by Danielle Ofri
A dispassionate discourse on the abortion wars in America? Not something that seems possible, at least in the current polarized culture in the United States. Almost by definition, any analysis of the politics and practice of abortion is heavily partisan. Even the medical world—the last bastion of any possible objectivity— has been overlaid with politics. Outside of major urban medical centers, pregnancy termination has been sliced off from the greater field of obstetrics–gynecology, isolated in freestanding abortion clinics that have become the last hope for desperate women and the target for desperate protesters.
Into the fray comes the documentary “12th and Delaware,” a quiet movie that seeks to illuminate rather than bully. The In 1990, a husband and wife team—Candace and Albert—opened the Women’s World health clinic on the corner of 12th and Delaware in a nondescript Florida neighborhood. Motivated by their desire to help women obtain abortions, Candace provides counseling to the patients and Albert shuttles the doctors, who remain hidden under sheets in his car so that they will not be recognized, trailed or assassinated.
In 1999, the house across the street went up for sale. In less than 24 hours it was purchased by a pro-life group who opened the “Pregnancy Care Center.” The clinic is supported by the Catholic Church and seeks to persuade women not to have abortions. The documentary shows life in the two clinics with little fanfare and no commentary. There is no narration or punditry. Other than a rare line of text setting the stage, we rarely see the hand of directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing.
First we follow Anne, a counselor at the Pregnancy Care Center. We see her talking to a 15-year-old pregnant teenager in a non-threatening manner. When she estimates gestational age, she immediately hands the girl a plastic fetus culled from a collection of all sizes. “Go ahead and hold it,” she says, encouraging her to take it in her hands. “This is what your baby is like.”
Anne steps into the back room and confides in her colleagues that she is worried: “This one seems very abortion minded.” Then there is the free ultrasound. Anne encourages another woman and her boyfriend to look at “their baby,” to see the heartbeat. The technician types “Hi Mommy, Hi Daddy” into the machine so that these words appear on the ultrasound picture that is given to the couple.
We see Anne and her colleagues cross the street, to pace the sidewalk of the “Women’s World” clinic. They seem to be there all hours of the day and night, carrying signs, praying, calling out to the women who enter the clinic. The majority of the demeanor is polite but there is also more vigorous taunting. Some of this behavior fits into the easy stereotypes, but we also see genuine commitment to the cause. We see Anne’s elation to when she “rescues” a woman. And we see her visceral sadness when she realizes that someone she has counseled has gone ahead with the abortion.
Across the road we see Candace counseling women, some of whom had gone to the other clinic by mistake. Candace is convinced that the pro-lifers are deliberately trying to confuse women into entering the wrong clinic. She also notes several instances in which women have been told by the “Pregnancy Care Center” that they were seven weeks pregnant when they were, in fact, ten weeks pregnant. “This is not an error,” she says. “They tell them the earlier date so that they think they have time to think it over. But by the time they’ve made up their mind, it’s often too late; there are very few clinics able to do abortions past 12 weeks.”
In one scene in the “Pregnancy Care Center,” a young woman tells Anne that the reason she wants an abortion is that her boyfriend is abusive. Anne replies encouragingly, “Maybe the baby will change him.”
Candace and her colleagues peek warily out through drawn blinds at the protesters who stand doggedly on their sidewalk. “We thought about organizing a protest on their side of the block,” she says, “but we’re too busy raising children and grandchildren, taking care of our families, doing our work. How do they have so much time to be there every day, all day? Don’t they have lives?”
By showing the inner workings of two clinics, by portraying Anne and Candace as three-dimensional women with solid convictions and emotional investment in their respective causes, “12th and Delaware” comes as close to a balanced portrayal as we will likely ever see in America. Inevitably, the pro-lifers come across as more strident because they are the ones actively pacing the sidewalk, approaching clients and staff. However, they are not portrayed as caricatures. Most—but not all—seem like deeply devoted people, engaged passionately with their church and their beliefs. Any libertarian political leanings they might have, of course, are squelched, since by definition they want to press their beliefs on others.
The pro-choice staff, by contrast, are more reserved. They stay inside the clinic and do not engage the protestors. The only contact with the outside world that we see is Albert’s yellow sports car doggedly entering and exiting the garage with sheet-covered doctors in the passenger seat.
The most poignant aspect of the documentary, of course, is the women who come to the clinics. They are nearly all young, poor, and in a fragile emotional state. They seem so vulnerable, and so easily swayed. We see the 15-year-old teenager from the first scene, now seven months pregnant. “I didn’t want a child at this age,” she says. “Anne told me I could lose my life if I had the abortion, or maybe I could never have kids again. I didn’t want to take that risk.”
Toward the end of the film, a Hispanic woman makes her way up the front path of Candace’s clinic on an overcast day. A half-dozen attractive young pro-lifers are praying and fingering rosaries on the sidewalk. They beseech her in Spanish, “Why are you doing this?” The woman answers, “I have six children. I am a single mother.”
“We’ll take care of you,” the protesters say encouragingly. “We’ll pay your rent. We’ll get clothes for your children. We’ll help you with food, gas, whatever you need.”
The woman hesitates, blinks, contemplates. The protesters continue gently, almost seductively. “We know you love children. You’re a good mother. You just need some help. We’ll help you.”
The woman begins to edge toward them. The protesters reached their arms out to her, and when she nears them, they enfold her in their arms and coddle her across the street. The protesters are crying with joy and relief.
Candace watches from her window, but doesn’t intervene. “If they really did change her mind, that’s fine,” she says. “But I just don’t know who these people are, who try to control somebody they don’t even know.”
The movie ends with the camera looking into the “Pregnancy World Clinic” from the outside. We see only vague shapes behind a lace curtain. We hear a man’s voice speaking to the tearful Hispanic woman. “You’re a nice person, I can tell. You love children…I want to give you a present. Let’s pick out something nice for your children. You want to take a stuffed animal? Which one do you want?”
The movie ends there. A closing line of text tells us that there are 4000 prolife centers in the United States. There are 816 abortion clinics. Fade to black. Cue the credits.
(from The Lancet)