'Battleground' director explains how the left lost the abortion fight: 'There's a real reckoning happening right now'
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade on June 24, it handed the anti-abortion movement a decisive victory nearly 50 years in the making. The 6-3 ruling left pro-choice forces reeling, with many prominent liberal politicians and celebrities openly wondering how they lost this supposedly-settled fight. Cynthia Lowen's new documentary Battleground offers a dramatic and, at times, uncomfortable look at the warning signs that were missed along the way to Roe's defeat.
Embedding herself in the operations of three leading anti-abortion activists, the filmmaker reveals that pro-choice believers were up against forces that they consistently underestimated until it was too late. (Battleground premiered at the Tribeca Festival weeks before Roe was overturned, and is streaming on the Tribeca at Home platform through July 3.)
"There's a real reckoning happening right now," Lowen tells Yahoo Entertainment. "There's no question that for women in America to have lost constitutional protections for abortion is a profound and devastating loss for anyone who believes in abortion rights. Now the job is to unpack how this happened. This is a real moment for the Left to take a step back and say: "How was this loss possible? Where have we failed?"
Lowen started work on Battleground in the summer of 2019, just after Alabama passed the Human Life Protection Act, which essentially banned abortion in the state. Initially, she concentrated on speaking with pro-choice advocates who were pushing back against the bill. But the more time she spent exploring the issue, the more she found herself thinking about the real power players in the anti-abortion movement — the men and women who were regular presences in statehouses and also in the White House during Donald Trump's administration.
"I really wanted to understand the power structures of who is making it possible for Alabama lawmakers to pass an abortion ban," says Lowen, noting that she's staunchly pro-choice in her own beliefs. "It's definitely not the people standing outside abortion clinics all day protesting. Those are not the people who are the savvy, well-connected, well-funded political operators who have the connections, the know-how, the organizing skills and the will to be passing on state and national bans and getting anti-choice Supreme Court justices seated."
The anti-abortion leaders that Lowen profiles in Battleground include Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, and a colleague of former Vice President Mike Pence; Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, which recruits young people into the anti-abortion movement; and Terrisa Bukovinac, founder of Pro-Life San Francisco and politically liberal on all issues except for abortion. While all three women hail from different backgrounds they share the same single-issue mindset when it comes to politics, and Lowen says that zeal and focus is something that's been missing on the pro-choice side in recent years.
"What you have on the Right is that they have harnessed a single issue voter block that is very engaged around anti-abortion legislation and very engaged around voting for anti-abortion policy makers who promise and pledge that they will pass anti-abortion legislation," she explains. "The Left has not harnessed abortion as an issue for people to vote on. I think there's been a reticence to make abortion an issue, because maybe there's a potential to capture a voter who considers themselves to be anti-abortion, but who the Democrats might be able to get on economic policies, environmental policies or social justice policies. Now that Roe is overturned, the left is saying: 'Abortion is on the ballot. Everybody has to get out and vote or we're going to lose these rights.' But that needed to be happening for a long time."
Lowen points to other longterm failures within the pro-choice movement that contributed to anti-abortion victories, including a lack of organizing power to combat state-level abortion restrictions.
"For many years, we've been seeing legislation and policies go into effect that chip away at abortion. But you really haven't seen a push on the Left to not just hold the bare minimum, but also broadly expand abortion protections. That expansion of rights has not been keeping up with the chipping away of the rights, and now here we are in a situation where we have states where abortion is absolutely banned, and states where its enshrined in the constitution."
With pro-choice advocates facing a dramatically different post-Roe landscape, Lowen says that the movement's battle plans need an equally dramatic reinvention for the fight ahead. "Losing a constitutional right that's been in place for 50 years — how do you get that back? It's a devastating loss." The official Battleground website offers resources for those looking to donate to abortion causes or get involved on a local level. And Lowen emphasizes that local institutions is a key front in this ongoing battle.
"It's not just a matter of who is sitting in the White House: School boards are important, and so are hospital boards. What we're seeing right now is that hospital boards are being taken over by anti-abortion people — even in pro-choice states — and are limiting the ability for doctors within their systems to provide abortions. The involvement of pro-choice people on every level is very important."
In a wide-ranging conversation, Lowen discussed her experiences on the frontlines of the anti-abortion movement, and why she doesn't feel Battleground "platforms" those voices at the expense of the pro-choice perspective.
What were the reactions of the women you profiled in Battleground to Roe v. Wade finally being overturned?
I actually haven't spoken with the three women who are featured in the film. However, I did see them all over the news. Kristen Hawkins was on the front page of The New York Times website for several hours on June 24. And Terrisa Bukovinac was also very much out there. For them, this is the culmination of what they've been working towards for decades, so obviously their response is very different from the response of people who support abortion access.
Do you plan on going back to shoot new interviews with them?
At this point, the film is the film. I wouldn't expect to be shooting more material, but we're certainly in touch. I think it's as current and pressing as ever, because to really understand this moment, you have to go back to looking at the Trump presidency and Amy Coney Barrett being confirmed to the Supreme Court as these significant turning points that have led us to this moment. In a way, this moment almost feels like an epilogue to everything that has come before.
They almost certainly feel elated over what they've achieved, but I wonder if there's also a little bit of fear about what comes next. Do you have a sense of whether that might be the case?
I've been getting a lot of correspondence from Students for Life in particular and what they're really pushing for now is the most extreme anti-abortion legislation. They're trying to pressure Republican anti-abortion lawmakers to pass bans that don't have exceptions for rape or incest. It's not just enough for them that Roe is overturned: what they're doing now trying to get the most extreme measures passed.
Is that something they were clear about wanting all along, or were they secretive about those more extreme measures until Roe was overturned?
I wouldn't say that they were necessarily secretive about it, but an organization like the Susan B. Anthony List has been very strategic about the laws they've gotten behind. They've attempted to take the temperature of what people would potentially tolerate, going after what people have called an incremental approach. I think the game changer was what Texas did in September of 2021 by passing a six-week ban that the Supreme Court did not interfere with.
We filmed at the State Capitol on the day that the Texas ban went into effect, and I expected to see people walking out of work. I expected people to be shutting down the Capitol building. I expected there to be a real outcry against what was the first ban of its type like this, which now many other states are copying. But I didn't see that — there wasn't that backlash against Texas lawmakers. That shifted the calculus of these anti-abortion organizations, and you saw Students for Life coming in saying, "We can go one step further," and getting Oklahoma to pass the most extreme anti-abortion legislation in the country. Their strategy over the past year changed dramatically.
Kristan Hawkins is probably the closest in personality to Donald Trump in that she seems to relish confrontation and being combative. Did you notice that tendency when interviewing her?
Kristan is somebody who sees an opportunity in those kinds of conflict situations. There's two things that she sees as opportunities to get out of that kind of engagement. One is to cast pro-choice people as violent extremists, which is something that you see happening in way the anti-abortion movement characterizes pro-choice people. The other thing is that there's a window for her to engage with them in a way that would make them question their argument.
In general, what Students for Life is doing is really trying to get into spaces where pro-choice people are — particularly where young pro-choice people are — and have conversations and engagements. Whether they're more confrontational or less confrontational, they see those as opportunities to convert pro-choice people to having anti-abortion perspectives. I think there's something to really be learned from that for pro-choice people: explore the efforts that anti-abortion people are making to get into pro-choice spaces. Is the left doing that as effectively, or could they be doing that more effectively?
Watching the film, I was struck by how young many of the members of Students for Life are.
That's really eye-opening for a lot of people who haven't grown up in anti-abortion communities. The leaders of the movement consist of a lot of young women, and they're really going after the next generation to build up the future of the movement. They're very forward-looking.
Terrisa Bukovinac is an interesting personality in that she stands apart from the Christian conservatives that dominate the anti-abortion movement. How does she view them and how do they view her?
What Terrisa has expressed is that they see her as a potential bridge to communities that they don't necessarily have a lot of access to. Since we filmed together, she's moved from San Francisco to Washington D.C., but when she was in San Francisco, she had encounters with more conservative folks who said: "Oh my gosh, you're in San Francisco, the belly of the beast! How do you do it?" And she'd say: "They're ripe for the picking. It's just a city full of millennials."
She talks in the film quite a bit about the optics of who anti-abortion people are, and trying to challenge people's confirmation bias. The group that she's often out there with are young and queer, and totally surprise and challenge a lot of the stereotypes people have about anti-abortion folks. But, as a Democrat myself, I would say that she's certainly in the minority. By and large Democrats are pro-choice, and I think that's important to remember. The film is not trying to suggest in any way, shape, or form that the Democratic party should abandon its pro-choice stance. There are people who just don't fit the typical box we all often may expect when we're thinking about who is anti-abortion.
Do you think it would be a breaking point for Terrisa if Christian conservatives now go after other rights — like gay marriage — as has been predicted in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling?
She is a single-issue person: Being anti-abortion is the position that she holds above all others. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away and Amy Coney Barrett was nominated, I was really curious whether Terrisa felt conflicted about the fact that Barrett is a conservative and far less friendly to the other progressive values that she says she holds. But she was unequivocal that she wanted Barrett to be confirmed because it was the opportunity to overturn Roe. Those other values went by the wayside — that was a trade she was willing to make.
Are you concerned about being criticized for giving these women a platform for their views?
What I said to Marjorie, Theresa, and Kristen when I asked them to participate in the film was: "Putting aside one's personal perspectives and opinions on abortion, the influence of the anti-abortion movement on American policy, legislation, and culture is a fact. And it is a fact that I think is worth exploring and understanding." My pledge to them was that I would depict their perspectives, their work, their goals and their backgrounds in their own words, and as accurately and completely as I could.
That is the film that has emerged, and I think it has been lauded for being restrained in editorializing on their actions, and letting audiences come to their own conclusions irregardless of where you stand on the issue of abortion. With Roe being overturned, it's important to know who these people are and how they organize. I do not feel that I was giving them a platform that would be harmful in any way for audiences. Getting behind the scenes and witnessing how they work is something that everyone who cares about abortion rights should want to understand. In fact, the responses we've received from pro-choice audiences are that the film is very useful and energizing. It's the kind of film that we need right now to understand what to do in the future.
"Know thy enemy" in other words.
Yes. I don't know if many people catch it, but there's a scene in Marjorie Dannenfelser's office, and the book she's reading is called: Know Thine Enemy: A History of the Left. So they're looking very carefully at the left, and you see them appropriating so much rhetoric and and so many tactics from them. We filmed the March for Life one year and the theme was "Pro-Life is Pro-Woman," and you saw them appropriating the language of feminism. You also see a lot of social justice rhetoric and the appropriation of the Black Lives Matter movement in the scene where they're having these "Black Pre-Born Lives Matter" events. They are really trying to mainstream themselves to appeal to people who consider themselves invested in justice and equality.
One thing I was struck by is that none of these groups seem to have a concrete plan of action in place for how to address economic assistance or childcare assistance for women who no longer have ready access to abortion. In their minds, does their participation just stop at ending Roe?
I would say that they have certainly prioritized ending Roe over having concrete plans for what that means in terms of paid parental leave, child tax credits, ease of adoption — all those things. There's a scene in the film where Marjorie says: "Is our plan fully in place yet? No. But should that stop us from doing what we're doing? No." That's what we're about to see right now: the looming question for the right is the toll the overturning of Roe is guaranteed to cause. And is that going to undermine them? There's no question that there's no plan in place for the healthcare crisis and social upheaval that this is going to cause in our country.
What's your own battle plan for what the pro-choice movement should do next?
There are immediate needs like supporting abortion funds and triaging what is going to be a really catastrophic healthcare emergency for millions of people. In the midterms, there is grave concern that if Congress goes Republican, they will seek to implement a federal abortion ban. So it's very important this fall for people to be very well-informed and engaged in their local elections, and to really get out and participate.
Abortion is going to finally motivate a lot of people on the left who never thought it was possible for Roe to be overturned to come out and vote. The question is, will those numbers be enough to confront the systemic gerrymandering and elimination of voters? This is the election where we will find out if we still have a democracy that is functioning, or if it has already been gerrymandered out of having any kind of fair and accurate reflection of the will of the people.
Battleground is currently streaming on the Tribeca at Home platform; visit the official website for additional screening information.