Reversing Roe, the recent Netflix documentary directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, is billed as a film that “lifts the lid on a decades-long political attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade.” But while the film purportedly gives a thorough overview of abortion politics since the 1960s, it leaves out several major events essential to any history of the political attempt to overturn Roe.
The film charts the pre-Roe history of abortion politics, discusses the legalization of abortion in both California and New York, and tackles the abortion debates of the 1980s and ’90s. It covers the 1989 Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and the Supreme Court’s 2007 Gonzalez v. Carhart decision, which upheld the federal partial birth abortion ban signed into law by President George W. Bush. Stern and Sundberg have gathered historical footage of key events in the history of abortion politics and one-on-one interviews with prominent figures on both sides of the abortion debate (including Gloria Steinem, journalist Linda Greenhouse, and Troy Newman of Operation Rescue). The film even includes candid conversations with lesser-known individuals, such as abortionist Colleen McNicholas and Reverend Tom Davis of the Clergy Consultation Service, an organization which helped women obtain abortions before abortion was legalized.
But the film overlooks many important events. For instance, there is nothing about pro-life efforts to enact a human life amendment to the U.S. Constitution—even though that was pro-lifers' most important political goal from the Roe v. Wade decision until the early 1980s. Stern and Sundberg also failed to cover the 1987 defeat of Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The Bork nomination galvanized both opponents and supporters of legal abortion because many analysts thought Bork would be the fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Bork’s defeat marked the first time that an otherwise qualified Supreme Court nominee was defeated for ideological reasons. The film discusses at significant length how the Republican Party became more pro-life, but there is no corresponding discussion of how the Democratic Party became stronger in its support for legal abortion.
Last year, the producers contacted a number of pro-life leaders and took considerable pains to assure them that Reversing Roe would be a fair and balanced documentary. However, the only contemporary female pro-life leader that appears in the film is National Right to Life Committee President Carol Tobias. Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life, appears nowhere in the film. Pro-life activist Abby Johnson, Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa of New Wave Feminists, George Mason University Law Professor Helen Alvaré, and Americans United for Life president Catherine Glenn Foster were all interviewed by the film's producers, but their comments do not appear in the final product. As a result, nearly all of the pro-life activists in the movie are men—an inaccurate depiction of the pro-life movement today.
Moreover, the film’s description of how the Republican Party became more pro-life is biased. It insinuates that Republican candidates were manipulated by socially conservative political operatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich. During the 1970s and 1980s, political consultants did encourage Republican candidates to espouse pro-life views to appeal to conservative Democrats. However, the Republican Party became pro-life because, over time, pro-life candidates simply became more popular among Republican voters. The documentary suggests Republican candidates cynically used abortion as a wedge issue to attract working-class white voters because appeals rooted in race or racism were no longer effective. However, the film provides no evidence that Republican candidates or Republican voters were motivated by any kind of racial animus.
The only prominent journalist interviewed is Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times, a strong supporter of legal abortion. Greenhouse has covered the Supreme Court for the New York Times since 1978 and provides interesting commentary. But no prominent pro-life journalist appears anywhere in Reversing Roe. Similarly, the film provides legal analysis from Kathryn Kolbert, who argued Planned Parenthood v. Casey before the Supreme Court and is sometimes credited for saving Roe v. Wade. But no prominent pro-life litigator appears anywhere in the movie.
Reversing Roe features fascinating archival footage of key events in America’s ongoing debate over legal abortion and includes some insightful interviews with prominent pro-life leaders and activists including Troy Newman, Carol Tobias, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, John Seago of Texas Right to Life, and Deacon Sam Lee, who has been doing pro-life legislative work in Missouri since the 1980s. But unfortunately, Reversing Roe’s exclusion of many prominent pro-life women and biased presentation of many important events make it an incomplete picture of the pro-life movement after Roe v. Wade.
Michael J. New is a Visiting Assistant Professor at The Catholic University of America and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.