As “handmaids” descended on the Capitol and appearances by Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris went viral, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings last week became must-see television. At stake, among other issues, was the fate of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that denied the constitutionality of restrictive state regulations on abortion, which President Donald Trump has vowed to overturn.
The filmmakers who are gearing up to release two new films about Roe — both the ruling itself and life for women before and after — were following along closely.
Since Trump took office and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his plan to retire in June, films about abortion have taken on a greater urgency.
Reversing Roe filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg raced to change their Netflix film’s ending after Kennedy said he would leave the court in July. Their picture had been locked, and the filmmakers were enjoying their first Saturday off the project when they heard the news.
“We ended up having a call with Netflix, and everyone basically said, let’s open the film back up and adjust the ending,” Sundberg says. The original ending followed Judge Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation in April 2017 and offered the words of an abortion provider, Dr. Colleen McNicholas, who discussed how state restrictions have already eroded the freedoms provided by Roe. The co-directors decided the film also had to include Kennedy’s retirement. “It was too important to leave out of the narrative given what is coming,” Sundberg says.
Netflix also decided to release the film earlier than it had planned. The film will now drop Sept. 13, one week before Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote. Though how Kavanaugh would rule on issues of abortion is still unclear, Democrats have pointed to previous rulings and writings as evidence that he could help a majority-conservative court overturn Roe.
The screenwriters of Call Jane, an upcoming movie about the Jane Collective, an underground abortion service that grew out of the women’s liberation movement of the early ’70s, have also discussed how the new landscape for women’s rights in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings could affect the story they are telling. Though co-writers Roshan Sethi and Hayley Schore are now making final script revisions ahead of a November production start date, they ultimately decided not to change the main thrust of their tale because of current events.
“The movie was always written from the perspective that this is how it used to be and this is how it could be again. So it always had that baked into it and now that’s closer than ever,” says Sethi.
Neither filmmaking teams anticipated how timely their films would be when they first embarked on them. Stern and Sundberg boarded the earliest iteration of their documentary, a history of reproductive rights in America developed by Lincoln Square Productions, after Trump’s election. Looking for answers as to how America elected such an anti-Roe president, the two began work in January 2017.
“When we had heard about this project initially, it didn’t really seems that urgent or necessary,” Stern says of the title. “But in light of the new administration, we thought there was a particular angle on this that did seem urgent and that people would be listening or would have a thirst to discuss.” And so the film surveys how women sought to terminate pregnancies before Roe, and how strategists politicized abortion and fashioned it into a core issue of the Republican party.
Sethi and Schore began penning Call Jane even earlier, in December 2015. Their spec script, inspired by Sethi’s experience as a medical student and Schore’s acquaintance with former Jane Collective member Judith Arcana, didn’t, however, gain industry attention until Trump’s election.
“When we first started writing it, people absolutely advised us to [not do it]” because abortion was the subject of abortion was considered off-limits, Sethi says. “But when Trump got elected, things changed in terms of the industry’s interest in making a movie about abortion, which previously had been seen as literally impossible.” Sian Heder (GLOW, Orange Is the New Black) is on board to direct the indie production, while Robbie Brenner and Kevin McKeon are producing and Jeff Kwatinetz is executive-producing.
As for whether Kavanaugh would overturn Roe, Sethi believes it could happen, while Sundberg is more skeptical. “I do think overall there is an incentive to keep Roe in essence alive because, I hate to say it, but it’s useful from a political perspective,” Sundberg says. Conservative politicians can energize their bases to vote by perpetually promising to overturn Roe, she argues.
“But what the pro-choice people would go on to say is it really almost doesn’t matter if Roe v. Wade is not overturned,” Stern adds. “Because there are going to be so many cases that are going to erode the tenants of the Roe decision, of the [Planned Parenthood v.] Casey reform.” The conservative-leaning Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, will likely try to funnel more abortion cases into the Supreme Court, Sundberg says.
One of the goals of Call Jane is to encourage Americans to discuss abortions: Schore hopes that Kavanaugh’s hearings will encourage greater discussion of the procedure and what sort of access to it is available in different parts of the country. “If one in three women are getting abortions, there are a lot of women just not talking about it,” Schore says. “It starts with a conversation: I think Kavanaugh is going to make this conversation so relevant.”
Reversing Roe’s Stern, meanwhile, notes how Kavanaugh’s hearings illustrate the discrepancy between how politicians view abortion and how people do. While abortion is an extremely divisive issue among lawmakers, recent polls have shown that the majority of Americans oppose reversing Roe v. Wade.
“Our hope is that people will watch the film and become active in their own way, whatever that is. And to get people out to vote, which is always a challenge in the United States, so we can really reflect what the average American person believes, not what a small voting majority believes,” she says.