Young women were the "foot soldiers" of the anti-abortion movement and "morally bankrupt" Trump

On "Salon Talks," the director of "Battleground" explains how anti-choice wasn't just driven by "old white men"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 24, 2022 7:00PM (EDT)

Protesters from both sides of the abortion debate wave competing scripture interpretations during a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC., United States on June 21, 2022. (Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Protesters from both sides of the abortion debate wave competing scripture interpretations during a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC., United States on June 21, 2022. (Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In order to understand how we got here with the stripping of reproductive health care, we need to understand the people who made it happen. It's a journey through a pivotal year in the anti-abortion movement, seen through the eyes of three of its youthful female leaders. There's never been a documentary quite like "Battleground," which premiered recently at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Its Emmy-nominated director and producer, Cynthia Lowen, spoke to me on "Salon Talks" shortly before the overturning of Roe v. Wade about the women at the forefront of the anti-choice crusade, and where we go from here. Watch our episode here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

There is a moment early in the film that defines it. A bunch of young women from Students For Life are in a room. One of them says, "People think that it's all just old white men telling us what we can do with our bodies. It's not. This is about young people in the movement. This is about women." This is about even Democrats. What are we getting wrong when we think about the face of the anti-choice movement, Cynthia?

Going into making this film, I had a lot of those notions that the anti-abortion movement was – as the girls in the hotel room say – old white men. I was really surprised to learn in making this film that the anti-abortion movement, they're young women by and large. The movement has its eye very much on the next generation of anti-abortion activists. They're really cultivating young people to be at the vanguard of the next stage of the movement. You hear these young people saying a lot, "We are the post-Roe generation," and they're taking on this identity of coming of age in a post-Roe America.

"The anti-abortion movement, they're young women by and large"

Kristen Hawkins, one of the women in the film who's the president of Students for Life, says, "People used to say I was crazy when I was trying to tell people that I'm building a post-Roe organization." Here we are. We're on the absolute precipice of Roe being overturned. What we have is that the movement is building. 

It's building its foot soldiers. It's building that next generation of people, because I think the movement tends to be forward-looking. They're very much trying to build up single issue voters. Something else that they say is, "Look, you don't have to be a conservative. You don't have to be a Republican. You just have to be a single issue voter for this."

RELATED: Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade with Dobbs decision

One of the chilling shots of the film is where there's a sign from a Students for Life of America advocate who's saying, "I'm so pro-life that I'm going to vote for a candidate I don't like." Because I'm putting that anti-choice position ahead of actually what I think of a candidate.

That's what they're doing. They're really trying to build up this single issue voter block, as well as positioning themselves and appropriating a lot of the language from left-leaning social justice movements to appeal to young people.

Let's start with that single issue voter idea, because I think those of us on the more progressive side have really been bitten by that idea of, "If a candidate is not my perfect unicorn, if I don't like Hillary, then I'm not going to vote."

We see where that leads. Some of us on the progressive side have this idea the movement is old white men or guys in red caps who are storming the Capitol. It's not people who say, "You know what? I don't like Donald Trump. I didn't like him." And a lot of these people are saying that. How did that relationship evolve? Trump and the anti-choice movement made some kind of relationship happen that surprises everyone.

The film brings you behind the scenes into that actual transaction happening. The film opens with this meeting of leaders of the Christian right. Many of the people in that room have been featured in recent articles about how there's a real white evangelical nationalist movement that is under a lot of the dynamics that we're having come out now.

"I was honestly surprised at the candor and the willingness of these anti-choice leaders to say, 'We don't like [Trump]. We know he's morally bankrupt. We know that, but this is our issue. This is our single issue.'"

You see in this meeting that was secretly recorded between Trump and leaders of the Christian right in the lead-up to the 2016 election. They are fully aware that he is not a conservative. He's not a Christian, he's not an anti-choice person. They say, "Look, if you come down hard on this, if you do what we want you to do, which is advance anti-choice policy and nominate anti-choice judges, we will get our people to the polls."

On the flip side, you have Steve Bannon saying, "Get your people to the polls and we will do your bidding." At the end of the film, it comes full circle where you have Marjorie Dannenfelser, the leader of the Susan B. Anthony List, one of the most powerful anti-choice lobbying organizations in the country saying, "Pence and I joke that Donald Trump fulfilled even more promises than he made."

He went so above and beyond what the anti-abortion movement expected of him. It was a very transactional relationship. As Marjorie says, "We didn't like him." I was honestly surprised at the candor and the willingness of these anti-choice leaders to say, "We don't like him. We know he's morally bankrupt. We know that, but this is our issue. This is our single issue. He's going to do what we want him to do. And it's a purely transactional kind of relationship."

It's important for those of us on any side of a conversation to understand what our opponents look like, what they think like, how they are strategizing. It is easy to turn on the news and think that it's just a guy in a Viking hat, storming the Capitol. That it's a cult. It's subtler and requires more thought to show a group of young women who look like they could be your neighbors, your friends, who are soft-spoken, who are polite, who are articulate, who are educated.

Do you think in that kind of space of understanding each other, is there room for us to have productive conversations? Is there a possibility of any kind of compromise in this, around this issue? When we look at the post-Roe generation and the progressive side, is there a space for us to come together?

What's interesting about the film is that it's kind of one of the only spaces that I think I've seen those two divergent perspectives kind of coexisting. In the majority of the pro-choice advocates that we filmed within the film, most of them come from communities and backgrounds that they were raised anti-abortion. They were raised by "pro-life communities."

They were in pro-life churches. Their families are very much anti-choice. I think they have a lot of understanding for how one would come to that position if you are a young person and your family's very involved in your church community. Your whole church community is anti-abortion. That's your social outlet. That's where you go after school. It's where you go on weekends.

It's how they organize. It's such a big part of so many Americans lives. [Rape survivor and advocate] Samantha Blakely, who was in the film, really came out of a community that was very conservative; the cost of speaking up was huge. The alienation you are likely to experience if you are the one person to raise your hand and say, "Hey, isn't that wrong to make women who don't want to be pregnant carry a child to term? Isn't that wrong?" can't be underestimated. That's why sharing stories and sharing life experience is so important. For many of the young women that you hear in that hotel room, they have come to their beliefs for a whole series of reasons, but not because I think they want to harm others.

It's part of just the worldview in which they were raised. They haven't had that life experience yet to understand why abortion access is so fundamental. Having people who come from those communities who say, "I get it. I get the world and the context you were raised in. But when life and pregnancy and unanticipated pregnancy and pregnancy complications come your way, it changes how you feel about this issue."

The opportunity with this film is to respect that people may come to an anti-abortion perspective for many reasons, but to be able to say, "Look, there are so, so, so many reasons why this just needs to be the choice of the pregnant person. Period. Let's talk about that."

I want to talk about something else also though. What is going on is that there are young people like you see in that hotel room who have come to their anti-choice perspectives for whatever reason. Then you have the politicians.

"Passing anti-abortion legislation ... in America is not leadership. It is betrayal of your constituents."

What you have here is politicians who are just using those people and using those perspectives and using those beliefs for their own political power and for their own political gain. I really separate out the people who have come to that personal perspective and those politicians who are just using those single issue voters to advance the will of the minority to consolidate minority rule and to deny their responsibility for governing on all the other elements that their citizens need good leadership on.

Passing anti-abortion legislation, being in the race to pass the most extreme anti-abortion legislation, in America is not leadership. It is betrayal of your constituents.

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A vast majority of Americans support choice. How did we get to this place where such a tiny group on one issue is wielding so much power over the bodily autonomy of half of the citizens right now?

That was the question that really drove me to make this film. I was genuinely really curious to understand, how are they doing this? The vast majority of Americans support access to abortion. How is this minority of people imposing their will over the entire country at the Supreme Court?

What you see is this combination between using gerrymandering to undermine our democracy, then using these voters to tip the balance in certain places where it's very narrow to begin with, and then having so much stigma in these places that are passing these anti-abortion bills. The lawmakers in Texas, in Alabama, they're not paying the price politically locally because the stigma locally to come out and march against that and speak against is so high.

I think that's changing. Samantha Blakely, a pro-choice advocate who lives in Alabama, has  been saying that since the Alito leak and the ramping up of the anti-abortion, she's been seeing more actions, more marches, more people speaking out.

That's what it's going to take, because the policy makers are taking advantage of the enormous stigma to escape any kind of accountability for passing laws that are just horrifyingly harmful to their constituents.

"There's a scene in the film where Students for Life does a 'Black Pre-Born Lives Matter' rally ... It's grotesque because the anti-abortion movement targets and harms women of color so disproportionately."

This movement has also been able to co-opt  the rhetoric of progressive movements — Black Lives Matter, feminism.  What does that strategy look like? How are you seeing that then play out in these populations, and particularly in these young people's groups?

It's really part of this attempt to mainstream what is a minority rule movement. To mainstream this anti-choice perspective, which is certainly not what the majority of people believe, and to co-opt the language of left-leaning progressive social justice movements. There's a scene in the film where Students for Life does a "Black Pre-Born Lives Matter" rally. It's grotesque. It's grotesque because the anti-abortion movement targets and harms women of color so disproportionately.

It's this shameless co-opting of other progressive social justice movements. The theme at the 2020 March for Life that we filmed was "Pro-Life is Pro-Woman," trying to parse being pro-life as being feminist.

What's happening is normalizing and mainstreaming what is and has been an extremist position and appealing to young people who see themselves as fighting for the right thing. There's a scene with a young man canvassing in Arizona with a young woman for the Susan B. Anthony List. They're going door to door and they're trying to get people to vote anti-choice.

He says, "There was World War I, World War II, and this is the fight of my generation." When you get people who have a mindset like that, who have absorbed this false narrative that they're fighting for justice and they're fighting for the right thing and the equality of all life — equality meaning fetal equality —  they see themselves as doing the right thing.

The hope for this film is to educate people that think they're doing the right thing and to expose them to the ramifications of these actions and that this is not justice. This is not equality. It's the opposite.

These are hard things for me as a viewer to witness, to hear. I can't even imagine what it must have been like for you as a filmmaker to be in those spaces, and yet have them clearly feel that they were safe with you and that you were going to be fair to them. I want to know how you were able to create that trust and to create a film that really is honorable in its execution in that way.

My impetus to make this film was just really, I'm genuinely curious. How is this happening and who are you? And what do you believe? What's going on here? What I said to the anti-choice subjects was that I felt like the influence of the anti-abortion movement on American policy, legislation, and culture was a fact. It is what it is.

Putting aside one's personal perspectives on abortion, the influence of the anti-abortion movement on American politics is something that's worth understanding and I would depict their perspectives and their work and their goals accurately, and as completely as I could. That was the pledge that I made in filming with these subjects. That's the film that has emerged from that approach.

Since the completion of the film, a lot has changed in our country. It's hard to feel hopeful. It's hard to continue to feel motivated. You end the film with an invitation for us to get involved. It feels like a juggernaut at this point that everything is going to get taken away. What would you recommend we do next?

"It impacts every single American if Roe is overturned. All of us need to understand that no one is safe."

We had our world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and were joined by Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She was saying that they were up against the believability gap, that so many people just didn't believe that it was possible that Roe would be overturned. I still hear that. I still hear from people all the time and this decision's coming down any day.

Really? You really think that's going to happen? Really? It's happening. The other thing that I hear after that often is, "Oh, well we live in New York. It's not going to affect us here."

We live in the United States of America. It impacts every single American if Roe is overturned. All of us need to understand that no one is safe. No one is safe from Roe being overturned. It's not only about Roe being overturned, but it's about anti-abortion, extremist and dangerous anti-abortion policy being used and leveraged to consolidate minority rule.

We need to get out and vote on issues of abortion, issues of women's rights. We need to get involved. What you see here is a level of involvement. There's many levels of involvement. There's involvement in protests. There's involvement in legislation. There's involvement in school boards, sex education, who is advertising.

I get emails from Students for Life saying, "This college campus lists Planned Parenthood as one of their resources. We need to go out there and shame them and get them to remove it." We need to be out there saying that we support abortion, and particularly supporting those voices who are seeing it in places where the stigma is so high.

We need to acknowledge that you know or love or are somebody who has had an abortion, and many people who had life-threatening complications during pregnancy wouldn't be here had they not been able to access abortion care. Those stories are being shared and the stigma is being broken in places where politicians have used the fear and silence of populations around this issue to pass these extremist policies. We need to talk about it.

More on the war on reproductive rights

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Abortion Battleground Cynthia Lowen Documentary Movies Roe V. Wade Salon Talks