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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."
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.
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.
The Department of Homeland Security is warning of violence after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion, according to a bulletin obtained by ABC News.
"We expect violence could occur for weeks following the release, particularly as DVEs may be mobilized to respond to changes in state laws and ballot measures on abortion stemming from the decision," the bulletin said. "We base this assessment on an observed increase in violent incidents across the United States following the unauthorized disclosure in May of a draft majority opinion on the case."
There are fears of a "night of rage" on Friday evening.
"Federal and state government officials -- including judges -- and facilities probably are most at risk for violence in response to the decision," DHS warned. "In May, a network of loosely affiliated suspected violent extremists, known as 'Jane's Revenge' -- which has been linked to arson attacks against the buildings of ideological opponents -- shared a post online encouraging a 'night of rage' following the Supreme Court announcement, stating, 'we need the state to feel our full wrath' and 'we need them to be afraid of us.'"
The report came as Americans gathered for rallies protesting the court's ruling.
\u201cCrowd growing at Nashville\u2019s Legislative Plaza to protest the Dobbs decision\u201d— Melissa Brown (@Melissa Brown) 1656109138
\u201cTwo pro choice protests converge at Washington Sq Park\u201d— Gabriel Elizondo (@Gabriel Elizondo) 1656097081
\u201cAt least 1,000 people amassed in Portland Friday for a march and protest in support of abortion rights. \n\nhttps://t.co/qw2et1OqNd\u201d— Bangor Daily News (@Bangor Daily News) 1656108934
\u201cHuge crowd has gathered in #Boston's Copley Square to protest today's Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. #WBZ\u201d— Brad Tatum (@Brad Tatum) 1656109123
\u201cThe protest has grown and now 1st street heading SE is shut down between Broadway and Hill. More still coming. The plan is for this group to march to LA City Hall to join with a few other groups at 5PM.\u201d— Caleigh Wells (@Caleigh Wells) 1656097041
\u201cCrowd gathering at the Wisconsin State Capitol to protest Roe v. Wade being overturned. After a rally, organizers are planning a march down State Street.\u201d— Dylan Brogan (@Dylan Brogan) 1656108645
It was 10 days since her husband, Eric Greitens, resigned as governor and Sheena Greitens was terrified.
In that period, she wrote to a family lawyer in a June 14, 2018, email, Eric Greitens had been violent twice to one of his sons, lost his temper repeatedly and refused to admit his actions were a source of the family’s problems.
He could go from calm to enraged “in a flash,” she wrote.
An example was his reaction to an email to their marriage counselor.
“I received an irate call from Eric, who suggested I had deliberately and maliciously sent accusations of child abuse to a) the St. Louis Circuit Attorney, b)special prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, and c)the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and that I was trying to stab him in the back, that I was ‘hateful and disgusting,’ nasty,’ ‘vicious,’ and a ‘lying bitch,’” she wrote. “This seemed to me to verge onto open paranoia.”
So she put the kids in the car, she said in an interview with The Independent, drove to the airport in St. Louis and called her husband to tell him she was going to visit her parents.
She says she fled because she didn’t know if he had access to a firearm and feared he would kill the family if he followed through on his threats to kill himself.
“That became a concern in June of 2018,” Sheena Greitens said. “That was why I left with the children. His anger was now being directed at me and the children and I could not guarantee their safety.”
That email, along with others from those weeks following Eric Greitens’ departure from office, were provided to The Independent this week by Sheena Greitens and her attorney.
She said there are two reasons she provided the emails and agreed break her silence with an interview about her marriage.
One is his repeated accusations by her ex-husband that she is lying in their ongoing child custody case in Boone County.
The other is that the fear she felt in those days was rekindled by the “RINO Hunt” video, posted to her ex-husband’s Senate campaign social media pages Monday depicting a SWAT-style raid.
In March, she filed an affidavit accusing Eric Greitens of child and spousal abuse in 2018 and 2019, and stating that in the months before his resignation, he became so unstable that his access to firearms had to be limited. Two weeks later, she filed a second sworn statement that she had emails and photos to back up her affidavit.
“The claim that this is the first time the concerns are being raised is just dishonest,” she said in the interview. “I have oriented my life around trying to address these concerns since 2018.”
Eric Greitens on Tuesday dismissed criticism of the video as “faux outrage” and added that “every normal person around the state of Missouri saw that is clearly a metaphor.”
Sheena Greitens said she received an email with graphically violent threats within hours after it appeared.
“All it takes is one abnormal person who takes this seriously to be a threat,” she said.
In a statement issued through Eric Greitens’ campaign, his attorney, Gary Stamper, said with the new material, Sheena Greitens is accusing mandatory reporters of child abuse of failing to follow the law.
“The mediator and therapist are both exceptional professionals who worked diligently to find an amicable solution in the best interest of the kids,” Stamper said. “It’s surprising and sad that Governor Greitens’ ex wife would accuse them of criminal activity.”
The statement notes that Eric Greitens has custody of his sons this summer and to follow the parenting plan agreed to in 2020 through May 2023. That plan calls for the boys to spend “every major holiday” and “most of their free time” while school is out with their father.
“We believe that the ex-wife’s continued and most recent efforts to drag their children into the press are not in their best interests,” Stamper said.
In an April 8 filing, Stamper wrote that Sheena Greitens had lied to the court, either in the affidavit by claiming the abuse allegations were raised with a court-appointed mediator or when she signed the divorce agreement in 2020 stating the couple had “disclosed all material facts” for determining a parenting plan.
“In fact, mother did not share this allegation of abuse with the mediator,” Stamper wrote. “If mother had reported abuse or suspected abuse to a mediator, said mediator was legally bound to report it. No such report was made.”
The court case
On Thursday, some of those fears were aired in a brief hearing before Associate Circuit Judge Leslie Schneider in Columbia. Sheena Greitens’ attorney, Helen Wade, asked for a statement from Eric Greitens that he did not mean his supporters should hunt his family.
“I am disappointed that Eric isn’t here today because we were hoping that we would be able to get him to make a statement clearly denouncing the use of any sort of violence against my client,” Wade said
The issue before Schneider is whether jurisdiction over child custody decisions should be moved to Texas, where Sheena Greitens lives now, or remain in Boone County, where their divorce was filed in 2020.
The divorce came after a final separation in August 2018, Sheena Greitens said.
“I told the professionals who were involved, and when that didn’t address my concerns, in August 2018 I did the only other thing I knew to do, and started applying for jobs that would let the kids and I leave the state,” she said.
The case is coming to a head, with a July 15 trial date, while Eric Greitens is looking to make a political comeback in the Republican primary for the Senate seat held by Roy Blunt, who is retiring.
He has led most polls against a field that also includes Attorney General Eric Schmitt, U.S. Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long, state Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey and 15 other lesser-known candidates.
The case had received little public attention since the Greitens divorced. That changed when Sheena Greitens filed the affidavit with abuse allegations.
Eric Greitens responded with a Facebook video where he said the accusations were intended to distract the public from news one of the investigators of the 2018 criminal charges pleaded guilty to evidence tampering.
“In this very week, RINOS come out with a brand new set of allegations against me, which they claim are from four years ago,” he said.
And on April 5, Tim Parlatore, a Washington attorney hired by Eric Greitens, claimed his client had the documents and photos to prove Sheena Greitens lied in her sworn statements about the abuse.
“Sheena Greitens lied when she said ‘they were reported to multiple lawyers, therapists, and our mediator, in 2018 and afterward,’” Parlatore said in a statement issued April 5.
The documents she provided The Independent show that was wrong, she said.
“Eric knows full well that these concerns were reported, because he was copied on my emails and he sat in these discussions,” Sheena Greitens said. “This claim, that I never reported what happened, is something he’s knowingly misrepresented from the start.”
The emails, she said, prove that.
In the statement on behalf of Eric Greitens, Stamper said that during 2020, “the judge reviewed the ex-wife’s allegations, and found that they provided no basis for action, especially in light of records from the doctor, dentist, mediator, and therapist, all of which showed these allegations to be false.”
He said “overwhelming documentary evidence has been assembled corroborating one objective conclusion: Sheena Greitens manufactured and distributed lies to the press from Washington D.C.”
The documents provided to The Independent describe behavior that Sheena Greitens placed in several broad categories – violent and manipulative behavior towards her and their children; a “pattern of sucide threats and firearm confiscation”; and his “resistance to therapy/psychological help.”
“So let me be really, really clear: I am scared at Eric’s recent behavior,” Sheena Greitens wrote in her June 7 email to a marriage counselor. “I am especially scared because I do not hear any acknowledgement from Eric that this behavior on his part has produced a negative emotional impact, or understanding of what that might be.”
In that first week after resignation, Eric Greitens was already planning his political resurrection, Sheena Greitens said in an interview, while she wanted to get out of the public eye, where she was never comfortable.
Sheena Greiens holds a doctorate from Harvard University and is a scholar in Asian, and especially Korean, affairs. In 2018 she was employed on the faculty of the University of Missouri and decided to seek another post.
“He blamed me for his resignation,” she said. “I had serious safety concerns. And I thought that, given the absolute public wreckage of our family life, that it would be better for the boys to grow up in a place where they weren’t viewed through the prism of their father’s scandals.
Eric Greitens began carrying a gun in January 2018, she wrote in the June 14 email, after KMOV first reported his 2015 sexual relationship with a hairdresser in a story reporting he had attempted to blackmail her with a nude photograph.
He had revealed the affair in late 2015, Sheena Greitens wrote.
That was also the first time he spoke about suicide.
He brought it up again after the KMOV story, she wrote, saying that he said “it would look like an accident to the kids and everyone.”
“He told me in January 2018, that he had taken the photo in question, but told me that there would be legal consequences for me if I ever disclosed that to anybody,” she said in the interview.
His behavior caused concerns among his staff in the governor’s office, she wrote, and in February, after he was indicted, his general counsel Lucinda Luetkemeyer, “requested that the governor’s security detail remove any access to firearms that he might have via their vehicles, because she was concerned about his stability in the aftermath of the indictment.”
In late May, she wrote, Greg Favre, deputy director of the Department of Public Safety and a close friend of Eric Greitens, was visiting them.
“I happened to go into the hall and see him removing the bag that Eric’s firearm was in, which Favre said he thought was best ‘out of an abundance of caution,’” she wrote.
Eric Greitens went to meet Greg Favre for a workout on June 10. She asked Farve in a text if he had returned the firearm but got no response.
Neither Luetkemeyer nor Favre could be reached for comment.
Along with providing the 2018 emails, Sheena Greitens allowed Wade to show The Independent the phone records produced in response to a subpoena from Eric Greitens’ attorney, Gary Stamper.
Stamper initially sought records for phones owned by Karl Rove, former Greitens aide Austen Chambers, Sheena Greitens sister and one other unidentified person. When the subpoenas were filed, a Washington D.C. attorney, Tim Parlatore, held a news conference where he said the records would “show what happened to bring us to this point.”
The request for Rove’s records was dropped before it could be argued in court and Schneider granted only the subpoena for Sheena Greitens’ phone records for the period Feb. 1 to March 30. There are several February phone calls to Chambers and to her sister, and calls after the release of the March affidavit to her family.
Sheena Greitens is a frequent traveler to Washington for her post with the American Enterprise Institute.
“That communication is not about Eric,” Sheena Greitens said. “We would all really like to move on from the chaos that Eric caused in our family.”
The phone records also show calls with a handful of journalists and opinion writers. She was in Washington the week that President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a virtual meeting. The calls all related to her scholarship, Sheena Greitens said.
One of the calls was an appearance on St. Louis Public Radio.
The accusations of a conspiracy are another way to manipulate and demean her, she said.
“One of the things that’s frustrating about this,” Sheena Greitens said, “is that Eric has taken normal communications with my family and normal things like me going to my office in Washington, D.C., to do my job and tried to spin them into something sinister.”
This article has been updated with a statement from Eric Greitens’ attorney.
Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.