At the NARAL-sponsored screening of 12th and Delaware last Friday in New York, the laughs were few and far between. The documentary, which is slated for release on HBO on August 3rd, chronicles the tension between a Florida-based abortion clinic and the crisis pregnancy center that set up across the street. Between the women seeking abortion because of often-untenable situations, the mean-spirited bullies on the anti-choice side, and the palpable fear in the abortion clinic, there’s not a lot of merriment onscreen. But I laughed darkly to myself at one point, when the owner of the clinic, while expressing frustration with the protesters who plague her clinic, notes that the protesters seem to have nothing else going on in their lives. How true, I chuckled to myself. How sadly true.
It’s something that activists on the pro-choice side often find most exasperating. I call it the “life differential.” Not “life” as in the misnomer “pro-life.” “Life,” as in the having of one. The owner of the abortion clinic in 12th and Delaware puts it perfectly. She wishes that they could get a group to go over to the crisis pregnancy center and protest them night and day, but the people who have the will to do that don’t have the time. They have a life to live—jobs to do, relationships to tend, hobbies to enjoy. Even those of us who work in the field of promoting reproductive rights have nothing approaching the endless time and energy that anti-choicers give to their obsession.
The life differential is what directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady capture so well in this documentary, which is their follow-up to their 2006 smash hit “Jesus Camp.” In the first half of the movie, they follow the anti-choicers both in and out of the crisis pregnancy center, and the most startling thing they discover is how much they don’t seem to have a life outside of their obsession. The woman who runs the crisis pregnancy center admits as much, talking about how she’s perfect for her job, because she has no family or any other responsibilities other than her dogs that could get between her and her day-in, day-out obsession with bullying pregnant women out of their choice to abort through emotional manipulation, lies, bribery, and even just making it difficult for women to leave the crisis pregnancy center.
You also get to know the priest who offers leadership to the crisis pregnancy center, a man who grins wildly when recounting his finest moments of vicious bullying of abortion patients and clinic workers. (It’s hard not to suspect that the Catholic church’s celibacy requirement feeds the anti-choice movement precisely because it creates a class of men who are especially attracted to bullying women who are quite obviously not celibate.) And of course, you have the bored old lady with nothing better to do than shake baby dolls at the clinic workers.
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To round out the standard cast of anti-choicers any clinic escort knows from their own town is the angry dude who fronts like he’s a big man in his Harley T-shirts and tough guy talk. Alarmingly, the filmmakers capture this guy following the couple who owns the clinic around and brags about he intends to publish the addresses of the doctors. His pathetic bravado about how he doesn’t care what someone does with these addresses is so alarming it can distract from what else they capture. But this man’s constantly simmering rage threatens to boil over the most when he talks about how the doctor goes home to his wife and his children and just goes about enjoying his life. It’s hard to get into the mental space of someone who can shake with rage at the idea of a man hugging his children and loving his wife, but for a brief moment, you at least see a small slice of the anger that so often leads to acts of violence.
The filmmakers get out of the way, simply presenting their subjects in their own environment with no editorializing. But the format, which covers the anti-choicers first and then the clinic workers, draws attention to the strong contrast between the evil image of abortion providers that anti-choicers concoct and the reality of what goes on in the clinic. In the first half, we see the woman who runs the crisis pregnancy center teaching a class where she explains that women go in to a clinic and get a hard sell to get an abortion. In the second half, we see the reality—the clinic owner reminding women over and over that this is only something they should do if they’re really sure. The anti-choicers paint a picture of clinic workers who perform abortions because they’re just evil people full of demons. But in the clinic, you meet compassionate people who spend their days caring for women who are often in miserable situations.
The anti-choicers in the film have spent so long painting themselves as saints fighting evil that they seem to have no idea how much they come across as heartless bullies. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for how the filmmakers were able to capture their subjects badly misusing women. The usual lies you expect from a crisis pregnancy center are bad enough—telling women they’re not as far along as they are, telling women they’ll get breast cancer if they have abortion, telling people not to use contraception because it doesn’t work—but in this film, you see even nastier lies that make those look small. The crisis pregnancy center “counselor” tells a woman who is in an abusive relationship that her partner will quit abusing her if she has his baby. (Luckily, the woman sees right through this lie, and seems a bit baffled that anyone could believe such a whopper.) And, in the climax of the film, the anti-choicers talk a woman off the porch of the abortion clinic by promising her clothes, rent money, and food for her six existing children, as well as future support for child number seven.
But when she follows them in to the crisis pregnancy center, we find that what she gets is a stuffed animal. She’s told to pick one. No doubt the people who donated that animal pat themselves on the back for their generosity, but the audience is left wondering why they couldn’t even spring to give her toys for all her children, especially when they promised her the moon.