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Review: ‘Reversing Roe’ Shows How Abortion Became Political

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

For those who found the discussion of abortion at last week’s Supreme Court hearings abstract or technical, this documentary from Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg provides a clear and accessible overview of more than 50 years of the social and legal history of the issue in the United States.

While there’s no doubt that the film has been made from a pro-abortion-rights perspective, it gives voice to other points of view. It’s less interested in rendering a verdict on the morality of abortion than it is in tracing the increasing politicization of the issue.

After all, as Linda Greenhouse, a longtime Supreme Court writer for The New York Times, notes in the film, the court that handed down the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 included four Nixon appointees. (“Abortion was not a partisan issue at that time,” she says. “It was a medical problem. It was a social problem.”)

In 1967, as the governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed a bill allowing abortion under certain circumstances. George H. W. Bush is seen in a clip from 1980 opposing the idea of a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Contrast that with Texas today, where, as the state representative Donna Howard notes in the movie, a candidate’s stance on abortion has become a critical aspect of campaigns for offices overseeing such far-flung areas as finance or agriculture.

The movie also interviews physicians like Colleen McNicholas, an obstetrician-gynecologist based in St. Louis who travels throughout the Midwest. (She is shown working at the Wichita, Kan., clinic where George Tiller, an abortion provider, practiced until his assassination in 2009.) Two lawyers, Sarah Weddington, of Roe v. Wade, who represented Jane Roe, a plaintiff who sought an abortion in Texas, and Kathryn Kolbert, who challenged obstacles to abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, lay out the legal issues.

On other side, Troy Newman of Operation Rescue points to what he calls his “trophy wall” of photographs of abortion clinics he said his organization had shut down. And Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council suggests that Donald J. Trump’s words in the third presidential debate — in which the candidate made the quickly debunked claim that current abortion law allowed doctors to “rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day”— helped quell doubts evangelical voters had about him.

A film of this scope was obviously in the works well before Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, long seen as a critical swing vote on the issue, announced his retirement from the Supreme Court in June, a development mentioned near the end. The movie concludes, by necessity, without a clear read on what the future holds.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

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