Comment: Our Bodies Our Doctors

An Oregon-made film about abortion providers premieres at the Portland International Film Festival. Friderike Heuer looks at the issues.

Story and photographs by Friderike Heuer

The Portland International Film Festival, which opens Thursday, March 7, and continues through March 21, has a long (42 years and counting) and honorable tradition of focusing on controversial subjects. This year is no exception. On March 8, International Women’s Day no less, it features the world premiere of Our Bodies Our Doctorsa documentary film by Janice Haaken exploring the experiences of contemporary abortion providers.

The team: Director Jan Haaken front center; from left to right: Katrina Fairlee, Sound Recordist, Timothy Wildgoose, Photography, Caleb Heyman, Co-director of Photography, Samantha Prauss, Assistant Director. Not featured: David Cress, Producer.

Caleb Heyman, co-director of photography, Timothy Wildgoose and Brian Mazzola.

Eric Edwards, Co-Director of Photography and director Jan Haaken.

It is, alas, a timely release. We are seeing a new round of governmental assaults on abortion rights: just last month the Trump administration announced that it will bar organizations that provide abortion referrals from receiving federal family planning money, a step that, according to the New York Times, could strip millions of dollars from Planned Parenthood and direct it toward religiously-based, anti-abortion groups.

Dr. Willie Parker, who is interviewed in the film.

Also in February the nation was called “to rally for a Day of Mourning at the epicenters of infanticide…” by evangelical Christians urging all to wear black, refuse to shop, and repent for the sin of abortion. (I believe same-sex marriage was thrown in for good measure.)

Clinic apparel.

And we are in a position where handbooks appear that give practical advice to those in need of reproductive services, presuming the end of Roe vs Wade is coming. Activist and writer Robin Marty guides readers through various worst-case scenarios of a post-Roe America, and offers ways to fight back, including: how to acquire financial support, how to use existing networks and create new ones, and how to, when required, work outside existing legal systems.

Security measures at clinics.

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The documentary, Our Bodies Our Doctors, provides a fascinating window into the many ways that contemporary abortion providers see their work endangered, undercut and complicated, even before potential Supreme Court decisions alter our legal history.

“This is a film that truly SHOWS truth to power, exposing the daily realities of performing procedures from providers POV and why they fight for reproductive justice.”— Gloria Steinem, writer and activist

It tells the rarely discussed story of what it means to be confronted by threats of violence and facing intensified political threats and efforts to criminalize abortion. It opens a window into the lives of these doctors, nurses and other personnel who have devoted their careers to ensuring women have access to skilled, compassionate care. The film also features Portland providers, often unsung heroes, who have taken national leadership roles in the fight for reproductive justice. It really provides insights that are hard to come by otherwise and makes them available to those who choose to go to one of the two screenings at the Whitsell Auditorium.

“This film feels nothing short of revolutionary. The experiences of abortion providers have for too long been left out of the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate, and presenting these doctors with honesty and compassion will have a profound impact on the discourse around abortion in this country.” — Grayson Dempsey, Executive Director, NARAL ProChoice Oregon

Office decor.

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As a still photographer on the set of the film, able to follow many of those interviewed at a close distance, I was struck by what preoccupied the thinking of many of the providers: concern for the lives and well-being of their clientele. Here is a doctor making breakfast on the run for her young kids before she hops on an airplane to be of monthly service in areas that no longer have abortion providers, wondering if she packed her bullet- proof vest. She really is concerned, though, about the fact that the lack of access to information, care and providers, the lack of money to undertake long travel or take days away from work all lead to much more advanced pregnancies in the patients she’ll be seeing, potentially precluding help for those women.

Pictured are a variety of medical professionals who appear in the documentary. Here is another doctor who relates how the increasing rates of Catholic-owned hospital beds in any given city, all of whom deny abortion care and employment for those who want to offer it, affects where you live and work and which patients are likely to be underserved even more than they used to be.

Then there are the young medical students who decry the ever-diminishing opportunity to be actually trained as abortion providers.

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Lecture and Lecturers at OHSU


Or the independent feminist reproductive health centers that have to close shop because of the current situation.

 

One of my favorites was the doctor who found her participation in roller derbies the best medium to release the accumulated stress and tension brought on by the daily misery she is seeing, difficulties based on economic issues just as much as the assault on reproductive rights.

And I could certainly relate to the reproductive justice warrior-cum-poet, (or should it be the other way around?) Judith Arcana, who spent much of her early life engaged in educating about the legal and health related issues, wondering why we at our age have to go back to the bad old times. As a member of the pre-Roe Chicago-based underground abortion services collective JANE she had an unobstructed view into the problems of that era.

Judith Arcana.

It doesn’t really matter that concerns about unwanted pregnancy have given way to longing for grandchildren, as in my case, when you see reproductive rights, fought for with sacrifices by so many generations of women, have come back under full frontal attack.

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In this context, it is probably valuable if we re-familiarize ourselves with what the legal issues are. A recent, informative summary can be found here.

The decision guaranteeing abortion rights in the United States, found in Roe v. Wade (1973), was based on a right to privacy, which the court found to be primarily protected by the Fourteenth amendment’s “concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action” and the Ninth amendment’s “reservation of rights to the people”. Religion really played no role in it, although it did in Planned Parenthood vs Casey (1992) There the woman was granted the right to her own conception of her spiritual imperatives. As Justice Kennedy wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Contrast this with the Right to Life Act (2007) co-sponsoredd by Tom Price and Mike Pence, and similar ones introduced later as The Life at Conception Act in 2013 and 2015which would in effect outlaw all abortions.

The original 2007 text reads in full:

To implement equal protection for the right to life of each born and preborn human person, and pursuant to the duty and authority of the Congress, including Congress’ power under article I, section 8, to make necessary and proper laws, and Congress’ power under section 5 of the 14th article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the Congress hereby declares that the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being.

The terms “human person” and “human being” include each and every member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, including, but not limited to, the moment of fertilization, cloning, or other moment at which an individual member of the human species comes into being.

These principles not only equate a few cells clustered together at fertilization with a fully cognizant person, providing the same rights to both. More importantly, the principles are based on the underlying assumption that G-d provides the zygote with an immortal soul at the moment of conception – and that makes it a person. I am attaching a link to a speech by Vice President Pence so you can hear for yourself the kind of arguments that are shaping the beliefs of the evangelical base.

You might privately hold this belief; but the constitution’s non-establishment clause demands that no private religious beliefs are enshrined in law. A legal proscription regarding abortion based on belief in immortal souls would really establish a kind of state religion, something clearly unconstitutional.

We do need both – a strong defense of what our constitution is all about, provided by lawyers who are able to uphold women’s rights; but also an introduction to the human side of abortion, provided in this case by a filmmaker like Jan Haaken, who creates an unflinching portrait of the kinds of players and dilemmas involved. Her filmmaking generates empathy which results in better understanding of the issues. This, in turn, might lead to actions supporting those who fight a pretty lonely battle at the frontiers of the current conflict zones, sometimes literally.

Here is the trailer for Our Bodies Our Doctors. You might consider taking a look for yourself.

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Our Bodies Our Doctors will premiere at 8:45 p.m. Friday, March 8, in the Whitsell Auditorium of the Portland Art Museum, as part of the Portland International Film Festival. It will repeat at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 12, also in the Whitsell. Ticket information here.

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This story was first published under the headline A new documentary at PIFF on Friderike Heuer’s web site YDP – Your Daily Picture on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, and is reprinted here with permission.

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