We live in a country where genuine debate seems to be dead, and has instead been replaced by polemic, polar opposites that scream at each other. Most documentaries these days are produced to advance an agenda by one side or another, and as a result, sitting in a theater frequently feels just like watching this biased news channel or that one. Not that I think bias is necessarily a bad thing, or even something that can be avoided, as long as it’s open and not disguised. A film like “Outrage,” for example, is profoundly biased, but it still makes its points in a clear-eyed, well-argued way.
What’s truly difficult is to make a film about something as hot-button divisive as abortion and still somehow give both sides of the debate equal time and equal weight. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the filmmakers behind the terrifying “Jesus Camp,” found the perfect way into the conversation in their new film “12th & Delaware.” Even the title of the film serves as a microcosm, since I’d imagine there are thousands of 12th and Delawares in America. In this case, Ewing and Grady went to Fort Pierce, Florida, where they found a remarkable situation that sums up exactly where we are with this dialogue right now. Their approach to the film was to give both sides of the situation half the film to present the case with no editorializing at all, and in doing so, I think they’ve made a powerful film that is infuriating and heartbreaking.
I’d never heard of a crisis pregnancy center, but if asked, I’d guess that’s another name for an abortion clinic or a family planning clinic, and I’m not alone in that misperception. That’s the point. In Fort Pierce, there’s a clinic called A Woman’s World, and it’s exactly what you think of as an abortion clinic. They bring doctors in hidden under sheets. They have protesters outside from the moment they open to the moment they close every single day, and yet they continue their work, refusing to be shamed or terrorized.
Across the street, there’s another business called the Pregnancy Care Center, and here’s where confusion becomes a valuable tool. The Pregnancy Care Center is a CPC, a pro-life organization whose job is to try and talk pregnant women out of getting an abortion. To that end, they’re willing to use graphic video, doctored statistics, and the empty promise of aid that will never come. Even the location they chose is designed to create confusion in young women at a particularly vulnerable moment in their lives. Almost every single girl we see go into the Pregnancy Care Center believes that they’re going to be able to get an abortion there, and even when questioned directly, the staff puts off telling the truth as long as they can. It is truly reprehensible behavior, and what makes me angry about it is the mistruth. If they would simply be honest about their agenda, then I’m all for a difference of opinions. But when you have to resort to these sorts of grotesque, abusive tactics to “win,” then you’re not winning anything. Most of the girls who walk into the Pregnancy Care Center end up going across the street as soon as they realize how they’ve been misled, and the emotional toll on them is much more severe because of the preamble. When they are given a brochure that tells them that 80% of all women who have an abortion develop breast cancer or that an abortion will mean they can never have children later, it’s little wonder they are traumatized.
There’s a particularly chilling sequence in the film where one of the pro-life protesters who spends his days walking the sidewalk outside A Women’s World decides he’s going to tail the car that brings the doctors to the clinic. They have to park in a secret off-site location and try to be careful about protecting their identities, but we watch as this muscle-bound lunatic follows the car to a mall parking lot, where he takes note of the license plates of the car, determined to use that information to track down the doctor’s name. He makes it very clear that he’s willing to do anything to stop the doctor from his work, and considering how they practically canonize the guy who killed Dr. George Tiller, “anything” seems scary.
It would be easy for Grady and Ewing to make these people look bad, but they seem perfectly capable of doing it themselves. The more Grady and Ewing let them speak for themselves, the more they make themselves look like the exact opposite of the Christians they claim to be. For a philosophy that’s supposed to be built on love and tolerance, these people are all about fear and hatred, and their behavior is destructive. I don’t think it matters if you’re pro-life (a term I hate) or pro-choice… wrong is wrong. At the end of the film, there’s a sequence in which a group of protesters, careful to never break the court order about how close they can get to A Women’s World’s front door, manage to convince a woman who already has six children to change her mind about aborting number seven, using the promise of financial aid and long-term support. When they finally get her into the Pregnancy Care Center, we hear what that financial aid really consists of: her choice of any stuffed animal on the shelf. If you can’t see how crazy and despicable that is, then you’re not thinking about the human toll of this issue, and no matter what, this is not an abstract. These are real lives that are affected, and a film like “12th & Delaware” really drives that point home.
HBO Documentaries produced that film, and I’m sure you’ll see it turn up on the network sometime this year. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in the issue, and a genuinely important piece of reportage.
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