Michael Slate Interview with Film Director Civia Tamarkin

The Attacks on Abortion and a Real-Life “Handmaid’s Tale”

August 14, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The following are excerpts from a July 28, 2017 interview on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK radio, with film director Civia Tamarkin, whose new film, Birthright: A War Story, has just been released. The website for the film (birthrightfilm.com) describes it as “A feature length documentary that examines how women are being jailed, physically violated and even put at risk of dying as a radical movement tightens its grip across America. The film tells the story of women who have become collateral damage in the aggressive campaign to take control of reproductive health care and to allow states, courts and religious doctrine to govern whether, when and how women will bear children....”

The Michael Slate Show airs every week at 10 am Pacific Time on KPFK, 90.7 FM, a Pacifica Network station in Los Angeles. The show can also be streamed live and people can listen to or download archived shows.

Revolution/revcom.us features interviews from The Michael Slate Show to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those interviewed are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere by Revolution/revcom.us.


Michael Slate: What compelled you to make this film?

Civia Tamarkin: Well, I’ve always been interested in criminal justice issues, social justice issues. I covered wrongful convictions. I covered child abuse cases, child trafficking cases, so, in terms of individual rights and abuses it is not that different from the types of things I have covered. But what compelled me to do this was the Hobby Lobby decision in June of 2014, when the Supreme Court ruled that an individual employer could deny access to contraceptive coverage on employee health care insurance because of the owner’s personal religious beliefs. That decision shocked me. I’m a ’60s person. I was one of the hundreds of thousands of women who took to the streets in the late ’60s, early ’70s, to make sure that we had our privacy rights protected and was elated with the passage of Roe v. Wade. So, like so many other people, I had assumed that this was a given right and that it was no longer really an issue that had to be of primary concern. When I saw that contraception had suddenly become a type of “abortifacient,” as the opponents call it, that contraception was being aligned with abortion, I was just dumbfounded. I could not understand how this happened. I could not understand this encroachment on women’s privacy, bodily autonomy. So, I set out to understand how we had reached the point of such erosion of individual rights; that became the catalyst.

Michael Slate: It’s like, you’re watching all of these women and all of their horrible experiences and what they’re talking about, and it has you enraged and it has you teared up. You come out of it with a fairly deep and pressing understanding that there’s something really wrong there. Talk about the title of the film, especially the second part, A War Story.

Civia Tamarkin: I think that from the moment the Roe v. Wade decision came down there was a declaration of war on the part of the opposition and there has been for the past 40-plus years an insidious erosion of all these rights and it has been a battle strategy, on both sides. We’ll call it a “war.” The decision has been embattled from the outset, and very cleverly, very strategically, the opposition began to map out a plan. They infiltrated the Republican Party. They formed alliances. They formed agreements in many cases, strange bedfellow pacts, if you will. I mean, it is quite unusual to see the religious right courting Donald Trump. But, nevertheless, they strategized toward their objective. They groomed a youth corps of foot soldiers. From the outset there was a plan of erosion, of invasion. There’s no question that it is a war. It has been a declaration of war and they are convinced that they are certainly winning.

Michael Slate: One thing that really grabbed me was how even the process of making the film illustrated the point that this is a war story. What did it take to make this film?

Civia Tamarkin: It was very difficult to get people to go on camera because there has been such fear. On the part of women there has been such stigmatization of abortion, even in many cases of contraception, depending on their religious community. But, what is very clear is, starting in the late ’70s going to the ’80s, this has been a domestic terrorist attack. We’ve had physician providers murdered. We’ve had clinic bombings. We have had death threats. They’re continuing. In fact, I had read a recent report that since Donald Trump took office seven months ago, the attacks and threats have increased exponentially. So, it was very difficult to get women who have been victimized on camera because they’re embarrassed and afraid of repercussions within their community, but more significantly, it was difficult to get providers and clinicians to go on camera because they were afraid of being ostracized. They were afraid that it might harm their professional affiliations with hospitals, professional affiliations within their community. So, that was very, very much a challenge because so many people feel beleaguered.

Michael Slate: There’s a couple places in the film and in some of the things you’ve written about it, that compare the battle for abortion rights to the Civil War. And there are also references to the TV show and book, The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s really something that jumps out at people if you’re at all sentient and at all understand what the hell’s going on—that women having no control over their body equals slavery. This is a very heavy thing to understand because it is actually telling women, “The hell with it. You are not even a second-rate citizen. You are not human.” To me, it’s just unacceptable.

Civia Tamarkin: Well, the goal here was to present the issue as a human rights violation. I think that over the past four decades or so, everyone has been so fixated on the singular medical procedure of abortion. It has obscured the larger issue that what we are talking about is a woman’s right to bodily integrity, bodily autonomy and human rights. If these kinds of violations were being headlined as occurring in other countries there would be outrage. We talk about female genital mutilation, we talk about Sharia law, we talk about all the strictures on women and yet, American women have to realize that they are in dangerous territory here; that it is happening here. It’s interesting; the comparison to Handmaid’s Tale is coincidental.


Of course, the timing of the series came out right before our film release, but I always knew about The Handmaid’s Tale. I read the book back in the ’80s when it first came out. In fact, we had considered putting a clip from the 1990 movie with Natasha Richardson in the film, but the cost was prohibitive. So, I had always seen this. The bottom line, of course, is that you have a radical religious movement that is attempting to blur the line between church and state and govern as a theocracy and impose religious doctrine. You have a government that would like to ban contraception and ban abortion. So de facto, the government is forcing women to become breeders just as the premise in this dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

Michael Slate: Outrageously, the fetus has full standing as a human being while the woman is denigrated down to less than human. One thing important for people to understand in the film is when you show a series of women who have gone through horrendous things that actually illustrate what happens when you have no control over your own body in relation to health, the kind of health care you need and all this. You have women who have been sent to jail, who have been put up on charges, just horrendous things happening to these women. And it’s all being done to a certain extent under a blanket that keeps it silent and unseen.

Civia Tamarkin: Yes, and this is part of a strategy to create a body of jurisprudence, enough laws to establish the personhood of the fetus, because there are some factions within the anti-abortion movement that say, “We don’t have to worry about overturning Roe v. Wade. If we can establish the personhood of the fetus then any harm that comes to that fetus can be prosecuted under criminal statutes, like homicide.” So, it certainly does put the autonomy and bodily integrity of a woman in second place. It’s a very simple premise. You cannot have two constitutionally protected beings within one body. Therefore, according to the ideology of the opposition movement here, women are the ones who are going to suffer. What’s so interesting is there’s no other instance in the law, certainly, in which an individual can be forced to undergo medical procedures, can be forced to have any external influence on their bodily organs. There’s case law where you cannot be forced to become a donor. You cannot be forced to have an arm or leg or any part of your body surgically removed. But yet, all of the case law seems to disappear when we’re talking about a woman’s reproductive organs.




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