Recently while on a flight to Austin, I watched the Netflix documentary Reversing Roe, released September 13. The film looks at how Supreme Court cases have been used to gut the Roe v. Wade decision over the past 40 years, severely restricting abortion access in the United States.
A number of recent documentaries have explored the dismantling of abortion access in the United States, including Trapped and HBO’s Abortion: Stories Women Tell. Unlike those films, Reversing Roe looks exclusively at the Roe v. Wade case and the methods deployed to chip away at the landmark decision, politically, culturally, violently, and legislatively. It’s timely given the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is expected to give conservatives on the Court the final vote they need to overturn the decision legalizing abortion in the United States.
The filmmakers follow Dr. Colleen McNicholas, a St. Louis-based abortion provider, as she travels by plane and car to provide care in four cities. “To me, abortion is just basic health care,” says McNicholas, “When I think about how politicized this has become, I wonder, how did this happen?”
The film addresses this head-on from the beginning with footage from the Texas House of Representatives May 2017 debate on an amendment to SB 8 which would “prohibit a person from intentionally performing a ‘dismemberment abortion’ unless the ‘dismemberment abortion’ is necessary in a medical emergency.” The use of “dismemberment abortion” is intentional by anti-choice legislators to stigmatize abortion using nonmedical terminology and rile up their bases. Viewers are then treated to a history lesson of how Roe came to be and how laws like SB 8 have attempted to erode the ruling.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Through my work and advocacy, I am keenly aware of the importance of storytelling, specifically highlighting the perspective of people who’ve had abortions. One of the things I found most striking about the film is that the story of Roe was told primarily through the voices of providers, clergy, advocates, and politicians rather than primarily through people who’ve had abortions. The film’s directors, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, explained to me in an email interview that their “past films tend to be explorations of issues through very personal perspectives,” such as Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work and Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing. Reversing Roe, however, was different. “We were very clear that we wanted to illustrate how the issue of abortion, while seemingly a personal choice, has become so politicized that it is being used as a pawn to win presidencies.”
While the voices of people who sought and continue to seek abortions were largely invisibilized in the documentary, feminist icon Gloria Steinem recounts her first abortion speakout and the solidarity she felt with the others in the room. Audio from a pre-Roe abortion speakout illustrates the normalization of abortion ahead of the case: “What I’m talking about, more than likely, look at your neighbor. She had an abortion.”
While speaking to the media, one white woman explained, “I’m not sorry I did it [had an abortion], and I would do it again, and I think it should be legalized.”
As an abortion storyteller, it’s always fascinating to me how the general public today often perceives sharing abortion stories as a new phenomenon when people have been sharing their stories to protect access since the dawn of time. It’s only recently that while we’re on the brink of losing widespread access people are listening to us again.
The film also includes interviews with numerous experts in the reproductive rights field across different areas of work and levels of government, along with interviews of anti-choice lawmakers and extremists who are clear that they deliberately used tactics like the regular medical use of sonograms to shame patients and create hurdles for providers.
Reversing Roe makes it clear that abortion is a medical issue intentionally politicized.
Female anti-abortion extremists have criticized the film for leaving their interviews out, consequently portraying their movement as run by men. I would agree with this pushback, particularly in this political moment, because I believe it’s important to show how many white women are foot soldiers of white supremacy and patriarchy.
Although I am pretty well-versed in the legal and movement history of the fight for abortion access in the United States, while watching the film I found myself revisiting untold histories of the fight. Those stories include “Miss Sherri,” a 29-year-old woman from Arizona who sought an abortion in Sweden after hospitals would not provide her with one; the role of pro-choice Republicans; and the clergy who went above and beyond to help their parishioners access abortions.
Stern and Sundberg explained to me via email that those clergy, through the Clergy Consultation Service, were among the most unexpected aspects of their research. “It was surprising to learn how this underground network of multidenominational religious clergy—mostly protestant ministers and some rabbis—not only offered abortion counseling and aided women’s efforts to obtain abortions when it was illegal to do so, but also opened the first (legal) standalone abortion clinic in New York,” they said.
One moment that stood out to me was the footage from during the violent Summer of Mercy in 1991 when Faye Wattleton, then-president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, appeared on the Phil Donahue Show opposite anti-abortion terrorist Randall Terry. Terry attempted to disparage Wattleton with the tired myth that abortion is akin to Black genocide. As a Black woman, it was powerful to see how Wattleton held her composure and defended her experience and her right to reproductive health care, including abortion.
“It was important for us to highlight Wattleton’s conviction that anti-choice groups’ attempt to restrict and limit abortion is ultimately about the subjugation of women and the desire to deny women the right to determine their own lives,” the directors told me. “She unforgettably flags the misogyny and inherent racism in Terry’s comments that imply Black women—and by extension all women—are not capable of making a deeply personal decision about whether to end a pregnancy.”
Race has always been central to abortion access. Reversing Roe documents how the Religious Right became politicized over their conflicting desire to both maintain segregated schools and the different organizations’ tax-exempt status, and began using abortion as a rallying cry when they could no longer openly discriminate using racist tactics. But overall, racial disparities and their impact on communities were mentioned sparingly in the film; and while I enjoyed this documentary more than others, I was left wanting more.
“As part of our early preparation for the film,” the directors explained, “we spoke with Monica Simpson of SisterSong and Loretta Ross on background, and there’s a wholly separate film that could be made about the evolution of intersectionality and reproductive justice issues. In the end, we had to make very hard choices along the way to keep the film’s focus clear.”
While I understand the documentary sought to focus on the legislative and legal attacks on abortion access, it becomes tiresome to continue to see people of color as footnotes in our history books. This was most evident when the film chronicled the various cases that went before the Supreme Court but left out Harris v. McRae, the case that upheld the Hyde Amendment, which restricts state and federal insurance coverage of abortion.
“Harris v. McRae came up in our initial outlines as did many other cases (Griswold v. Connecticut, Baird v. Eisenstadt, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services). At one point in the edit, we had a complete section about Henry Hyde and the push for federal funding restrictions and what that meant for poor women,” the directors told me. “While Harris v. McRae did limit access for poor women who relied on federally funded health care, the right to an abortion was still secure in that decision.”
The film also inaccurately described the Hyde Amendment as a “law”; it is a budget rider added annually to prevent federal funds from being used to cover abortions. This means federal Medicaid, Indian Health Service, and TRICARE health insurance plans cannot cover abortion, creating an insurmountable financial barrier for millions across the country.
As the film tries to convey through the shuttering of clinics and unnecessary regulations, there is no “legal right” to an abortion if one cannot actually access it. This four-decades-old economic discrimination disproportionately affecting communities of color was not explored in the film. I believe it was a missed opportunity to educate audiences about the most important barrier that we face when seeking an abortion, legal or not: financial ability.
Even still, I would recommend Reversing Roe for anyone who reads the news headlines announcing another clinic closure or watches the list of states with one clinic skyrocket, and wonders how this continues to happen. While Reversing Roe is an incomplete history, having left many important stories of communities of color pre- and post-Roe on the cutting room floor, it still engages this important issue by illuminating overlooked histories and will hopefully encourage viewers to educate themselves. Meanwhile, I will continue to wait for the documentary that centers people of color’s experiences, organizing, and critical contributions to abortion access, throughout history and now, and not as an afterthought.