MNFF film shows an assault on abortion rights

THE DOCUMENTARY FILM “Reversing Roe,” which screened during the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival this past weekend, presented protesters on both sides of the abortion debate. Director Ricki Stern told her Middlebury audience that she wanted to show how government has chipped away at women’s rights to abortion.

The decision to have an abortion doesn’t exist in a silo. It exists in a world of economic and racial and other injustices.
— Dr. Colleen McNicholas

MIDDLEBURY — People in some groups opposed to abortion are targeting clinics that provide the procedure, even shooting and killing doctors and activists who promote a woman’s right to choose to continue a pregnancy.
Dr. Colleen McNicholas, the sole remaining abortion provider in the state of Missouri, explained to a crowd at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater this past Friday for a screening of the documentary film “Reversing Roe,” that every clinic that provides abortions has a domestic terrorism FBI agent assigned to it. The agent assigned to her clinic in Missouri surveys her house regularly, and McNicholas takes various other safety measures.
“I try not to think about it every day,” she said.
As this literal assault on women goes forward, legislatures in many states are, in their own ways, making it more difficult for women to obtain an abortion. State laws create exceptions to federal law that made abortion legal through the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.
In “Reversing Roe,” which screened as part of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, director Ricki Stern said her guiding question while making the film was, “What steps has the government taken to chip away at women’s right to abortion?”
McNicholas, Stern and Vermont House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski spoke about the film and took questions from the audience after Friday’s screening.
The documentary runs through the long, complex history of abortion rights in the United States, with Dr. McNicholas at the center of the saga. In the film, McNicholas narrates her journey, speaking passionately about women’s access to healthcare and abortion as a basic healthcare need.
The film also includes the perspectives of, in Stern’s words, “anti-choice” activists and politicians. In the onstage conversation following the film, she explained that Netflix, which released the movie, specifically requested that both sides of the debate be shown.
“Reversing Roe” required an immense amount of historical research — the film was recently nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Research category, as well as for an Emmy in the Outstanding Politics and Government Documentary category. Stern said cutting all the footage and information down to a 99-minute film was difficult.
“It was challenging to distill so much information, and still keep the emotional aspect alive,” she said.
McNicholas added that the powerful, emotional moments of the film are essential in engaging audiences and making people realize why they need to be active in this fight. She reminded audience members of the scene from the movie in which Wendy Davis’ abortion filibuster in the Texas senate in 2013 succeeds.
“There are always people in the audience who cry during that scene,” she noted.
However, Stern, co-director Anne Sundberg and their team made sure to remain focused on the historical and political components of the story. Stern pointed out that, although it would be relatively easy to make another film about women’s personal abortion stories, she wanted “Reversing Roe” to look at the politicization of abortions.
The film began with the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case, and tracked the story up until abortion bans that are being pushed through in many states today. It showed how many politicians have used the issue as a political weapon to win over voters.
Rep. Krowinski, a Burlington Democrat and a former vice president at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said she believes that now is a critical moment for abortion rights in the United States.
“It’s time to come together” in the pro-choice fight, she said.
Krowinski explained that Vermont has codified current abortion practices, “putting the choice between the woman and her physician, not in the hands of the government.” But “this (Trump) administration has emboldened the anti-choice movement,” McNicholas added.
The film showed there are 12 to 15 legal cases around state abortion bans that could reach the Supreme Court in the next few years, which could prompt an overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“The anti-choice movement is strategic. They’re targeting the Supreme Court,” Stern said.

There was both hope and fear in the three panelists’ observations.
“People always ask me how I keep advocating when I keep losing,” McNicholas began. “This is not emotional to me. I believe not every Missouri legislator is anti-choice.”
She said she is impressed by the number of young people involved in work to keep abortions legal and make them more accessible.
“Young people will save us,” she said.
Krowinski agreed, and emphasized the importance of voting.
“Ask your representatives where they stand on abortion, and vote with that information,” she advised. “I think the next generation is going to change things and make the world a better place.”
McNicholas concluded the panel discussion by pointing out that women choose abortion for many reasons.
“The decision to have an abortion doesn’t exist in a silo. It exists in a world of economic and racial and other injustices,” she said. McNicholas reminded the audience that some individuals have much better access to contraception and information than others.
Audience members seemed moved by the film and subsequent conversation. During the time for audience questions, several people thanked McNicholas for her work and called her a hero.
“I don’t want to be a hero,” she replied. “I just want to live in a world where this is a normal job that I do.”

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