“12 & Delaware”: America’s Abortion Battle Takes To The Street In New Doc
“The battle is so vicious. God is doing everything he can. It will end–I know that. I just don’t think it’s going to be pretty.” Those ominous words, a salvo in the abortion battle which remains the most heated combat zone in America’s Culture War, drip with resolve from the mouth of Anne, the Executive Director of the Pregnancy Care Center in Fort Pierce, Florida. The anti-abortion zealot is featured in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s provocative new documentary, “12th & Delaware, a 2010 Sundance Film Festival selection now featured in the HBO Documentary Series.
The filmmakers, who received an Oscar nomination for “Jesus Camp,” are back in familiar territory. They spent over a year at the intersection which houses an anti-abortion center on one side and an abortion clinic on the other. Their style, polished, well-edited cinema verite, offers an unobtrusive entree into both sides of the intense cultural divide.
Anne assails the husband and wife team who own A Woman’s World as ruthless opportunists who run the place like a car dealership. “They’re selling abortions. Go in there and you get a sales pitch. ” she warns a group of new recruits. Then she proceeds to instruct them on how to hook a client on the phone.
Of course, anything goes in Anne’s quest to sell salvation. We watch her strategize with another staffer about how to keep a woman long enough to get the ultrasound so she can see her baby on the screen. It’s okay to leave her in the room by herself. “She’ll wind up reading, “Anne says. “And I know she’ll be reading the right thing.” She’s talking about the brochures–filled with dubious information about infections and breast cancer rates –available for her anxious potential clients. She is patient and compassionate as she orders lunch for a single mom of two, telling her the baby may change her boyfriend after the woman confides his abusive behavior. She is concerned as she hands a fourteen year old a box filled with little plastic fetuses in various stages of development ( the same plastic “babies’ the kids in “Jesus Camp” waved with rapturous vigor). “Let’s go for the heartbeat, she tells a technician as a woman preps for an ultrasound.
The neighbors must love living on this street. The anti-abortion brigade is out in full force from five-thirty in the morning waving “Thou Shalt Not Kill” signs, holding up fetal figures and graphic abortion photos. They taunt women as they enter the abortion clinic. An elderly woman shouts,” Choose life. God made you pregnant. It’s not a mistake.” A middle-aged man–who seems to have made this his full time job–warns, “95% of women will tell you they regret having an abortion. You’re not going to be any different.” Later this same guy argues with a mother upset that her kids will see the graphic nature of their signs, “It’s about saving life. So anything goes,” he tells her.
Filmed during the same year Dr. George Tiller was gunned down, those words hang in the embattled air like a daunting cloud. What’s to come? Who will be next? Arnold, the abortion clinic’s co-owner chauffeurs the doctor back and forth with a sheet over his/her head for protection. Arnold’s wife Candace, peruses a scrapbook of news clippings, noting various centers closures after threats or violence. “They killed the first doctor, ” she reads, “Then closed after the replacement was killed, too.”
It’s never clear if the women–and girls–who amble into the Pregnancy Care Center know what’s what from the git-go. Did they wander in thinking they were going to A Woman’s World? We do know Pregnancy Care moved in 1999, eight years after A Woman’s World, hoping to lure in the unsuspecting with dubious pregnancy services. Everyone we see stays for the spiel, most have the ultrasound. Some decide to see the pregnancy through, others leave, opting for the abortion they had originally considered. We see Anne grow ashen after a follow-up call to a young woman. “She aborted, ” she says. But there are jubilant moments , too. “Yes, yes! Two in one day,” she beams noting two more souls for the cause.
Ewing and Grady stay out of the way, letting everyone have their say. And there are no villains here. It’s probably my undeniably pro-choice bias that has me feeling most simpatico with Candace as she calmly counsels clients, asking if they have qualms, reassuring them. “This has to be something you want–or need– to do. No one wants to do this, ” she tells more than one woman.
I’ve had several l intense and frustrating conversations with folks like Anne and her mentor Father Tom, zealots from Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups over the years. And I’m always struck by their deep conviction; shrouded in righteous indignation, they know they are doing God’s work. Many of us in the pro-choice camp don’t live in such a black and white world. It would be easier. But even acknowledging a scintilla of ambivalence, that ” I’m not sure if I could do that” feeling, puts us in a world awash in a complex patina of gray.
“You can’t outlast us, ” Anne decries at a pro-life rally in Washington. A graphic at the film’s end informs us there are 4000 anti-abortion centers in the U.S. and 816 abortion clinics. That stark stat should have anyone in the pro-choice camp in the trenches on the corner of “12 & Delaware” and beyond ditching any ambivalence.
“12 & Delaware” offers a personal and disturbing portrait of America’s never abating cultural chasm.
“12 & Delaware” by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady is airing now as part of the HBO Documentary Series.