Abortion Battles Hidden Front: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady In Conversation with Williams Cole
Directing team Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing made the Academy Award-nominated Jesus Camp, a film about an evangelical boot camp for children that many lauded for its skillful cinema vérité technique in exploring a controversial topic. 12th and Delaware is their new film (to be broadcast on HBO on August 2nd), the title referring to an intersection in Fort Pierce, Florida, with an abortion clinic on one side of the street while on the other is an ambiguously named “Pregnancy Care Center” staffed by people whose objective is to lure in women who are planning to have abortions and try to convince them not to. Ewing and Grady gain intimate access to players on both sides of the street as well as to the women caught in the middle. The Rail’s Williams Cole visited them in their Lower East Side production offices.
WILLIAMS COLE (RAIL): Explain why you chose the difficult issue of abortion for this film.
HEIDI EWING: Well basically, we didn’t choose abortion—it kind of chose us. Jesus Camp kind of brought us to this topic because the mother of one of the kids in the film was an ultrasound tech at a pregnancy care center in Missouri. So we ended up in one once and were surprised to find out that this was basically ground zero for the pro-life movement. The action is not taking place in the courts. Some action is taking place on the legislative level, but really it’s a culture war, a woman-by-woman assault, if you will. Once you realize that there are about 4,000 of these places and there are only 800-plus abortion clinics, you realize that this is a really fascinating topic. I polled, unscientifically, most of my friends—even from New York and abroad—and most had never heard of a pregnancy care center. They didn’t know what I was talking about. And so it was a strange thing—that these centers form the number-one tactic of the pro-life movement, yet they sort of go under the radar. So what this film came to be about was women considering an abortion and how the forces on either side of the debate—and in this case, the street—are trying to exert influence over that decision. I think the people in the abortion battle that are most anonymous are the women, these nameless, faceless people who are basically pawns in some larger cultural war. I think it’s interesting to break it down and try to remove the political parts and look at what actually happens.
RAIL: Can you give us some more details about what pregnancy care centers are?
RACHEL GRADY: We didn’t know how prevalent they were, how many thousands of them there were. They’ve been around since Roe v. Wade and have been an integral part of the pro-life movement since it started in its current formation. We didn’t know any of that. We thought it was fascinating. Pregnancy care centers were created as alternatives to abortion and their objective and main focus is to have women intending to have abortions not abort the child. A means to that end has been to set up centers in close proximity to abortion clinics. From a very practical point of view, those are the customers they want. They want the same customers as the people going into abortion clinics seeking an abortion and they want to have an opportunity to give them their version of what the abortion experience is like and how it will affect them in the future.
RAIL: So besides giving free ultrasounds and showing little fetus models what kind of strategies do they use? How much subterfuge can they use?
GRADY: Well, you know, it’s been honed over the last almost 40 years, and there have been a lot of lawsuits and things that have created parameters of what they can and cannot do. They can’t use false advertising in phone books, for instance. They used to list themselves under “abortion services,” and now they’re listed under “alternatives to abortions” right next to abortion services. I mean, there are definitely distinctions of what they can do now. They can’t ever say they provide abortions. I think a lot of what they do is they don’t lie, but they don’t give full disclosure. I think they really see it as saving a life, preventing a murder, so that makes them quite unapologetic.
RAIL: Unapologetic not only in the centers but with the protestors and activists that are constantly picketing at doctors’ houses and outside the abortion clinic.
EWING: There was definitely an element of danger. You could feel it, and it’s not uncommon when it comes to abortion clinics. But I don’t believe we met anybody, or filmed anyone over the course of the year that we shot, that we felt would commit an act of violence against a doctor. I think the folks we met were more interested in shaming tactics, pressure tactics, that relentless, every single day, round-the-clock vigil outside the abortion clinic. It wears on the doctors, it wears on the owner of the abortion clinic. It’s more of like a slow burn than one act. But I was surprised by the doggedness of the central character in the care center, Anne, and her colleagues, as well as the unrelenting nature of this battle. The phone calls, the e-mails, the follow-ups, it was just like this is absolutely the only thing that is important to her life. And people like that are interesting to me.
RAIL: Why do you think she does it?
EWING: I think she believes that it’s murder. I think she believes that God wants her to do it. I think Father Tom, who you see in the film, is a real mentor, a spiritual advisor, a guru-type person for her. And I think that it gives her meaning and purpose in her life. She has no children, she has no husband, she lives with an older couple. At one point she looked into becoming a nun, and I think this was the next best thing for her.
RAIL: Do you think there is an equivalent to this doggedness on the pro-choice side?
GRADY: I don’t, really. There are die-hard, dedicated activists on the pro-choice side but I think that it’s hard to get the passion for something that happens to be legal right now, so that’s one thing. People seem to be motivated when they’re up against a wall. Also, there is a sort of visceral and physical upper hand that the pro-life side has, no matter what your position is. Abortion is distasteful and it’s hard to get around that for someone who is a dedicated believer in civil rights, free speech, the right to reproductive rights, women’s rights. It’s just, as a human being, there are hurdles for the pro-choice side that are hard-wired.
RAIL: Because no one wants to say “I love abortions.”
GRADY: Exactly. The best-case scenario for women seeking abortion is that she gets a safe and legal abortion and that’s a victory to some. But even for that girl, it’s not a great day. It’s not like a normal victory, you know? No one’s popping champagne. So it’s not so clear-cut.
EWING: I think they’re very motivated, but I think it’s much harder for Planned Parenthood and for NARAL and those organizations to stimulate their constituents. I mean, the other side thinks it’s murder. That’s a pretty potent argument to motivate people, especially religious people. It’s a challenge for Planned Parenthood and for supporters of a woman’s right to choose. It is a conundrum. I think also we’re talking about a longer-term chilling effect.
RAIL: Part of what I was struck by is the women you filmed who sort of fought back in the anti-abortion centers. Were you surprised by that?
GRADY: What I was surprised about is that it didn’t happen more often because all of the women were in it voluntarily. Most women would just sort of sit there and listen to the whole program that they had to offer. And often you’d never hear from them again, you’d never see them again, but they spent two or three hours of their life indulging when they could have just walked out easily. No one was making them stay. In Anne’s eyes, that shows conflict over the issue, but I don’t know if that’s true. I think that just shows vulnerability, immaturity, maybe lack of self-esteem for a lot of women going in there, unfortunately.
EWING: I was also surprised how few women talked back. I learned that women feel very, very guilty when they’re considering abortion. There’s a total stigma to it in this country. When I talk to women who are in their 60s, they talk a lot more clearly about the abortions that they had. I found that people in their 20s and 30s are way more tight-lipped about abortion than older women; the culture has changed.
RAIL: What happened?
EWING: The culture has fundamentally changed. You’ve got eight years of the Bush administration, which was the friendliest presidency ever to the evangelical persuasion, and that makes a difference. That’s an entire generation of people growing up influenced by this. During my lifetime I think that the anti-abortion movement has been very, very successful in stigmatizing abortion, and that’s what we saw displayed. Almost nobody talked about it like the older generations—it was unbelievable. Of course, you’re talking to a woman who is having the worst day of her life, doesn’t know which way to turn, and is not necessarily emboldened at that moment, you know. In addition, abortion is the last thing in the world the politicians want to talk about. Who’s really advocating? You could count on one hand the amount of times that Hillary Clinton or President Obama said the word “abortion” during the campaign. Maybe two hands, maybe. It’s doubtful. It’s absolutely the third rail, a no-no. There’s no advantage for a political leader in bringing it up, and when something is not talked about there are fewer advocates. It’s a trickle-down effect. The only ones talking about abortion are people who are against abortion. They talk about it all the time. But it’s really not about if it becomes illegal, it’s not about Roe v. Wade. It’s about the chilling effect, the doctors not wanting to perform the procedure, people not studying it in medical school anymore, things like that.
RAIL: Tell us more about the chilling effect.
EWING: You have a few murders, and you have people coming to your house with signs and intimidating doctors, and showing up at your high school reunion saying so-and-so is a baby killer, which happens all the time. There are shaming effects, and why would you want to expose your children to that? Why would you want to expose your wife or your husband to that? I mean, there are really easier ways for a doctor to make a buck. So it’s honestly about who is going to perform the procedure—it’s not really about whether it’s legal. That’s obviously a consideration because the states are chipping away and chipping away at abortion rights. But I think we’re focused on the wrong thing, and that’s what I learned in making this film—that things are not as they appear when it comes to this issue.
RAIL: In what way?
EWING: Meaning that people focus on the courts and various laws, and whether or not Sotomayor will be for or against overturning Roe v. Wade. That’s not going to happen right now, but you could wake up and there could really be almost nowhere to get an abortion. Just by the nature of the culture and the chilling effect, and the sort of small victories that every single day people like Anne are having across the country, right now, all the time. I mean, there are multiple pregnancy care centers in New York City. We went to a few and they wouldn’t let us shoot. In Brooklyn! On Court Street, right there! They are in the same building as Planned Parenthood, of course. Again, people take the elevator sometimes to the wrong place. It’s confusing, “free ultrasound” is advertised and all that. You go on the subway in New York, all of those placards that say, “Estas embarazada? Necesitas ayuda?” It means, “Are you pregnant, do you need help?” Those are those pregnancy care centers. So it’s not like some weird thing that’s happening in Florida. It’s really widespread; every state has crisis pregnancy centers, and not every single state has an abortion clinic.
RAIL: But given this kind of activism and the presence of these centers do you think Roe v. Wade is in danger?
GRADY: Not in danger, not tomorrow, but I think it could go away. It’s being chipped away at and I also think that the culture is being swung towards a more pro-life public. I think a lot of things happen outside of the legal system that are just as powerful and I think that these crisis pregnancy centers represent that, which is one woman at a time shaping the culture. This is definitely on the front lines of the culture war.
RAIL: What do you want people to take away from this film?
EWING: I think people just need to know about crisis pregnancy centers. It’s about awareness. I don’t want to overstate it, but I think that it’s a reminder that this is a cultural war. It’s a reminder that the front lines of the abortion battle do not just lie in the Supreme Court. It’s a document for women who might wind up walking into a crisis pregnancy center one day; they need to know where they are.
GRADY: I think that people should pay attention, and should look for these nuances and details of this issue and reproductive rights in general. That there’s a lot going on, and it’s subtle, and it’s constant. To not take anything for granted, and that they should pay attention because, like I said, it’s not going away, and there are certain people that are not going to give up on anything. I don’t know what they want, and I don’t know exactly what the world they imagine looks like, but I just think it’s something that people shouldn’t ignore, or think is not totally active and happening right now. It’s not an issue on the backburner.