Melinda Henneberger April 5, 2010 - 11:32am
The new documentary film 12th & Delaware, which will air on HBO this summer, was shot on a corner in Fort Pierce, Florida, where there’s an abortion clinic on one side of the street and a Catholic crisis pregnancy center (CPC) on the other. The abortion clinic is run by kindly grandparents, whom we see patting and reassuring their clients, only wanting what’s best for them. The CPC, on the other hand, is supported by volunteers who rise before dawn to shake plastic fetuses in the direction of the abortion clinic’s workers and clients, shouting, “God made you pregnant!” and “You’re going to be the mother of a dead baby, and the whole family line is kaput!”
One particularly scary CPC volunteer stalks the clinic owner and the doctor who works for him, laughing, “Little do they know that little old me is following them!” and fantasizing about erecting a billboard advertising the abortionist’s identity: “I’m not concerned about the risks.... This is life and death we’re dealing with here.” The CPC is managed by a woman who admits she has no life outside of pressuring pregnant teenagers. And it’s supervised by a priest who describes going so far as to climb a ladder so he could see over the fence that once surrounded the abortion clinic, all the better to “talk down” to the frightened women dashing for the clinic door.
The movie was directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady—Rachel is the daughter of my friends (and Politics Daily colleagues) Bonnie Goldstein and James Grady—and reviews from the documentary’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival were so positive that Bonnie and Jim could have written them. What the film has been praised for above all is its preternatural evenhandedness; in fact, Rachel says some of her strongly prochoice friends and colleagues feel she was excessive in her neutrality, presenting prolifers far too sympathetically.
“Whether you’re a hardcore prolifer or you call yourself uncompromisingly prochoice (or, of course, if you fall somewhere in the middle), the fantastic new documentary 12th & Delaware represents your side of the argument remarkably well,” wrote a reviewer for the Web site Cinematical. “But think about that for a second: Am I actually asserting that one little eighty-minute documentary is able to capture both sides of this monumentally difficult subject? And with taste, class, and artistic craftsmanship, no less? Absolutely.”
A review in Moving Pictures magazine called the movie “subdued”—and raved that, just as in their Oscar-nominated movie Jesus Camp, “Ewing and Grady keep their opinions, personalities, and presence absolutely absent from the documentary, allowing the voices of the subjects to represent both sides of the issues at hand.”
Which they do, of course—if what you mean by representing both sides is conscientiously capturing the loony fringe of one point of view and the most reasonable face of the other. Not that I believe the filmmakers faked anything; on the contrary, their movie is a reporting triumph, and an effective presentation of their prochoice position.
But evenhanded it’s not, and my issue is not with the movie itself, but with the assumption that this is what a straight-down-the-middle, balanced view of the two sides of the abortion debate looks like. That assumption is a reminder that, though the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as prolife is growing, we still have a long way to go with the media.
Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan reported that CPCs
have never previously been filmed from the inside and Grady and Ewing only heard about them because a mother of one of the children they followed in their earlier Jesus Camp worked at a CPC that actually shared a partition (dubbed “The Wailing Wall”) with an abortion clinic.
Because they found the CPCs, in Ewing’s words, “upsetting, shocking, disturbing, confusing,” they were not eager to make one of them the subject of their next film. “We wanted to move on, we were tired, weary of conservative America.” But Sheila Nevins, who runs documentaries for HBO, was compelled by the idea, and so the film was begun. It was not an easy process.…
The filmmakers told Turan they’d wanted to rescue the pregnant girls from the clutches of the creepy CPC predators. And I felt much the same way, watching Randall Terry–style extremists use scare tactics disguised as medical advice and life counseling. The clinic manager tells one girl that her abusive boyfriend might lighten up if she has his baby, and attempts to out-and-out bribe others with promises of food, money, clothes, and “anything you want.” (“I guess she thought that if she bought me some McDonald’s, that would change my mind,” one client remarks.)
I’m no fan of abortion on demand. But these people represent me the way eco-terrorists represent environmentalists. That they are seen as in any way representative of the prolifer down the block is at least as telling as Rachel and Heidi’s chronicle of one weird prolife subculture.
About the Author
Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.