This Health Foundation is Investing in BIRTHRIGHT, a Critical Public Health Film for Women

Leading discussion at the opening New York City screening. Left to right: Luchina Fisher, producer; Lynn Paltrow, Executive Producer, National Advocates for Pregnant Women; Civia Tamarkin, Director, Writer and Executive Producer; and Dr. Ruth Shaber, Founder, Tara Health Foundation and Executive Producer

Collectively, state legislatures passed 288 restrictions on women’s reproductive rights between 2010 to 2015. Now, a new film tells the stories of women’s horrific health experiences, and the imprisonments, both actual and threatened, that are a consequence of these laws.

Birthright: A War Story is a new documentary that exposes the radical religious right’s infiltration state legislatures. This movement’s goal is not only to strike down women’s constitutional right to abortion but also to curb women’s access to birth control. Some seek to put the rights of fetuses above those of women.

This is the Real-Life ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

The 1 hour, 40 minute film just completed a highly successful week’s run in New York City before engaged and enthusiastic audiences. This Friday, July 28 it opens in Beverly Hills at the Laemmle Music Hall for another one week run. These two theatrical runs qualify the film for consideration for an Academy Award, a critical step in a documentary’s path to notoriety and success.

Director Civia Tamarkin, a seasoned television investigative journalist, was motivated to produce BIRTHRIGHT after the Supreme Court’s June 2014 decision in Hobby Lobby. “I was shocked not only by the Supreme Court ruling, but by the lack of awareness from young women that their rights were being jeopardized. People were not taking to the streets.”

Unlike most filmmaking, Tamarkin said, “Ironically, it proved easier to raise money than to get people to go on camera.” The director underscored in an interview with Philanthropy Women, “Practitioners were reluctant to come forward. They were worried about repercussions…..especially about repercussions of violence. ”

Lest we forget, the National Abortion Federation keeps records of this violence. Eleven people have died and 26 attempted murders have occurred due to anti-abortion violence. A federal law, Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE or the Access Act), passed in 1994 to address such violence. Rewire recently produced an informative short video about the daily harassment that continues to occur at clinics.

Dr. Ruth Shaber, after a twenty five year career as an obstetrician and gynecologist, in 2014 created the Tara Health Foundation. The mission of Tara Health is to “improve the health and well-being of women and girls through the creative use of philanthropic capital.” Tara Health Foundation takes a holistic approach to its grant making as well as its capital management.

Most intriguing to this author was Shaber’s focus on bringing the principles of evidence-based health medicine into philanthropy. She explained,“Evidence-based health is conceived using science. You have an intervention, and then you look at the impact on a desired outcome. In philanthropy, on both the granting-making and the investment side, decisions are more driven by intuition. It is not a sufficient scientific methodology.”

At a national meeting, Shaber heard Dr. David Grimes of the Center for Disease Control speak of the threats to public health that regressive abortion laws are creating. Shaber, as a doctor turned philanthropist, came home from that meeting in November 2015 and realized: “We needed to remind people that abortion and contraception were protecting women’s health.”

Shaber started networking like crazy, on a mission to make a movie akin to An Inconvenient Truth for women’s health. “I knew nothing about filmmaking or media, but I put my name out there and let people know that I was interested in doing this work.

Those in film know how exceedingly rare it is for a potential backer to be knocking on the door of a film director, but not long after putting out the word, Dr. Shaber heard of Tamarkin’s project and called her up. By this time, Tamarkin had completed development and shot a few interviews, enough to create a fundraising trailer.

The two women realized their goals were aligned. Instead of a grant, they struck up an equity investment agreement. Dr. Shaber recounted, “I wanted to have more of a business relationship with the film, so we had to  strike new ground.”

Shaber and Tamarkin found very few in the foundation world who could advise them. But by discussing strategies, the two were able to conceive up a straight-up investment plan. The key selling point of the strategy for investors would be that they would be able to say that profits from the film would be returned to Tara Health Foundation and be deployed for the reproductive rights of women and girls. 

The $675,000 equity investment from Tara Health Foundation enabled Tamarkin and her production team to concentrate solely on conducting the interviews, editing and polishing the completed film. Ruth Shaber became an executive producer of the film, in essence leveraging both financial and human capital to produce the film

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In addition to investing in the production, Tara Health Foundation has also provided a $325,000 grant for community outreach for the film. In this writer’s experience, this promotional work is a most vital component of the process, and is rare in the production of independent advocacy films like BirthrightPicture Motion, with a track record in this arena, has been hired to design the national campaign strategy that will maximize the film’s social impact. 

Dr. Shaber is optimistic about the outreach screenings. “Each one will have its own character whether it is individuals or organizations, whether they do them as fundraisers or awareness builders.” So far, one outreach screening has occurred in Colorado, a very successful event organized by the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction with numerous other groups. Birthright’s theatrical distributor, Abramorama, just launched the commercial/art house run of the film, which precedes any community campaign. 

Cristina Aguilar, Executive Director of Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR), one of the participating organizations in the July 10 community screening, talked about the value of the film in terms of women and maternal health, noting that the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world where maternal mortality is on the rise. “Women of color are experiencing an increase in pregnancy complications. On top of this tragic and unacceptable public health crisis, the bodies and pregnancies of marginalized communities are a target of unjust and discriminatory laws and policies.”

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Kelly Baden saw the film at the partnering organization, Center for Reproductive Rights. Thirteen partnering organizations, listed in the Take Action pulldown, are the initial core outreach network. Baden is now in a brand new position as the first Director of Reproductive Rights of State Innovation Exchange, a national resource and strategy hub for advancing and defending progressive policies at the state level. 

In an interview with Philanthropy Women, Baden noted that laws restricting abortion and other reproductive rights are often pushed through hostile state legislatures without input from the very women who will feel their impact most. “Anti-abortion legislators should – at the very least – listen to stories like those featured in Birthright and be forced to grapple with the consequences of using women’s healthcare to score political points.”

State legislatures are not the only problem. A fundraising appeal from Jodi Jacobson, publisher of Rewire , sent out July 19, reminds readers that Teresa Manning, who now runs the Office of Population Affairs at the CDC, does not support evidence-based health contraception. “[She] relies on junk science and falsehoods to advocate for anti-choice policies,” the Rewire appeal states. $286 million is at Manning’s disposal in federal family planning funds to low-income Americans. Decades of health progress for women are at stake.

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When asked about how Birthright fit into the long history of women’s health films like After Tiller and Trapped, director, writer, and executive producer Tamarkan was adamant that “Birthright is an overview. The issue is not abortion. It is about women’s bodily integrity.”

Additional theatrical screenings are in the works. Small Star Art House in York, Pennsylvania, is listed, as is Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio. Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY is on the roster, too. None yet have dates. Other potential screenings are in the works in Lincoln, Nebraska: Dallas and Austin, Texas, and Phoenix and Sedona, Arizona.

If you want updates on the screenings, keep checking the Birthright website. If you want a screening in your community, simultaneously contact your local movie theatre and fill out the form on Birthright’s webpage. Make it happen. You’ll be glad you did. Women Make Movies is handling educational distribution for college campus campaigns. 

Fabulously,” was Shaber’s response when asked how the New York opening screenings went. “I think we are really lighting a match under people so they are connecting to an issue that they have not thought about enough.”

(Full disclosure, the author is a co-founder of Women Make Movies, the non-profit, educational feminist film organization.)

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Author: Ariel Dougherty

Ariel Dougherty is a teacher, filmmaker, producer and mentor for women directed media/culture of all stripes. SWEET BANANAS (director, 1973) and !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION (Producer, 2010) are among the hundreds films she has worked on. She writes at the intersections of women-identified media, especially film production, women's human rights, and funding for film. Currently, she is working on a book entitled Feminist Filmmaking Within Communities.

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