One of the more compelling documentaries examining the Bush-era evangelical culture was Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp. The film obviously touched a nerve for me. I wrote about it several times, and updated my main review multiple times, reflecting my own ambivalence about how the movie represented the politics of Christian fundamentalism. Now Grady and Ewing have returned with another culture-war exploration, 12th and Delaware, which looks at the intersection between pro-choice and pro-life groups by looking, quite literally, at a Florida intersection where an abortion clinic and a pro-life pregnancy center are situated. Grady and Ewing’s film is unapologetically pro-choice and often explicitly undermines pro-life misinformation, but it treats its subjects, especially the women seeking abortions or counseling, with a great deal of care and sympathy.
The film’s pro-choice politics are certainly clear. The film challenges some of the pro-choice misinformation, such as the fabricated link between abortions and breast cancer. At the same time, they use patients to challenge some of these false claims. When a counselor tries to suggest that condoms aren’t especially effective, one patient retorts, “If I used the condom I wouldn’t be pregnant.”
Although such a project might seem to be redundant–most people have relatively clear positions on the issue of abortion–12th and Delaware seems less focused on persuading people to hold a specific political position than it is about the difficult choices that many women face when it comes to abortion, as well as the physical and emotional risks that abortion providers face on a daily basis. As the film illustrates, the pro-life “Pregnancy Care Center” thrives on confusing women who are emotionally vulnerable, through the name of the clinic, choosing locations near abortion providers, and through props and other forms of “counseling” meant to make women reconsider their decision to have an abortion. Due to incredibly active anti-choice activists, the abortion providers often fear for their physical safety. Doctors are driven out of the clinic undercover, and in one unsettling scene, a protester actually follows and seems to stalk the doctor.
Most powerful for me is the depiction of the patients who seek out abortions or even advice about what choice they should make. Many of them, rather bravely in my opinion, appear on camera, absorbing the counseling from the pro-life clinic, and often challenging the primary counselor when she attempts to bribe patients with food and promises of care for the baby after its born. The most powerful tactic of the pro-lifers is to take the women in for ultrasounds, with the hope that the image of the fetus will make the women reconsider. Many listen patiently, others become fascinated by the image, and most find their way to the clinic across the street. Similarly fascinating is the different rhetoric used by both sides. The pro-lifers are immersed in the language of spiritual warfare and often use highly confrontational and graphic images in order to persuade women to chose not to terminate their pregnancy, while the clinic itself seems besieged and mostly saddened that they are unable to perform their work without facing almost daily threats.
Given the nature of this material, 12th and Delaware will no doubt polarize audiences. More than anything, it is a window into a very complicated issue and a powerful portrait of the women who are often unwilling participants in this highly emotional conflict.