‘Battleground’ Film Review: Abortion Doc Highlights Strategies of Anti-Choice Activists

·4-min read
Gabriella Garcia Pardo

Despite its title, Cynthia Lowen’s “Battleground” takes an unexpectedly restrained approach to the eternally volatile issue of abortion.

Indeed, were it not for the occasionally ominous notes of Gil Talmi’s score and the closing plea to “get organized” by visiting the film’s website, one could easily view Lowen’s project as entirely even-handed. This is neither a criticism nor a compliment, but the fact that it could be taken as either is just one more indication of the cavernous divide she records.

Her primary intent is to show in unambiguous terms how anti-choice activists patiently seeded and then victoriously harvested what we now know to be tremendous political success. The footage she’s assembled, which has been edited effectively by Emmy winner Nancy Novack (“When the Levees Broke”), offers a truly eye-opening glimpse into a remarkably focused movement.

It is taken as a given by everyone onscreen that there is no middle ground. There are two distinct sides in this battle, and Kristan Hawkins, the supremely motivated leader of Students for Life of America, asserts that one of her side’s greatest assets is hope. She dismisses the other side (by which she means those who believe in a woman’s right to bodily autonomy) as “completely hope-less.” This assessment, it quickly becomes clear, is entirely inaccurate.

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Despite their regular references to prayer and religion, the anti-choice activists Lowen documents do not rely on hope. They have worked nonstop to engage young voters, to change minds and to install and sway politicians at state and national levels with an unwavering eye towards the ultimate goal: tipping the Supreme Court to their favor.

Pro-choice politicians, on the other hand, have often seemed to rely as much on hope as anything else: Hope that negotiation and bipartisanship would remain viable methods of governing, that Republican senators would reject problematic Supreme Court nominees, that these nominees wouldn’t be as conservative as their histories clearly indicated. And that somehow, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, everything would turn out okay.

Lowen (“Netizens”) interviews talking heads from both sides, and pro-choice doctors, voters and leaders all make eloquent and impassioned arguments to support their positions. Interviews with and speeches from anti-choice activists are equally impassioned and unabashedly blunt. “The scales are finally tipping towards unshackling the democratic process,” declares anti-choice activist and Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser. “It’s about time.”

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If you’re surprised that a group dedicated to challenging the rights of women is named after a women’s rights icon, well, that’s part of the game. And Dannenfelser’s side plays it awfully well. Viewers may notice that nearly every shot of anti-choice activists features the phrase “pro-life.” It’s used in every speech, it’s emblazoned on posters and tote bags, and it’s pasted onto every surface imaginable. Very few human beings are actually anti-life, and yet this universal value has been weaponized and co-opted so successfully that it’s now used automatically by impartial media and most American citizens on both sides.

So Lowen shows us all the dots, which is undeniably enlightening. What she doesn’t do, though, is connect them. How do all these “pro-life” people feel about gun control? What do they actually do to support the women they insist must give birth? If they believe the government has the right to impose and redefine personal health care, how do they feel about mask or vaccine mandates?

Yes, it’s chilling to see Mitch McConnell grinning like Voldemort as he brags of packing the Supreme Court, just as it is when Donald Trump promises the same to a closed-room meeting of religious leaders. At this point in our political timeline, though, who could really be surprised by either of these revelations?

“Battleground” does serve as an excellent primer on the political and practical positions of both sides. But the biggest takeaway of this disconcerting documentary may come from pro-choice activist Sam Blakely, who insists that “we have to stop playing defense, and start playing offense.” Hope, it turns out, is no kind of strategy at all.

“Battleground” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.

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