12th and Delaware, a documentary about a "crisis pregnancy center" and a women's clinic that share an intersection, premieres tonight. And it might just be the most astute statement made about abortion in America in a very long time.
Directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's last feature, Jesus Camp, profiled an Evangelical Christian summer camp, and 12th and Delaware, too, is a kind of portrait of contemporary American religious practice. The documentary rarely departs from its three main areas of interest: What goes on inside the Christian-run Pregnancy Care Center, where director Anne Lotierzo, a thin-lipped, childless woman, tells clients that condoms are only 85% effective, and that abortion is linked to breast cancer and infertility; its neighbor, A Woman's World Medical Center, where owner Candace Dye, a rotund woman in scrubs, tries to undo all the misinformation; and the demilitarized zone of the street that separates the two centers, where all the sidewalk ministry, harassment, arguments, rosary-saying, pleading, placard-waving, and protesting goes on.
What the film doesn't do is include much input from the noisy meta-debate about abortion in this country. Aside from one footnote at the end which discloses the number of abortion clinics (816) and so-called pregnancy centers nationwide (4000), the film presents no statistics other than those quoted by the subjects in casual conversation, there are no talking head interviews, there are no politicians or op-ed writers or "experts." Everything proceeds in a very natural-seeming manner — as with the films of Frederick Wiseman, if there is an argument in 12th and Delaware, it is one that emerges from the framing, the editing, the willingness of the filmmakers to wait for the evocative moments, and the politicized subject matter itself. The film strives to present the facts and experiences of its subjects neutrally, but it's interesting to note that while Candace Dye and her husband, Arnold, support the film, seeing their activities so faithfully rendered seems to have displeased Lotierzo and the Pregnancy Care Center, who bought the domain "12thanddelaware.org" to "debunk" the movie.
The women — Lotierzo, Dye, and the many unhappily pregnant women they attempt to treat — are the real focus here. There's 15-year-old Widline, too scared to take her mother to her appointment at the Pregnancy Care Center, who brings her older sister instead. She rolls her eyes when Lotierzo shows her a plastic model of a fetus. "You can hold it," Lotierzo says. It's not a request so much as a command. There's Britney, 19, considering her second abortion. She brings her boyfriend to her appointment, and the nurse at the Pregnancy Care Center writes, "Hi Daddy!" on her ultrasound print-out. At A Woman's World, Dye asks a woman who speaks broken, heavily accented English, why she wants an abortion. "I always tell him, please be careful," she says. "I'm so stupid." "No, you're not stupid," interrupts Dye. "You just gotta be more careful." She already has two children. One anonymous patient at A Woman's World starts to cry during her counseling session with Dye. "I'm 46, and if I have this baby I'll be 47," she says, her voice breaking. "When that baby's 20, I'll be 67. And those are the reasons I'm doing this. Simply age. I don't know if I'll be physically able, in my 50s, to handle a toddler. I wanna do it now, before the child gets older in my womb."
"I just want to make sure that this is definitely what you need to do," says Dye. "Not 'want' to do, nobody ever wants to do this. Okay? Nobody ever wants to do this. But if it's what you need to do, and it's your decision only, nobody is forcing you to do this—"
"No," says the woman. "I take full responsibility. To heart."
During one of the film's most electrifying exchanges, Victoria, 24, tells Lotierzo that she wants to abort her third pregnancy because she wants to be there for the kids she already has. And her current boyfriend is abusive. "For all you know, the baby changes him," Lotierzo replies evenly.
Then, Lotierzo starts talking about the physical risks of abortion and the possible mental toll. "I've seen it, so many times over," she says. "That you think your suffering's not going to be too much. I'm still waiting for a woman to sit where you're sitting, and tell me, 'I'm not suffering from my abortion. I'm not regretful. I'm not depressed. I'm glad I did it.'"
Victoria doesn't flinch. "I know for a fact that I won't regret it. I don't know for a fact that I won't be depressed — maybe I will. I don't know for a fact that, that, I won't stress about it. Because looking at the pictures, that stressed me out...But, that's what abortions are for. Abortions are to terminate unwanted pregnancies. This pregnancy is unwanted. I will have no regrets. At all. The only regret that I have is sleeping with him without a condom."
Victoria terminates the pregnancy.
You could argue that if it's fair for clinics like Dye's to offer abortion and contraception, it's also fair for Christian groups to run so-called crisis pregnancy centers to try and dissuade women from making the choice to abort. If a woman is feeling so conflicted about terminating a pregnancy that a conversation with someone like Lotierzo, then surely she was never really intending to abort. Women who are certain of their choices have nothing to fear from either center's mission.
But it turns out the marketplace of ideas has some notable inefficiencies. For most women, the choice whether to terminate or continue with an unwanted pregnancy is not an easy decision to make — it's one that most of us come to with a certain degree of anguish already. Add in Lotierzo's casual relationship with the truth, and her center's various manipulations of their patients — not only does the center profit from customers who mistake it for the real clinic, it keeps women waiting as long as possible for the free ultrasounds many of them have come for, in order to oblige them to watch propagandistic videos and read literature that links abortion to breast cancer, and they lie to women about how far along they are so that they incorrectly believe they have weeks, not days, left to come to a decision — and it's hard to argue that Lotierzo, Euteneuer, and the other volunteers are acting in anything like good faith. "I just don't get them people," says Dye. "Why are you messing up these girls' lives? Why are you playing around with them like that?"
At the end of the movie, we see Widline again. She's seven months pregnant. "I didn't want no child at this age right now," she says. "I tried everything in my powers to get rid of it. Like drinking vinegar. And like lifting heavy stuff up, and moving heavy stuff around. Anne told me about abortion. A woman she can, like, lose her life over abortion. Or don't have kids at all no more, in the future. So, I didn't wanna take that risk."
Today on the Leonard Lopate show, the directors said that Widline recently graduated from the 8th grade.
12th & Delaware [HBO]