Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Under G-d Review: Curbing Abortion Bans Through Religious Freedoms

2023 Sundance Film Festival

6 mins read

Under G-d
(U.S.A., 22 min.)
Dir. Paula Eiselt
Programme: Documentary Short Film Program (World Premiere)


The right to access safe abortions has been a long and contentious tug of war in America. On one side there are those who believe the procedure is an essential part of health care and on the other, those who oppose it on moral and religious grounds. While the overturning of Roe v. Wade, via the June 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization cut the ideological rope that both sides were pulling in favour of religious protections, the battle is far from over. In the fascinating documentary short Under G-d, director Paula Eiselt (Aftershock, 93 Queen) shows that the same legal reasoning that sparked a wave of bans across the country might be key to saving abortion rights in America.

Inspired by lawsuits filed in Florida challenging the state’s abortion ban on the basis of religious freedom, Eiselt’s documentary exposes the hypocrisy of a system where the separation of church and state is eroding at a rapid rate.  Focusing primarily on the Jewish response to the Dobbs decision, Under G-d astutely captures how lawmakers are using Christian nationalism to infringe on the rights of others. What they failed to consider is that not all faiths believe that abortion is a bad thing.

As several of the individuals in Eiselt’s film emphasize, the Jewish faith considers abortion a valuable tool for preserving the life of the mother when issues arise in pregnancy. Indiana activist Elly understood this danger firsthand when her second pregnancy developed complications.  At 17 weeks the fetus was diagnosed with trisomy 18, a rare disease that is largely incompatible with life. Since Indiana’s laws at the time allowed for termination at 20 weeks, Elly and her husband had to make a difficult decision rather quickly.

Opting to have an abortion, Elly was unaware of how fortunate she was to have had the procedure before Roe v. Wade was overturned. The Dobbs decision opened the door for abortion ban legislation like Indiana’s SB1 bill, which would force women with Elly’s diagnosis to carry the fetus to term regardless of their religious belief. The irony of course is that the bill was structured around the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs).

Famously used in a case involving a cakemaker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, RFRAs have become the magic key which unlocks the doors that allow many to bypass all kind of laws. As one individual notes in the film, the states that have evoked laws based on religious freedoms have written them in a way that ensured they were least restrictive to Christians.

While RFRAs were integral to many of the abortion trigger laws that were waiting in the starting blocks for the Supreme Court to pull the starter’s pistol, Under G-d details how individuals like Rabbi Barry Silver and his South Florida Jewish congregation are using the same act to flip the script on legislators.  If it is important to consider the impact of a law on one’s faith, then all religions need to be given consideration.  By using the same religious freedoms playbook that anti-abortion lawmakers employed, interfaith coalitions are leveling the playing field.

Providing a roadmap for how to fight against theocracy, and save abortion rights in the process, Eiselt’s film offers a guiding light of hope to a once seemingly bleak abortion path.  Through interviews with activists, lawyers, professors, and faith leaders, the film serves as an example of how the fight against oppression can unify people across various denominations.  Carrying a sense of urgency in its approach, Under G-d makes it clear that American is at a critical point. Rights are being unjustly stripped away and women’s lives are being put at risk as a result.

Understanding dangers that can occur when church and state function as one entity, Eiselt reminds viewers that where the battle is fought is just as important as the issue that is being contested.  In taking the fight to the states themselves, in a way that strategically cuts off an option for a Supreme Court appeal, it further exposes the weaknesses in the current abortion ban legislations.

An intriguing look at how people should be approaching the fight for safe access to abortions, Under G-d is a timely call to action. If freedom of religion is truly a valued right, then it needs to be applied to all Americans.

Under G-d premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

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