The Coming End of Abortion Rights…and Contraception?

I am trained as a film maker and critic, having earned a BA in Film Studies from Rhode Island College, which included a class on documentary cinema. The film that helped me totally understand just what is at stake in the issue of a woman’s right to choose is the masterful 2006 picture Lake of Fire , directed by Tony Kaye. Kaye became well-known in the advertising and music video circuit throughout the ’80s and ’90s before breaking big with American History X, a film whose release was a total debacle and which alienated him from Hollywood for years.

But all the while, he was moonlighting for sixteen years on a 152-minute epic about the issue of choice. Filmed in stark black and white, it examines every single angle in the debate. There are interviews with the obligatory talking heads, symbolically a majority of whom are male due to the fact the overwhelming level of Y-chromosomes in the debate, such as Alan Dershowitz, Noam Chomsky, and Peter Singer. However, in a real masterly stroke, Kaye only allows the pro-choice men to offer superficial factual and cursory talking points, while leaving women like Professor of Sociology Michele Wilson and Professor of Philosophy Bonnie Steinbock to discuss the deep philosophical points about the debate. Kaye interviews nurses at women’s clinics who have survived the assassination of physicians, members of groups like Catholics for Choice, and figureheads like contraception pioneer Bill Baird. And because Kaye is a serious film maker, he doesn’t shy away from the full picture, filming women going through the procedure itself and the doctors as they handle the fetal remains.

Yet instead of offering up a simplistic and easy opinion piece, Kaye goes much deeper and creates a viable work of sociology. He journeys into the homes of the anti-choice activists, listens to their arguments, and does not argue with them, like Norma McCorvey aka Jane Roe of the Roe v. Wade case, who became an evangelical Christian and has found a second career professionally opposing choice. In a haunting series of scenes that only can happen in genuine documentary, Kaye keeps on running into one particularly rambunctious protestor who seems intent on being the loudest voice in the crowd outside the 1994 trial of Michael Griffin for the murder of Dr. David Gunn.

That man turns out to be Paul Jennings Hill, who shot and killed Dr. John Britton as well as the doctor’s bodyguard later that year. Kaye follows Hill’s trial and 2003 execution in Florida, a sentence that was not halted by Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother, Pres. George W. Bush, both adamant opponents of choice who would have opened the floodgates had they intervened. As Kaye journeys further down the rabbit hole and interviews the major figures in the anti-choice movement, it becomes abundantly clear that people like Randall Terry, Pat Buchanan, and Alan Keyes are not serious about either the safety of women or children, born or unborn. Instead, they are devoted to a socio-political agenda intent on rolling back not just feminism but everything that stemmed from the New Deal, with obvious goals including the reinstitution of sodomy laws and barring access to female contraceptives, but also bizarre and nativist agenda items like returning to the gold standard, abolishing the IRS, and defeating the secular New World Order agenda.

It was not always like this. When the news of Roe first broke in 1973, Republican President Richard Nixon made no comment to the press and, thanks to his private taping system, we know he told Chuck Colson “There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white [referring to inter-ethnic couplings]…Or a rape.” In 1967, California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed into law the Therapeutic Abortion Act. Sen. Barry Goldwater was one of the first to push back against the anti-choice lobby when they threw a fit over the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. A year before he died, he told an interviewer:

Today’s so-called ‘conservatives’ don’t even know what the word means. They think I’ve turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That’s a decision that’s up to the pregnant woman, not up to the Pope or some do-gooders or the Religious Right. It’s not a conservative issue at all.

So what happened?

There are several factors that contributed to it, as outlined in a piece last year by Randall Balmer. Abortion was traditionally only a Catholic issue and both the evangelical and mainline Protestant churches refused to form an opinion precisely for that point, instead either refusing to involve theology in civic affairs or holding a pro-choice position. The Southern Baptists passed resolutions in 1971, 1974, and 1976 affirming abortion as a private matter of individual conscience. In fact, one of the defense attorneys in Roe was a Southern Baptist. That Convention’s wire service ran this piece in 1973:

Question: Does the Supreme Court decision on abortion intrude on the religious life of the people?

Answer: No. Religious bodies and religious persons can continue to teach their own particular views to their constituents with all the vigor they desire. People whose conscience forbids abortion are not compelled by law to have abortions. They are free to practice their religion according to the tenets of their personal or corporate faith…In short, if the state laws are now made to conform to the Supreme Court ruling, the decision to obtain an abortion or to bring pregnancy to full term can now be a matter of conscience and deliberate choice rather than one compelled by law.

Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.

But when these Southerners lost the final battles of the Civil Rights movement with court rulings around busing and segregation in private schools, they decided to change tactic and form a coalition with their traditional Papist enemies. Their warm-up laps were opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970’s, followed by the final overthrow of the moderate wing of the GOP with the insurgency of Reagan against Gerald Ford in 1976. Once Reagan came to power, abortion and Communism were used as a cover to push a reactionary agenda meant to roll-back the gains of human liberation movements that came out of the dreaded 1960’s, from feminism to African-American to LGBTQQI rights.

Kaye’s film remains important nine years after its release because we are approaching a dangerous moment in this country, the potential end of not just abortion but also contraception, something that the Democrats have allowed to happen, as pointed out so eloquently by Ted Rall. The latest shenanigans of the anti-choice lobby and their fake videos about fetal tissue research being akin to selling human bodies, produced by acolytes of ACORN video auteur James O’Keefe, are simply the tip of the iceberg. Despite the fact that the opinion polls show a strong support for abortion rights in America, with 50% pro-choice and 44% anti-choice, the damage done by two Bush terms of court appointments and Obama’s abysmal defense of women’s rights is a real threat. I get regular e-mails from National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Federation of America that sound major alarms.

First, consider the Senate layout. After the 2014 elections, the so-called ‘pro-choice firewall’ is gone. Previously, there were 46 solid pro-choice Senators and 11 mixed-choice votes. The vital number was 41 votes to block the various bills to outlaw abortion. Now there are 9 mixed-choice votes and 37 solid votes. That in and of itself is deeply disturbing.

That is far from all. Clinics that offer abortion services have been shuttered across the country  due to defunding of women’s healthcare and a series of Kafkaesque building codes enforced only on abortion providers. Texas began 2013 with 36 clinics open, now there are only 10. Kansas and Colorado each have only 1 clinic while Oklahoma has 2. In June, Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a 24-hour waiting period law, similar to the 27 other states, yet that law was less stringent than Missouri, South Dakota, and Utah, who require 72 hours. In my own state of Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo, who was derided by the Catholic Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin for her campaign outreach to Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, set a dangerous precedent this past June by creating an ‘abortion-free’ option for subscribers to HealthSourceRI, our wildly successful ObamaCare healthcare exchange that has previously been cited as an example for other states. My colleague at RIFuture Steve Ahlquist wrote:

It was this small group of activists [the Rhode Island State Right to Life Committee and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence] that helped concoct two lawsuits, with the help of the right wing religious advocacy group the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Doe v Burwell and Howe v Burwell were brought against HealthSource RI because there no plans offered on the state’s health exchange that did not cover abortion.

Doe, who chose to remain anonymous because of his HIV+ status, claimed that he was unable, due to his religious beliefs, to contribute money to any health plan that covered abortion, and that his needs as an HIV+ man meant that waiting until 2017 for the one plan that does not cover abortion mandated under Federal law was not practical. In addition to his health concerns, Doe claimed he was liable for fines fines levied against him for not selecting one of the plans currently available on the exchange.

The government’s reaction to the Doe lawsuit was swift: They completely caved. The state agreed to dismiss Doe’s fines, enroll him into a special plan that satisfied his moral objections to abortion, and require that the Rhode Island Office of Health Insurance Commissioner issue a mandate that there be a plan offered on the state’s health exchange that did not cover abortion at every tier of coverage.

In return, the ADF withdrew their lawsuit. Ten days later, on May 29, Governor Raimondo added the agreed upon language to her proposed budget as an amendment.

Under federal law, at least one plan that did not cover abortion had to be made available on all state exchanges by 2017. The settlement the state agreed to went far beyond that mandate… The language Raimondo added is problematic for businesses. James Rhodes, director of public policy [and] government relations at Planned Parenthood Southern New England, asked, “How does a small employer, whether a religious organization or not, claim a religious exemption from covering abortion? Do they have a form to fill out to submit to the Office of Health Insurance Commissioner to declare their objection in order to get a new plan variation from an insurer? Is there any requirement to notify insured employees that their insurance does not cover this service, which is standard coverage in the small group market?”… [T]hose who supported Gina Raymond’s bid for Governor of Rhode Island might want to seriously reconsider their support. She has revealed herself as no champion of reproductive rights.

We are seeing a trend that is inching closer and closer to the end of a woman’s right to choose, but abortion is not the only target here, it is the very notion of women as equal to men in social and civic life. Recall the media circus that was the Sandra Fluke controversy. Amid the horror at Rush Limbaugh’s misogyny was lost the vital issue being debated, the issue that defined right wing opposition to the Affordable Care Act. That whole thing was not about funding abortion, it was the provision of free contraception. As Dr. Chomsky points out in Kaye’s film, the provision of quality obstetrics care and family planning resources reduces fertility rates, unplanned pregnancy, and therefore abortion. But by preventing access to contraception, the anti-choice crowd wants to return women to a status quo Emma Goldman was agitating against over a century ago.

So what is to be done? First, take cue from Jay Moore’s recent piece and raise almighty hell not just with the Republicans but with the Democrats. Bernie Sanders did not score any points with me when, in response to the fetal tissue video swindle, he said the tone of the unwitting staffer was “terribly wrong” (one is forced to wonder if the so-called socialist recalls that it was Soviet Russia that was the first nation to legalize safe abortion back in 1920). There’s plenty of vitriol to send towards the Clintons also, who threw Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elders to the curb for being adamantly pro-choice.

But second, and more importantly, engage in a campaign of education. Lake of Fire is the film that helped turn this former Catholic altar boy into a supporter of women’s rights overnight. It is readily available for purchase. Furthermore, if you are able to find a sympathetic librarian at your local branch, ask them to specially process a copy you donate. At my library, they have the film available but, in a sign of true brilliance, they shelve it in the stacks with the nonfiction volumes about choice as opposed to leaving it with the other DVDs out for rental, where it could be stolen or vandalized (the anti-choice crowd hates the film). If you have ever known had a wife, a sister, a mother, a female cousin, or a woman friend, you owe it to them to take on this issue. Their lives depend on it.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.