We know her story. She has a beginning and end. Though her life is not a race, it’s as though everyone else got a running start, and though the finish line was always in her view, it seemed to constantly move further away. Sight of the end has yet to be lost depsite her ongoing bout with beginnings and setbacks; which have more recently reared their ugly face in the present day. This, a race meant to end in a draw, had become one to defeat.
She is Dr. Colleen McNicholas. She is Wendy Davis. She is Sherri Finkbine. She is Gloria Steinem. She is Eleanor Holmes Norton. She is Linda Greenhouse. She is every woman. She is a queen in the shadows, unwilling to go on overlooked.
If you’d ask me about my view on life, I’d express my sincere gratitude for all that I’ve been granted. If you’d asked me again, I’d tell you take a seat out of courtesy. You were going to hear my audiobook about injustices affecting me and other women. Netflix’s new documentary, Reversing Roe, does just that, only it was a bit less rant-y and more professional. The documentary follows the tragic beginnings of abortions to the present day, for which the future remains ambiguous.
Despite women being disadvantaged as a whole, discrimination still prevailed within the population of women. There were wealthy white woman who because of their background could get an abortion with ease. In 1962, Sherri Finkbine, a children’s tv host, was happily pregnant with what would be her fifth child. She had taken Thalidomide, “marketed as a mild sleeping pill safe even for pregnant women”, which was soon after found to be detrimental to health of fetuses. Her doctor suggested an abortion, to which she agreed. Still, Finkbine felt obligated to share the option with other women, for many did not share equal opportunity. Social chaos ensued. This was an important turn of events that marked the documentaries intensity. Women were beginning to putSherri’s hospital had denied her abortion, and though she was left to travel to Sweden for an abortion, she had started something unimaginable to many. This provides the setting for the rest of the film, which would follow a lengthy history while maintaining a good balance amongst show and tell.
The film, then showed a shift towards the 1970s where illegal abortions where more prevalent. Producers of the documentary, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, present the unthinkable. A woman told no, with no good reason. She becomes the doctor and the patient. Knives, coat hangers, and stairwells were all methods of abortion. These are things that would never happen in today’s day and age, right? This isn’t concealed or classified information. This is history which is oddly neglected. As many teachers say when students ask why they’re learning certain things: “If you don’t know your history, you’re bound to repeat it.” And yes, granted many of us know these things, but how well do we integrate them into our minds and understand their significance? With people not comprehending theses things, there’s no telling how much we may revert backwards in the future. In conveying these fragment of history, the film speaks for itself, as an insightful entertainment form. The audience not only see a film, but they see it as a story that fits into the context of society’s present day social issues.
While the film spends much time on logistics of legislations concerning abortions, it allows for a better understanding of the difficult journey of abortion in America. Roe V. Wade had come into play in 1973, it was the first abortion issue brought to the Supreme Court. It was “Jane Roe”, a woman who preferred to remain anonymous, against Henry Wade, the Dallas District Attorney at the time. The class action was fought for womens’ right to privacy and was won 7-2, criminalizing the restriction of abortions. Following this landmark decision, opponents against the pro-choice movement were getting more and more radical by the minute. Murders and hostile protest persisted. If the documentary had given more priority to the immediate changes after Roe V. Wade in an indivulistic sense, it would’ve came off less like an attack on the pro-life wing. Which gives rise to concerns of bias in the documentary, which for the most part it steers clear of.
What Reversing Roe does accomplish is highlighting the superior role of Supreme Court Justices, which was one of the most interesting facets of the film. Most people don’t know who the Supreme Court justices are yet they wield so much power. “The important number is five”. Five votes are all you need to make a change and with presidents who are never Switzerland, biased justices are always going to be appointed. The emphasis on this serves as a call to action, urging viewers to realize who is really running the show. Still, this is just one idea. The documentary stimulates the audience to formulate questions while broadening their horizon. Here, illustrated with the significance placed on the Supreme Court, we see how the film itself aside from the commentary holds the power to project facts in an unbiased fashion, which propels people to think for themselves.
As the documentary progresses, we see politics behind the Supreme Court. People are constantly changing their views and constantly proving that no one can really predict the future. Without this, the film would have no basis. This allows for a better understanding of why is age old topic continues to be prevelant. By 1981, Reagan was elected as a pro-life Republican and then appointed justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. In 1989, Roe V. Wade was back in the Supreme Court. Surprising the nation, Sandra Day O’Connor, who openly opposed abortions, voted against the repeal. Kathryn Kolbert, a journalist featured in the documentary, noted, “I think Justice O’Connor didn’t want to be the first and lone woman on the Court taking away a settled conditional right.” Clinton’s presidency saw a shift in political attitudes. As a believer in women’s rights, he chose to nominate Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer to The Supreme Court. President George W. Bush strictly opposed the idea of abortion, prompting further dismay from the other side if the argument. Bush had signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 which placed stringent regulations surrounding when abortions could take place. Following the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor and the death of William Rehnquist, Bush elected Judge Roberts and Sam Alito Jr. This promoted the upholding of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act. Upset, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued her dissent aloud:
“I strongly dissent from today’s opinion. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared in Roe V. Wade.”
As we see the timeline progress we see Pro-life supporters undeniably ecomkng more and more anxious. They turned to a new tactic: the partial-birth abortion. They honed in on the idea of late abortion despite the fact that only 1.3% of women have an abortion from twenty-one weeks on. This was the heart of the opposing movement. And though the documentary evidently took a pro-choice stance, it expressed the other side of the argument. Making it less about extending its pro-choice views and more about educating the audience on the subject. A thing many flawed documentary’s exclude.
To illustrate modern day concerns the film begins to slowly descend towards the present day, detailing that the only certain thing about politics is that it’s uncertain. It pumps the breaks and those who say that it’s fine now, that this is enough. Many remain ignorant to the laws being passed in conservative states, making abortions harder and harder to be performed. In Texas, for example, a bill was passsed to force women to view a sonogram before getting an abortion in efforts to try to influence their decision. And as you could’ve figured, opposition presented itself with a fierce face. Senator Wendy Davis, performed a filibuster to try to delay TRAP laws that were going to go into effect. She had thirteen hours of talking to do and in that time she could not sit, drink, or use the bathroom. And she did it. This was an additional call to action, speaking to everyone with one simple message; no matter what the lengths are, you can get it done. In explaining this, the filmmakers throw the audience into the scene. With short cuts and pan shots, we get to see every part of the situation, which makes it feel like it’s happening right in front of us.
Today marks five years since Wendy Davis filibustered on the Texas Senate floor against abortion restrictions. Watch people who were there reflect on that night and the significance it holds today: https://t.co/gc7hbMExfX pic.twitter.com/mdaOhaz65Y
— Texas Tribune (@TexasTribune) June 25, 2018
The film also presented concerns for the Trump Era. With a pro-life administration and with new justices being appointed the future does not look bright. Many foresee a time where Roe v. Wade will be thrown back to a newly transformed and conservative Supreme Court. Which would likely overturn the Roe v. Wade, giving states the power to freely govern concerning abortion. Still, people like Dr. Colleen McNicholas, who was featured in the documentary, travels 3 weeks out of a month to perform abortions. And while the documentary sheds light on individuals striving for a better tomorrow, it doesn’t inform the audience about what they can do. Everyone is not a gynecologist or a lawyer or a senator, which is where the film missed its mark. The depiction of these strong figures highlighted the documentary’s efficiency in storytelling in the way that they weren’t constantly shown in the basic q&a form, but more like a reality tv segment, which allotted for a more comfortable mood that engaged the audience. Still, this doesn’t negate the fact that people who have careers indifferent to human rights but manage to preach positive personal beliefs, should’ve been represented more.
Reversing Roe, delivers a intense examination of abortion culture. Those who have followed the tumultuous journey are given the chance to relive history while ignorant viewers are given the chance to explore the topic. Reversing Roe saw the abortion debate not as a moral dilemma but a matter of equality. The documentary conveyed that women needed to be in charge of the descisons that inhibited their everyday. Not a single question goes unanswered except those about the future – an uncertain yet somehow predictable future.
EvaLongoria. (2018, September 14). The landmark 1973 US Supreme Court abortion case Roe v. Wade is once again at a crossroads. Reversing Roe is now streaming on @Netflix. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://mobile.twitter.com/EvaLongoria/status/1040637084782874625