The End of Roe c. Wade, through the eyes of a North West filmmaker
Jan Haaken is no stranger to the fight for reproductive rights. She has been involved in the movement since the 1970s, when she worked at the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Los Angeles while studying for her doctorate in psychology.
“My thesis was on the history of reproductive rights as they affected women’s opportunities to participate in civil society,” she said. “I became more struck by the importance of the whole issue of reproductive control.”
Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that upheld people’s right to abortion, was still new to his generation. Haaken said these experiences motivated her to advocate for reproductive rights throughout her career as an academic and filmmaker. She co-founded the Portland Reproductive Rights Committee in the late 1980s and has made several films focusing on reproductive freedom.
Today, Haaken is professor emeritus of psychology at Portland State University, but she continues her work as an activist and filmmaker. Her 2020 documentary film “Our Bodies Our Doctors” focuses on the current generation of doctors performing abortions in Oregon and Washington. The film goes inside the clinics and hospitals where abortion providers work, featuring candid conversations with medical staff and patients, and featuring rarely seen footage of abortions performed.
The film received the Best Documentary Award at the 42nd Portland International Film Festival in 2019.
In many ways, the film foreshadows our current moment. In it, many doctors talk about their concern about the growing number of state restrictions on abortion access and the future of abortion legality in America. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week overturning Roe v. Wade said abortion access in Oregon and Washington remains unchanged, but Haaken said it’s still a blow to reproductive rights and the people featured in his film.
“I think we all feel tremendous grief,” Haaken said, “but we also need to understand our history and learn from our history.”
Haaken recently sat down to speak with OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni.
John Notarianni: Much of this film is made up of very candid conversations with doctors who perform abortions, talking about how they feel about their work and its importance. One of the people you feature is Dr. Andrea Chiavarini. She lives here in Portland and in the film she talks about what she sees as the difference between abortion providers of her generation and an earlier generation. Here is that clip:
Andrea Chiavarini: “People who turned to abortion about a generation ago came from feminism and saw so many women suffering from illegal abortions. I know older providers were concerned that there wasn’t as much commitment to providing abortion services because my generation is the post-Roe generation and we haven’t seen this kind of thing happen .
Notaries: I mean, obviously that’s not the case anymore. But are his thoughts on that sound true to you?
Jan Haaken: We have included her statement reflecting this history because it is so important to understand what was at stake for the early activists in this field: for health care and abortion within health care. But, many young feminists after Roe v. Wade were not so struck by the importance of the abortion issue as central to a larger women’s rights agenda. I think there’s a lot of mobilization now, acknowledging that.
Notaries: Tell me a bit more about early abortion access and reproductive rights advocacy, and how you think advocates in recent years have missed the lessons of that.
haaken: During the era of abortion rights organizing in the 1960s and 1970s, the focus was on whether access to abortion was possible, based on your own assessment of your life and what you can handle. So this insistence, that women are in the best position to know whether they are in a situation where they can bear a child, that was a deeply important human right. Forcing a person to bear a child, to become a mother against their will, was a kind of fundamental violation of human rights.
I think in the beginning, the defense of abortion and the pro-choice movement was framed more in terms of choice. Many women had very narrow choices, especially poor women, marginalized women, and women of color. It wasn’t just a matter of being pro-choice, but many aspects of their lives, the complexity of their lives, were pushed aside.
Notaries: In the film, there are several scenes that depict abortions taking place.
Haaken: Yes, I think it’s the first documentary that does that.
Notaries: What do you think people come to understand when they see it, the procedure being performed? Why is this important?
Haaken: It was important because there is such mystification. I was first brought into short film projects by the research team at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, through the OB/GYN department. They were trying to reclaim visual culture in a way that was dominated by anti-abortion imagery: the bloody fetuses and gruesome images that are being circulated by anti-abortion groups. And to really reclaim the representation of abortion; that sometimes women feel sad about it, and there are tears, but there are also tears of relief, for the most part. We were really interested in demystifying what is happening and acknowledging the work of claimants despite the harassment they experience, including from their own profession, and including here in the North West.
Notaries: Yeah, and one of the things that struck me about the movie was this sense of threat that doctors were already experiencing here in the Pacific Northwest. There’s a scene with Lois Backus, the executive director of Medical Students for Choice. Here’s what she had to say:
Lois Backus: “I spent five years as an abortion clinic manager in rural central Pennsylvania. We had a few pickets at the clinic, but they were generally respectful. And remember: picketing is a constitutionally protected activity, which in itself isn’t scary. Then I went to Portland, Oregon. Oh my God. I was threatened. My house was picketed by people saying that the suppliers of abortion should be murdered. It’s a more confusing picture than you might think.
Notaries: They then point out that the overall risk, the overall threat is actually very low. But still, I think people think the Pacific Northwest is that place so safe and protected. I don’t know how many people understand the threat doctors have faced here before.
Haaken: Yeah, during the 1990s, a number of doctors and other providers were murdered. There have been incendiary bombings, including here in Oregon to Washington. Threats were fairly routine. The anti-abortion movement really moved away from those terrorist tactics to legislative tactics at the turn of this century, which, as we now know, they’ve won very many court cases at the local, state, and now to the Supreme Court. .
Notaries: I wonder if you’ve had a chance to speak with any of the vendors featured in the film since the Dobbs Decision Project leaked in early May? I wonder what they think of their practice.
Haaken: I spoke with two of the doctors featured in the film from Seattle. They are not surprised. And yet, it is a very sad day. Providers talked about death by 1,000 cuts. So the beginning with the Hyde Amendment, a few years after Roe v. Wade, and all the legislative restrictions that have restricted access in recent years. There has been a reduction in abortion from the very beginning.
But yet, there’s still something about that last dagger to Roe’s heart and what it represents as a dagger to the heart of women’s basic human rights. I think we all feel tremendous grief, but we also need to understand our history and learn from our history.
Notaries: Let me ask you about this: there are a lot of people who are feeling all kinds of emotions about this decision. But many people are upset, scared and uncertain. With your perspective on the story, for people who care about abortion access, what do you think the lesson should be?
Haaken: I think we should consider a variety of tactics that keep this issue in the public eye, through mass mobilization: for cases involving civil disobedience, defending people who face criminal charges, either as people seeking an abortion or as health care providers. We also need to focus on what makes it important to terminate a pregnancy at different stages of gestation, and not just rely on horror stories of incest, rape and those extreme cases.
I think a lot of people are unaware of the circumstances of women’s lives. Circumstances often change; people have stressful things happening. So I think confronting what that really means in people’s lives, to determine whether they’re going to have a child, is what we should be doing. And, considering a range of tactics.
Jan Haaken is professor emeritus of psychology at Portland State University, clinical psychologist, author and documentary filmmaker. You can find his film Our bodies Our doctors on major streaming services, including free from Kanopi using your Multnomah County Library Card.
Listen to Haaken’s full conversation with OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni using the audio player at the top of this page.