Like any abortion documentary worth the time to watch, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s “Reversing Roe” doesn’t explicitly argue for or against a woman’s right to choose. And while there’s little doubt that Stern and Sundberg could make a persuasive case for reproductive rights, as several interview subjects do, it’s only so valuable to preach to the choir — especially when a film is released into the apolitical cyberspace of Netflix rather than a handful of arthouse theaters in America’s largest and most liberal cities.
Ultimately, “Reversing Roe” is a productive contribution to its ever-growing genre because it sharply dissects the process by which abortion soured from a private medical issue to a public political one. If witnessing the cynical opportunism with which Jerry Falwell stirred evangelical Christians into a Republican movement, or watching the Operation Truth videos in which fundamentalist zealots try to impose their religious beliefs, or being exposed to photographic evidence of how gruesome abortions can be in countries where they aren’t legal … well, if any of these things leave you feeling like the anti-choice movement is more about power than it is about “the sanctity of life,” then so be it.
“Reversing Roe” isn’t as probing or profound as “Lake of Fire,” as moving as “After Tiller,” as grounded as “12th & Delaware,” or as curious as “Vessel” (to compare it to just a few of the other recent abortion docs), and it takes some time for its legislative concerns to come into focus. A creatively unadventurous study that never risks being clever at the expense of being clear, the film starts from a macro perspective before zooming in closer.
The facts are jarring, even if you’re already familiar with them: Since 2010, 300 abortion restrictions have been passed in this country. In Missouri, where gynecologist Dr. Colleen McNicholas is so in demand that she’s effectively become a full-time abortion provider, there is only one place in the entire state where the procedure can be performed (the same is true in six other states). We meet an 80-year-old abortion provider — one of the film’s only empathetic men — who’s trying to teach what he knows to as many young doctors as possible, so that future generations can safely continue his work. The film’s scattered approach doesn’t create much in the way of momentum, but it’s an effective illustration of the fact that reproductive rights are suffering a death from a thousand cuts.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped anti-choice advocates from trying to shoot the moon and aim for the Supreme Court; Carl Tobias, President of Natural Right to Life, is good enough to go on camera and explain this strategy. And so — after presenting a remedial history of abortion rights, and tip-toeing around their film’s core truth that political change is only affected by emotional force — Stern and Sundberg inevitably turn their attention towards Roe v. Wade and its ongoing political fallout.
If the absence of personal stories robs the movie of a more direct emotional impact, it also clarifies (through omission) the disconnect between what we’re talking about and where/how we’re talking about it. Regardless of the ultimate verdict, there’s an inherent absurdity (and a gross historic precedent) to the idea of nine old men sitting on a bench and exerting authority over the bodies of several hundred million women. A sidebar about Sandra Day O’Connor’s unexpected and pivotal vote in a subsequent abortion case underscores the need for a more diverse Supreme Court, and joins Charles Ferguson’s recent “Watergate” doc in highlighting the need for those in power to choose the American people over the Republican Party. By focusing on the degree to which politics has hijacked the very idea of abortion, “Reversing Roe” effectively argues for it as an intrinsically personal choice. As one interviewee puts it: “If you don’t have control over your own body, what do you have control over?”
The Senate’s upcoming vote on the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh obviously endows the documentary with an additional degree of urgency, but the outcome will be know by the time “Reversing Roe” is released on Netflix. That’s a shame, I suppose, but the prevailing takeaway from Stern and Sundberg’s narrow but cogent new film is that it shouldn’t matter. As horrible as it is that the Supreme Court is poised to repeal a woman’s right to choose on a federal level, it’s even worse that it’s up to them in the first place.
“Reversing Roe” premiered at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival. It will be released globally on Netflix September 13.