To anyone who has watched “The Handmaid’s Tale” — Hulu’s acclaimed adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about women reduced to breeding stock — and says it couldn’t happen today, the documentary “Birthright: A War Story” is a strong counterargument. The surprisingly evenhanded examination of the ongoing battle between the antiabortion and abortion rights movements looks at how the landscape has changed for the worse since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Director Civia Tamarkin’s film is not without a point of view. “Birthright” suggests that the loss of women’s bodily autonomy — via laws limiting access to abortion — is a human rights issue. But it raises the alarm in ways that are as unflashy as they are disturbing. One of the more shocking scenes reminds us of the dangers of complacency, introducing us to a room full of young women who have never heard of Roe v. Wade.
The first half of the film concerns “TRAP” laws (for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) that have restricted access to abortion by, say, forcing clinics to close due to onerous regulations. According to Keith Mason, the founder of Personhood USA, it doesn’t matter whether abortion is made illegal if he and his antiabortion allies can make the procedure impractical.
In the second half, Tamarkin shifts the focus to case histories of women whose stories of pregnancy and powerlessness come uncomfortably close to those in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” One woman talks of being forced to undergo a Caesarean section against her wishes. Another woman was arrested and charged with chemical endangerment of her child after smoking marijuana while pregnant. Tamarkin’s point is clear: Women would do well to know their history before the future makes them regret it.
Unrated. At the AFI Silver Theatre. Contains brief coarse language, nudity and a disturbing image. 100 minutes.