Monday night, at 7:30 pm, Denver PBS station KBDI (channel 12.2) is airing director Dorothy Fadiman‘s award-winning three-part abortion rights trilogy “Choice: Then and Now.” The films document the roughly hundred-year period of U.S. history in which abortion was illegal, a reality made largely by men that nevertheless shaped the experience of life lived almost exclusively by women– a reality Fadiman told the Colorado Independent most women today find difficult to fully imagine. The controversial films are airing on PBS stations around the country but, in Denver, the series will show in prime time, a decision Fadiman chalked up to the dedication of the station’s programmer. Elsewhere, the films are mostly scheduled to air after 10 pm. (They will air again in Denver at 2am on Thursday.)
“I think the [programming time slots] are based on a combination of the populations the channels serve and the anticipated backlash airing them will provoke.” Fadiman said her films depict a world that has passed but that many would like to see return and so they’re full of relevant information that has been forgotten or hidden from view. “Individual programmers like the people in Denver have the courage and imagination to see the information in the films as vital.”
The topic is as hot as ever in Colorado, where one of the region’s only remaining late-term abortion providers still works and where every major Republican candidate has embraced the so-called personhood ballot measure that would not only outlaw abortion but certain fertility procedures as well. As many legal analysts have argued, in seeking to grant fertilized human eggs the full spectrum of citizen rights, the initiative would set up contesting legal interests between women and the eggs in their wombs.
Fadiman’s trilogy was originally released in the early 1990s but she said she was moved to bring it out again by the recent violent upswing among opponents of abortion. “After the late-term abortion provider Dr Tiller’s death in Kansas, I realized these had to be re-released. We updated the third film [The Fragile Promise of Choice] with information from this year, including the murder of Dr Tiller. I felt I had to alert a new generation to the dangers, the danger women are up against.”
The first film, “When Abortion Was Illegal,” weaves together stories of women who experienced illegal abortions with those of doctors who risked imprisonment and of activists who broke the law to help women seeking abortions.
The second film, “From Danger to Dignity,” combines archival footage with interviews with physicians, legislators, clergy and early women’s rights advocates who laid the groundwork for legalizing abortion.
The third film, “The Fragile Promise of Choice,” explores the current move to restrict access through legislation, intimidation of doctors and violence toward providers and clinics.
Abortion was legal and available in the U.S. until roughly the mid 1900s. It was then that the medical profession was solidified and male doctors cornered the market, in effect, outlawing women midwives as quacks and supported in the move by Victorian-era religious authorities. Out went abortion but also a great deal of reproductive care. The role of women working for the rights of women against the power of men in the matter of women’s reproductive health is an undeniable theme that fires the films.
The role of the rarely discussed women who participated in the abortion access underground, for example, is compelling. They risked arrest to vet the doctors who provided secret abortions, provided intense counseling service and even performed thousands of abortions with the tacit blessing of local police.
Indeed, it’s impossible not to see the relationship between abortion rights and women’s liberation. Fadiman’s footage puts 19th-century decision-making men swanning around in top hats and coattails in a continuum with the decision-making men of today so sure they’re doing what’s best for the country by dictating medical and health rules to women. The idea that men would be similarly stripped of their right to make life‑changing decisions based around their bodies is an absurdity that would end in revolt.
Fadiman said that efforts to restrict abortion have created a new version of the class privileges that reigned in the past. Large swaths of the country lack abortion providers. Wealthy women can take the time and have the money to travel to get an abortion. They also have private doctors who will provide safe and discreet after-hours procedures. That’s not the case for poor women, who are now forced by circumstances to have their babies, a recipe that places the privileged class even farther out of reach.
“When I made these films, there was virtually nothing on the topic. I go to college campuses and show them and young women weep because this history has been kept from them. Older women weep, too. ‘I never told anyone’ they say, ‘I went to the back-alley.’ This is all true. This is how it was.”
Excerpt of the films available here.