“Reversing Roe” And the Rhetorical Fight Against Abortion

Largely the fight is in the language, and the right’s expert ability to reframe discussions on their own terms, creating language that obscures their sinister intent and making it hard to combat. Even the term “pro-life” is a lie. They are simply pro-forced birth.

When I was a teen and still a practicing Catholic, I asked my mother her opinion on abortion. In as many words, she said she was not opposed. Having attended Catholic schools all my life, I was aghast and reminded her that “the bible says abortion is a sin.” All these years later after finding my feminism and abandoning the Catholic church entirely for a myriad of political and ideological reasons, her response has stuck with me: “the bible doesn’t pay for childcare.”

The new Netflix documentary Reversing Roe centers of situating the current political fight to retain abortion access within the American historical context. In a tight 100 minutes, it tracks the genesis of the polarization of abortion in American politics and concisely explains how a safe and routine medical procedure became the issue on which partisan politics hinged.

Watching this documentary was fascinating because it illuminated how an issue that seems so ideologically settled became a flashpoint of rhetoric and manipulation. When it comes down to it, there are two issues at stake: Are fetuses people? And do women have sole autonomy over their own bodies? The distinction of the two is important because differing conclusions have vastly different and devastating consequences.

For the religious right and the Evangelical base rallied by Jerry Falwell, fetuses are human and therefore people. Life begins at conception and abortion is murder. But here is where the rhetorical spin begins. In a concerted effort, the Moral Majority worked hard to conflate and equate these terms when they are far from interchangeable. “Human” and “alive” do not necessarily mean “person.” A living organ is human, and alive, but not a person. People have rights that need to be defended, and that is the sticking point. For the pro-choice crowd, a woman’s right to her body is absolute; what happens to it is a matter to be decided between her and her doctor.

The most interesting thing about the documentary is the clear and concise timeline of how abortion was intentionally fomented as the issue of a generation. Originally seeking to galvanize Evangelicals to oppose desegregation, Falwell chose abortion as the more palatable issue to get his base to the polls. Positioning it as a moral issue made it harder for the party of morals to oppose, and slowly but surely Republican support of abortion access eroded in order to secure political clout.

Everything from TRAP laws to Dr. Tiller is covered here, but what the film best demonstrates is that the fight against abortion is a legal one, not a moral one. Over the last several decades, special interest religious groups have been working to shape policy at the federal level by resetting the Supreme Court against abortion. I had always been under the impression that Constitutional law was settled and static but this showed that it was not. Whether or not something is “unconstitutional” is simply a matter of whether or not it can stand up to legal challenges in a favourable court.

What has been done in the meantime is the slow degradation of abortion access. There’s less urgent need to outlaw something if it’s impossible to achieve in the first place. It was also appalling to realize the sheer scope of religious hypocrisy on this issue. The “pro-life” lobby is not above car bombs and assassinations. But largely the fight is in the language, and the right’s expert ability to reframe discussions on their own terms, creating language that obscures their sinister intent and making it hard to combat. Even the term “pro-life” is a lie. They are simply pro-forced birth. They target abortion providers directly to make dispensing care a personal risk, reducing the number of physicians willing to risk their families and practices to serve the women who need them. It is an all-out assault on the women’s right to determine their lives by controlling their fertility.

My one critique of the film is that it only pays lip service to the disproportionate impact that abortion restrictions have on minority women. The class and race differences in access are explicitly acknowledged but only at a surface level. While it tips it hat to the complicated relationship between reproductive health and abortion care for black women, no more is made of it than that accusations of black genocide were “incendiary rhetoric.” It would have been interesting to take some real time to examine the ways this ongoing fight specifically affects African-American women, who tend to be poorer, have less access to capital and few opportunities to circumvent restrictions in their areas.

Overall, the film is excellent at laying out in clear terms how the abortion debate got to be the political landmine that it currently is. It is informative and incisive, but also expertly threads the needle on being a compelling narrative about the urgency of preserving abortion access, all without ever actually taking a side.