Sue Halpern

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Re­vers­ing Roe a doc­u­men­tary film di­rected and pro­duced by Ricki Stern and An­nie Sund­berg

Re­vers­ing Roe a doc­u­men­tary film di­rected and pro­duced by Ricki Stern and An­nie Sund­berg

Sue Halpern

It is im­pos­si­ble to un­der­stand Amer­i­can pol­i­tics of the past half-cen­tury with­out tak­ing abor­tion into ac­count. The Brett Ka­vanaugh cha­rade most re­cently, the machi­na­tions of the Repub­li­can Party more gen­er­ally, and the in­fec­tious fun­da­men­tal­ism creep­ing into ev­ery­day life: all be­gin with abor­tion. Other is­sues may have been as di­vi­sive—civil rights comes to mind—but none has been as def­i­ni­tional. These days, the lit­mus test for Repub­li­cans run­ning for po­lit­i­cal of­fice or nom­i­nated to the ju­di­ciary is op­po­si­tion to abor­tion. On the Demo­cratic side, it is al­most equally cru­cial to be pro­choice. Yet as the Net­flix doc­u­men­tary Re­vers­ing Roe ably shows, this was not al­ways the case.

Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court de­ci­sion es­tab­lish­ing a woman’s con­sti­tu­tional right to ter­mi­nate a preg­nancy for any rea­son in the first two trimesters, and in the third trimester un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, was is­sued in 1973. Seven jus­tices af­firmed the de­ci­sion, with Harry Black­mun, a Nixon ap­pointee, writ­ing for the ma­jor­ity. If that seems strange to us now—a con­ser­va­tive jus­tice on a con­ser­va­tive court in­vok­ing a right to pri­vacy on be­half of women—it is be­cause the al­liance be­tween the Right to Life move­ment and the right wing ap­pears to us to be so close as to be pre­or­dained. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Repub­li­cans were be­hind ef­forts to lib­er­al­ize and even de­crim­i­nal­ize abor­tion; theirs was the party of re­pro­duc­tive choice, while Democrats, with their large Catholic con­stituency, were the op­po­si­tion.

Repub­li­can gov­er­nor Ron­ald Rea­gan signed the Cal­i­for­nia Ther­a­peu­tic Abor­tion Act, one of the most lib­eral abor­tion laws in the coun­try, in 1967, le­gal­iz­ing abor­tion for women whose men­tal or phys­i­cal health would be im­paired by preg­nancy, or whose preg­nan­cies were the re­sult of rape or in­cest. The same year, the Repub­li­can strongholds of North Carolina and Colorado made it eas­ier for women to ob­tain abor­tions. New York, un­der Gov­er­nor Nel­son Rock­e­feller, a Repub­li­can, elim­i­nated all re­stric­tions on women seek­ing to ter­mi­nate preg­nan­cies up to twenty-four weeks ges­ta­tion. (Re­vers­ing Roe shows young women in Dal­las board­ing air­planes headed to these states.) Richard Nixon, Barry Gold­wa­ter, Ger­ald Ford, and Ge­orge H.W. Bush were all pro-choice, and they were not party out­liers. In 1972, a Gallup poll found that 68 per­cent of Repub­li­cans be­lieved abor­tion to be a pri­vate mat­ter be­tween a woman and her doc­tor. The gov­ern­ment, they said, should not be in­volved.

Per­haps more sur­pris­ingly, the right to abor­tion was force­fully sup­ported and ad­vanced by the Protes­tant clergy. The Clergy Con­sul­ta­tion Ser­vice on Abor­tion (CCSA), which was es­tab­lished in 1967, not only coun­seled preg­nant women about their choices, it en­listed physi­cians to per­form abor­tions. One of these, who is fea­tured in the film, was Dr. Cur­tis Boyd, a gy­ne­col­o­gist and Bap­tist min­is­ter now in his eight­ies. He be­gan his prac­tice in Texas at the be­hest of the CCSA in 1968, fully aware that he was break­ing the law. “Our role is to help [a woman] make a de­ci­sion in the grace of God that she can live with,” Boyd told the Santa Fe Re­porter and NM Po­lit­i­cal Re­port last year. He reck­ons he is the old­est abor­tion provider in the coun­try. Af­ter the Roe de­ci­sion, the CCSA opened the first le­gal abor­tion clinic in the United States, in New York City.

Roe v. Wade orig­i­nated in Texas. (The named de­fen­dant, Henry Wade, was the Dal­las dis­trict at­tor­ney at the time.) In the years af­ter the Supreme Court de­ci­sion, women were able to ob­tain abor­tion ser­vices at forty-one clin­ics across the state. To­day that num­ber is down to twenty-two, with clin­ics so far apart that some women have to travel three hun­dred miles to reach one. In ten Texas cities with more than 50,000 res­i­dents, there isn’t a sin­gle abor­tion clinic. In the coun­try as a whole, 162 abor­tion clin­ics or med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties that per­form abor­tions have closed since 2011.

So what changed? Why did those pro-choice Repub­li­cans re­pu­di­ate their sup­port for a woman’s right to choose? Why did the 1976 Repub­li­can plat­form sup­port “the ef­forts” of those call­ing for a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to pro­tect the “right to life” of the un­born? Why is it, as John Seago, the leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor of Texas Right to Life, tells the film­mak­ers, that any­one run­ning for any of­fice in his state must de­clare their op­po­si­tion to abor­tion if they hope to be elected? How is it that be­tween 2011 and 2014, twenty-seven states en­acted 231 abor­tion re­stric­tions? And why did four states—Mis­sis­sippi, Iowa, Ken­tucky, and In­di­ana—pass laws just this year that di­min­ish, if not con­tra­vene, the rights es­tab­lished back in 1973? Re­vers­ing Roe does an ad­mirable job of teas­ing apart how the Repub­li­can Party used con­trol of women’s bod­ies as po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal to shift the bal­ance of power their way. We watch politi­cians like Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Rea­gan disavow their ear­lier pro­choice po­si­tions dur­ing their pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, and or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Na­tional Right to Life Com­mit­tee in the late 1960s, and Op­er­a­tion Res­cue two decades later, in­sin­u­ate them­selves into the Repub­li­can Party. We see Catholic bish­ops in the 1960s politi­ciz­ing their con­gre­ga­tions through ex­hor­ta­tions from the pul­pit and voter reg­is­tra­tion drives af­ter Mass de­signed to get par­ish­ioners to switch their af­fil­i­a­tion from Demo­crat to Repub­li­can. What we don’t see is Richard Nixon, un­der the sway of Pat Buchanan and Charles Col­son, plot­ting an an­tiabor­tion strat­egy to lure those Catholic vot­ers away from the Demo­cratic Party, or how Ger­ald Ford and his ad­vis­ers fur­thered that strat­egy, cyn­i­cally adding pro-life lan­guage to the 1976 Repub­li­can plat­form, as­sum­ing that it would be a tem­po­rary ma­neu­ver. In­stead, it turned out to be the open­ing that en­abled re­li­gious anti-choice ad­vo­cates to be­gin to re­make the party. Even more sin­is­ter, per­haps, than this ploy by the Repub­li­cans were the racist ori­gins of that agenda. As the his­to­rian of re­li­gion Ran­dall Balmer ex­plains in the film, evan­gel­i­cals be­came po­lit­i­cally ac­tive in the 1970s, when they were thwarted by the courts and the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice in their ef­forts to ob­tain tax-ex­empt sta­tus for “seg­re­ga­tion academies” like Jerry Fal­well’s Lynch­burg Chris­tian School and Bob Jones Uni­ver­sity that heeded what they be­lieved to be a bib­li­cal man­date to keep the races sep­a­rate. Around the same time, Paul Weyrich, a Repub­li­can strate­gist, rec­og­nized the po­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal power evan­gel­i­cal vot­ers would have if they were to vote as a bloc, and tried to pull them into the fold with is­sues he thought might ap­peal to their moral­ism, such as the pro­lif­er­a­tion of pornography, the Equal Rights Amend­ment, and even abor­tion—which, prior to Roe, they were largely sym­pa­thetic to­ward and con­sid­ered a Catholic is­sue. In­stead, as they be­gan to or­ga­nize against the gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to sup­port seg­re­gated schools, Weyrich, who in the late 1970s was work­ing on be­half of Rea­gan, saw his chance, though he un­der­stood that he—and they— would need an is­sue that had more pop­u­lar ap­peal than out­right racism. As Balmer puts it, “Weyrich says in ef­fect, we’ve found our is­sue. Abor­tion is go­ing to work for us as a po­lit­i­cal is­sue.” Tanya Melich, a high-level Repub­li­can staffer who left the party when it be­gan, as she called her book on the sub­ject, the Repub­li­can war against women, ex­plains:

It was a move­ment that said we were go­ing to win the pres­i­dency through big­otry, but we are not go­ing to come right out and say it . . . . They set out to change the dy­namic in the Repub­li­can Party .... And they suc­ceeded.

By 2009 only 26 per­cent of Repub­li­cans were pro-choice. Since 2009, though, the num­ber of Repub­li­cans who sup­port abor­tion has inched up a bit. A Pew sur­vey last year in­di­cated that about 34 per­cent of Repub­li­cans be­lieve abor­tion should not be il­le­gal “in all or most cases.” Over­all, 57 per­cent of Amer­i­cans sup­port abor­tion rights in all or most cir­cum­stances, as do 65 per­cent of peo­ple un­der thirty. These ma­jori­ties are un­likely to mat­ter, how­ever, when chal­lenges to Roe come be­fore a newly re­aligned, anti-choice, con­ser­va­tive Supreme Court.

Those chal­lenges, and the hun­dreds of con­straints on abor­tions that have been en­acted in the last few years, are just one part of a very ef­fec­tive strat­egy by the re­li­gious right to un­der­mine Roe. Us­ing the orig­i­nal rul­ing, which lim­ited abor­tion as the preg­nancy moved into the third trimester, anti-choice ac­tivists have un­der­writ­ten a sur­feit of in­creas­ingly re­stric­tive laws in states across the coun­try, know­ing that even­tu­ally cases in­volv­ing one or more of them will reach a re­cep­tive Supreme Court. In the mean­time, they have cre­ated le­gal ob­sta­cles for women seek­ing to ter­mi­nate their preg­nan­cies and for health care providers who of­fer abor­tion ser­vices. These in­clude, for in­stance, long wait times, “coun­sel­ing” that talks about the fe­tus’s abil­ity to feel pain, and a re­quire­ment that a woman look at her fe­tal sono­gram as a doc­tor points out the fe­tus’s var­i­ous de­vel­op­ing body parts. A Texas law, now over­turned, even dic­tated the width of clinic hall­ways. Ad­di­tion­ally, the orig­i­nal trimester timetable in Roe has been scrapped in fa­vor of a highly in­ter­pretable “fe­tal vi­a­bil­ity” stan­dard, and states are now at­tempt­ing to cur­tail abor­tion within a few weeks of con­cep­tion, often be­fore a woman knows she is preg­nant. “We’ve had a game plan for many years . . . and I think it’s com­ing to fruition,” Carol To­bias, the pres­i­dent of Na­tional Right to Life, tells the film­mak­ers. That plan has been to make the bar­ri­ers to abor­tion so high that Roe will be nul­li­fied by de­fault. For some anti-abor­tion ac­tivists, most no­tably those af­fil­i­ated with Op­er­a­tion Res­cue, it has also meant rais­ing the stakes for health care providers to the point where it is no longer sen­si­ble or fea­si­ble for them to per­form abor­tions. They have ac­com­plished this by killing doc­tors in up­state New York, Florida, and, most fa­mously, in a Kansas church; bomb­ing abor­tion clin­ics in Florida, Ta­coma, and At­lanta; set­ting fire to clin­ics in New Hampshire, Wis­con­sin, Florida, Vir­ginia, and Alabama; and ha­rass­ing health care providers and their fam­i­lies, often in their homes. (This is an ab­bre­vi­ated list.) “The weak link in the abor­tion chain is the per­son do­ing the ac­tual abor­tions,” Troy Newman of Op­er­a­tion Res­cue says, stand­ing in front of a map that marks all the clin­ics his or­ga­ni­za­tion has shut down. “We’ve been very ef­fec­tive in tar­get­ing par­tic­u­lar abor­tion­ists. If they don’t have an abor­tion­ist, the place closes down .... We have prob­a­bly closed down hun­dreds of abor­tion clin­ics, and it’s the one thing I’m most proud of.” In­deed, Newman and his co­hort have been so ef­fec­tive that there are now seven states that

have only one abor­tion provider each, with a num­ber of Repub­li­can gov­er­nors vy­ing to be the first state with none. It is es­pe­cially egre­gious to watch the dis­graced for­mer Mis­souri gov­er­nor Eric Gre­it­ens, an adul­terer and al­leged sex­ual preda­tor (although he has de­nied the al­le­ga­tions), pledg­ing to elim­i­nate abor­tion ser­vices in his state at a spe­cial “pro-life” ses­sion of the leg­is­la­ture. It is also galling to watch Mike Pence call­ing for Planned Par­ent­hood to be de­funded—“Why do I have to pay for [abor­tion]?” he asks a crowd of sup­port­ers—since, by law, fed­eral money is al­ready pro­hib­ited from pay­ing for abor­tion ser­vices, and to see Don­ald Trump ex­claim­ing dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial de­bate that Hil­lary Clin­ton and her pro-choice min­ions would al­low ba­bies to be “ripp[ed] out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.” “I knew those were Don­ald Trump’s words, . . . not the words of some speech­writer,” says Tony Perkins, the pres­i­dent of the evan­gel­i­cal Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil. “When he did that, I be­lieve he sealed the deal with pro­lif­ers across the coun­try.” This was cru­cial, Perkins ex­plained, be­cause to win, he es­ti­mated, Trump needed the votes of nearly 80 per­cent of evan­gel­i­cals. With those words, too, Trump was up­ping the ante on a pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful anti-choice rhetor­i­cal de­vice, the so-called par­tial-birth abor­tion. “Par­tial birth” is a po­lit­i­cal term, not a med­i­cal one, in­vented to mor­tify even ar­dent abor­tion sup­port­ers with graphic lan­guage and il­lus­tra­tions of liv­ing ba­bies be­ing wrenched from their mother’s bod­ies and killed, even though 90 per­cent of abor­tions oc­cur in the first three months of preg­nancy, and only slightly more than one per­cent hap­pen af­ter twenty-one weeks, the outer edge of vi­a­bil­ity, typ­i­cally be­cause of a fe­tal anom­aly. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port on Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio back in 2006, when the Supreme Court added the con­tested Par­tial-Birth Abor­tion Ban Act of 2003 to its docket, some mem­bers of Congress tried to amend that law to limit the ban solely to vi­able fe­tuses, but “abor­tion op­po­nents com­plained that would leave most of the abor­tion pro­ce­dures le­gal.” Par­tial-birth abor­tion, as a talk­ing point, “took off like wild­fire,” Newman says. “We made it an is­sue. We forced it on Amer­ica.” The Supreme Court’s 5–4 de­ci­sion in 2007 uphold­ing the 2003 “par­tial­birth” act, along with Planned Par­ent­hood of South­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia v. Casey, the 1992 rul­ing that scrapped Roe’s trimester timetable and re­placed it with the vague fe­tal vi­a­bil­ity stan­dard, has be­come as foun­da­tional as Roe it­self, as they cir­cum­scribe by law when a woman can ter­mi­nate a preg­nancy. Even so, de­spite the con­certed ef­forts of the re­li­gious right and the Repub­li­can Party and their suc­cess­ful cam­paigns to neuter Roe, abor­tion re­mains, if only nom­i­nally in some states, a con­sti­tu­tional right. “We are go­ing to keep plug­ging away to over­turn Roe v. Wade be­cause we be­lieve this coun­try shouldn’t be killing its ba­bies,” Carol To­bias says in Re­vers­ing Roe. “Our road­block has al­ways been the Supreme Court.” Un­til it no longer is.

Abor­tion rights demon­stra­tors, New York City, 1968

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