Jan Haaken is no stranger to the fight for reproductive rights. She’s 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 PhD in psychology.
“My dissertation was about the history of reproductive rights, as they affected women’s possibilities for participating in civil society,” she said. “I became more struck by how important it is, the whole issue of control over reproduction.”
Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that confirmed people’s right to an abortion, was still new for her generation. Haaken said those experiences motivated her to advocate for reproductive rights throughout her career as an academic and a 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 a 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 physicians 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 features rarely seen footage of abortions being performed.
The film was awarded Best Documentary at the 42nd Portland International Film Festival in 2019.
In many ways, the film foreshadows our current moment. In it, many of the doctors speak about their concern over the growing number of state restrictions on abortion access, and over the future of the legality of abortion in America. With this past week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, access to abortion in Oregon and Washington remains unchanged, but Haaken said it’s still a major blow to reproductive rights and the people featured in her film.
“I think we’re all feeling 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: A lot of this film is very candid conversations with doctors who provide abortions, talking about how they feel about their work and its importance. One of the people you profile 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 a previous generation. Here’s that clip:
Andrea Chiavarini: “The people that came into abortion care a generation or so ago came into it out of feminism, and watching so many women suffer under illegal abortion. I know that there was a fear among older providers, that there wouldn’t be so much commitment to providing abortion services, because my generation is the post-Roe generation and we didn’t see these kinds of things happening.”
Notarianni: I mean, obviously that’s not the case any longer. But do her thoughts on that ring true to you?
Jan Haaken: We included her statement reflecting on that history because it is so important to understand what was at stake for early activists in this area: for health care, and abortion as part of health care. But, a lot of younger feminists after Roe v. Wade were not as struck by the importance of the abortion issue as central to a broader women’s rights agenda. I think there’s a lot of mobilizing now, recognizing that.
Notarianni: Tell me a little bit more about early abortion access and reproductive rights advocacy, and how you think that in the last several years, advocates have missed the lessons of that.
Haaken: At that time of the organizing around abortion rights in the 1960s and ‘70s, there was a lot of focus on being able to access abortion, based on your own assessment of your life and what you can manage. So that insistence, that women are in the best position to know whether they’re in a situation where they can bring a child into the world, that was a profoundly important human right. Forcing a person to carry a child, to become a mother against their will, was a kind of basic violation of human rights.
I think over the early defense of abortion and the pro-choice movement, it was framed more in terms of a choice. A lot of women had very narrow choices, particularly poor women, marginalized women, and women of color. It was not simply a matter of being pro-choice, but many aspects of their lives, the complexity of their lives, was pushed out of the picture.
Notarianni: In the film, there are several scenes that portray abortions being done.
Haaken: Yes, I think it’s the first documentary that does that.
Notarianni: What do you think that people come to understand when they see it, the procedure being performed? Why is that important?
Haaken: It was important because there’s such a mystification of it. I was first brought into short film projects through the University of Michigan Ann Arbor’s research team, through the OB/GYN Department. They were trying to reclaim visual culture in a way that’s been dominated by anti-abortion imagery: bloody fetuses and the horrific imagery that circulates 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’s also tears of relief, for the most part. We were really interested in demystifying what happens, and recognizing the work of providers in spite of the harassment they put up with, including from their own profession, and including here in the Northwest.
Notarianni: Yeah, and one of the things that struck me in the film was this sense of threat that doctors were already under 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 a leader of an abortion-providing clinic in rural, central Pennsylvania. We had some pickets at the clinic, but they were generally respectful. And remember: Picketing is a constitutionally protected activity, not in and of itself scary. Then I went to Portland, Oregon. Oh my God. I was threatened. My house was picketed by people who said abortion providers should be murdered. It is a more confusing picture than you might believe.”
Notarianni: They do go on to specify that the overall risk, the overall threat is actually very low. But still, I think that people think of the Pacific Northwest as this place that is so safe and protected. I don’t know how many people understand the threat that doctors have already faced here.
Haaken: Yeah, during the 1990s, a number of doctors and other providers were murdered. There were fire bombings, including here in Oregon in Washington. Threats were pretty routine. The anti-abortion movement really moved away from these terrorist tactics to legislative tactics during the early part of this century, of which they, as we’re now aware, won many, many court cases at the local, state and now the Supreme Court.
Notarianni: I’m wondering, have you had a chance to talk with any of the providers that are featured in the film since the draft of the Dobbs decision leaked at the beginning of May? I’m wondering how they’re thinking about their practice.
Haaken: I have talked with two of the doctors featured in the film from Seattle. They’re not surprised. And yet, it’s a very sad day. The providers have talked about death by 1,000 cuts. So, the beginning with the Hyde Amendment, a few years after Roe v. Wade, and all of the legislative restrictions that have restricted access in recent years. There has been a whittling away of abortion since the very beginning.
But yet, there’s still something about this final dagger in the heart of Roe and what it represents as a dagger in the heart of women’s basic rights as human beings. I think we’re all feeling tremendous grief, but we also need to understand our history and learn from our history.
Notarianni: Let me ask you about that: There are a lot of people who are feeling all sorts of emotions about this ruling. But many people are upset, and scared, and unsure. With your perspective on the history, for people who care about the access to abortion, what do you think the lesson should be?
Haaken: I think we should look at a variety of tactics that keep this issue in the face of people, through massive mobilization: for cases that involve civil disobedience, defending people who are facing criminal charges, either as people seeking abortion or providing care. We need to also focus on what makes terminating a pregnancy at different stages of gestation important, and not rely on just the horror stories of incest, rape and these extreme cases.
I think many people are not aware of the circumstances of women’s lives. Often circumstances change; people have stressful things going on. So, I think confronting what it really means in people’s lives, to determine whether they’re going to bring a child into the world, is what we should be doing. And, considering a range of tactics.
Jan Haaken is professor emeritus of psychology at Portland State University, a clinical psychologist, author and documentary filmmaker. You can find her film Our Bodies Our Doctors on major streaming services, including for free from Kanopy 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.