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Netflix's 'Reversing Roe' Asks Why Abortion's A Partisan Issue In The First Place

Pro-Life protesters in Washington.
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By Darby Maloney & Marialexa Kavanaugh

Reversing Roe's a documentary with particular resonance right now as the nation waits to see if Brett Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the Supreme Court. It just debuted on Netflix, after screening to praise at the Telluride Film Festival.

Using interviews and archival footage, Reversing Roe tries telling the story of how abortion became such a divisive and political issue. Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg began production in January 2017 -- beginning with President Trump's inauguration, followed by both the Women's March and the annual March For Life.

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Several senators, protesters, and advocacy groups spoke out during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and asked questions about Kavanaugh's position on Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that decriminalized abortion. Trump pledged during his campaign that he would appoint justices who would overturn the ruling.

When we spoke with the directors in Telluride, they said that they wanted to put the abortion debate in a historical context.

"What was interesting was that when the states started passing what was considered to be abortion reform laws, you saw in California, Reagan surprisingly signed a liberalized version that allowed certain abortions," Stern said.

This was the in the late 1960s, prior to Roe.

"The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had always had a fundamental view that conception is life," Stern added. "They'd always had that as part of their religious structure, but for the first time there was an actual letter that created what became the foundations of the National Right to Life Committee. It was an instruction to the lay element of the Catholic organization to basically start getting political."

Reversing Roe

The Republican flip in abortion attitudes applied far beyond Reagan. George H. W. Bush also held some pretty lax views on aborition for a while.

"Their family, his father Prescott Bush, had been a great supporter and actually founded the first Planned Parenthood in Connecticut," Sundberg said. "There was a lot of pressure. Originally, he said about the Republican Party, there is both pro-life and pro-choice people in this party, we do not want to politicize it so that we are only pro-either-side in the Republican Party. Over time he realized that he was not going to get the vote, he was not going to get the support ultimately of a core group of voters, and he came out very pro-life."

For Republican candidates, the politicization of abortion was grounded less in personal moral ideology and more in political strategy, according to the filmmakers. Both Sundberg and Stern examined sections of the country that vote along single issues.

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"[Abortion] became a very effective motivating tool to get certain people to vote," Sundberg said. "When you think about where people were politically versus looking at this as a public health issue -- under Nixon you have Title X. You actually had funding for family planning, you had funding that basically encouraged education about sexual health and contraception."

What Stern and Sundberg wanted to show was that over the last few decades, there were times when the abortion issue transcended partisanship -- and argue that it always should. Their premise: it's a conversation to be had within the greater context of public health, not in a Red vs. Blue debate.

They point out that abortion being illegal in most states before Roe v. Wade didn't mean women weren't having abortions. The risk involved in these underground procedures was high, causing an alarming number of injuries and fatalities.

"People were paying attention to wards off the emergency room where women were having complications from self-induced or illegal abortions," Stern said, explaining what inspired Roe v. Wade. "And women were dying. I think in this country there's a little bit of a short-term memory in terms of just what that means."

Despite being staunch advocates for women's rights, Stern and Sundberg wanted to make their best efforts at presenting both sides of the debate accurately.

"I would just say personally, I don't think we have these conversations enough with people from different views and values that are perceived around this issue," Sundberg said. "I think it's become so politicized and so partisan, we feel like it's at a point now where you really can't even have the conversation."

It's difficult to get a fleshed out understanding of the counterarguments to Roe v. Wade without getting to know the other cultural forces that drive the pro-life argument, according to the filmmakers.

"For us, one of the things we really look to explore is this intersection with religion and abortion in this country," Stern said. "As people look at this, I think they might be engaged on either side of it. But, in terms of changing one's belief, I think it's tricky."

You can watch Reversing Roe on Netflix right now.

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