a wire hanger next to a smiling picture of Joan Crawford. This comes across as sterile, diminutive and polite. By contrast, a no-holds-barred approach would be an image of a woman who had died during a back-alley abortion. A corpse.
With the fright of South Dakota and the Supreme Court's ban on "partial birth" abortion, this is an important documentary that all progressives should see. But it's particularly critical that reproductive justice activists, who see the foreboding reversal of Roe etched into every new parental notification law, watch the film to gain whatever upper hand they might in this vicious battle over women's lives. Upon seeing this film, some feminists may ask themselves if they might be more ruthless in their fights against anti-choice propagandists.
What this film makes clear is that the fight should be easier given the sanctimonious misogynists behind anti-choice rhetoric who pretend to care for women's well-being. In a revealing scene that takes place at Focus on the Family Headquarters, we witness a group of young students eager to take up the anti-choice mantle. These are students who, as part of their curriculum, need to learn how to appear compassionate toward a young woman who has been raped. Forget actual sympathy. The group is watching a video of a young woman who publicly admits to having been raped at 13 years old and subsequently having had an abortion. As they pause to critique the scene of two men squabbling with this young woman about the "unborn child's" DNA, none of the women students in the seminar balk at their cruelty. Instead, they listen as the male teacher says first that there should be a woman there to validate this young woman's trauma. Then, after they've disarmed her with their kindness, they should move in for the kill and ask why the child should pay for the crimes of the father. That they need to "learn not to condescend" tells us much of what we need to know about this group.
This scene comes at the very beginning of the film, effectively upping the ante for what we're about to see next: the "Justice for All" exhibit, a gruesome, three-sided, 18-foot-tall billboard photomontage of bloodied aborted fetuses, holocaust survivors, and executions erected on college campuses since 2001. Also underwritten by deep-pocketed Focus on the Family, the display provokes all sorts of reactions, from indifference to fury. We meet two male students at Colorado State University who vehemently argue with the students staffing the exhibit. One student asks why, if they're so anti-abortion, they aren't handing out condoms and birth-control pills to teens, to which the anti-choicers say nothing. That anti-choice proponents are at base anti-sex is not news, but that those groomed to be pro-life spokespersons had no pat, gimmicky retort to the issue of birth control exposes an inherent weakness in their machine.
The issue of birth control gets at the heart of another vexing issue, though. As reproductive justice activists fight to defend a woman's right to privacy, they're also working to protect a woman's right to access to birth control because they generally don't want women to have to resort to abortion either. Abortion typically being the last resort, a woman who has one is likely not a selfish slut seeking convenience. But that is just what some of these characters will have you believe. Especially the kind of person who holds up the despicable sign "God Hates You The Way You Are: Sodomites, Abortionists, Drunkards," for example, at the 2004 March for Women's Lives. So much for the feigned sympathy of a 13-year-old victim of rape, who, according to deluded anti-choice activists, was probably asking for it.
That filmmakers Fell and Thompson, who started this project as a college thesis at Rice University in Houston, Texas, gained such intimate access to this group with more than 70 exclusive interviews is a testament to their achievement. We get infighting gossip, based mostly on the moderate's disdain for their extremist counterparts -- the murderous lunatics who bomb abortion clinics in the name of life. We learn that not all pro-lifers are uneducated, backwater "rednecks," and those who aren't are offended by the stereotype.
We also learn from an artist who creates little fetuses as small as mustard seeds (and who once suffered a miscarriage) that the psychological toll of losing a fetus can inspire anti-choice passion. This woman's story falls into the seemingly indisputable realm of emotion, like the women depicted at the "I Regret My Abortion" rally. Once pro-choice, these women, with their heartbreaking stories of loss, are so hard to dismiss. One 19-year-old bravely shares her story of the crisis pregnancy she endured just three years prior and how she feels betrayed, ironically, by the lack of options she felt. For someone in her situation, abortion was the only solution, she said. But ever since then, she's been haunted by the mistake she feels she made.
Listening to these rueful stories, it's almost impossible not to empathize. The problem is, these stories are emotionally dishonest. In a way, perhaps unintentionally, these women betray their desperate sisters. Their catharsis, their failure at solidarity, is self-serving at best. We learn in a later clip that the rally was convened to fill a hole in the anti-choice rhetoric, and it works as a powerfully persuasive proselytizing tool to convert women on the fence. But just as you get caught up in their narratives, one woman pulls up her shirt to show the scar from her mastectomy, and you're snapped back to the harsh reality of a deceitful campaign to undo women's rights.
Jeanine Plant is a New York-based freelance writer.