Abortion. Just the word spurs a range of emotions in us. Few issues are so divisive, so emotional and so morally urgent to so many Americans. As such, it is an exceedingly difficult subject to cover in such a way that satisfies those on both sides of the debate. Documentaries about abortion are nothing new. The procedure has been the subject of serious journalism far back as Walter Cronkite’s 1965 CBS Reports special, Abortion and the Law, which aired at a time when virtually all abortions were illegal in the United States, save a select few permitted by medical panels tasked with determining if a “therapeutic abortion” was in the best interests of the mother.
Fast forward four decades to PBS’ The Last Abortion Clinic, which examines the pro-life movement in Mississippi, a state where there is only one facility, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, performing abortions. In a nation where abortion is a Constitutional right, Mississippi pro-life activists, assisted by sympathetic lawmakers, have tried their hardest to make abortions as difficult to procure as possible, short of outlawing them entirely.
Indeed, the film may be seven years old, but the abortion wars are raging just as fiercely in the Magnolia State now as they were in 2005. Last November, a personhood initiative, which would have defined life as beginning at fertilization, failed to pass, in part due to concerns that not only would it outlaw all abortions, but also certain forms of birth control. Had the initiative passed, it would have been a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that overturned all state-level anti-abortion laws, and forced the Court to revisit the case once again. (Ironically, the initiative’s passage might have been a setback for the pro-life movement, insofar as the current make-up of the Court would likely reaffirm Roe, thus further cementing it as “settled law”.)
Just last month, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed a bill placing additional regulations on the state’s only abortion clinic. Starting July 1, only obstetrician-gynaecologists with admitting privileges at a local hospital may perform abortions. It is difficult to obtain such admitting privileges, especially for those doctors who live out of state, and religiously-affiliated hospitals may refuse to provide such privileges to abortion doctors.
Mississippi supports facilities known as crisis pregnancy centres, facilities that give women with troubled pregnancies some medical care and access to abstinence-only sex education but do not distribute contraception or perform abortions. In one scene in the film, a woman marvels at her unborn child during her ultrasound, and the woman running the CPC boasts that showing ultrasounds to women unsure about whether to carry their pregnancies to term often influences them to keep their babies. Such reasoning was behind the Texas ultrasound law, which took full effect this year.
The woman specifically undergoes a transvaginal ultrasound, a controversial procedure that gained national exposure during Virginia’s ultrasound law debate. The bill Governor Bob McDonnell eventually signed had to be revised before passage. Opponents of the bill compared the use of a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound to “state-sanctioned rape”. Supporters countered that such ultrasounds were already standard procedure in abortion clinics.
We also see the inside of an abortion clinic in another state, where many Mississippi women undergo the procedure. Its location, as well as the identities of those running the facility, is kept anonymous. We see a young woman who says that she prayed over her decision and felt the answer she received was to end the pregnancy. It seems, at least to a heathen Yank like me, so stereotypically Southern to consult with God to receive His approval, even for an abortion.
Pro-life groups regularly stage vigils outside of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and I can testify to my own experience at an April 2011 demonstration outside of the Planned Parenthood in Hempstead, New York. One major difference between the tactics used by those in Mississippi and what we did that day was that some outside of the Jackson clinic directly called out to the women, including playing the part of their unborn children, begging for mercy.
The only direct contact anyone in front of the Hempstead clinic had with potential abortion patients was with one of the Sisters of Life offering her literature to those entering the facility. (Of note is the fact that there is a large parking lot and metal fence in front of the Hempstead clinic, so demonstrators were apparently much farther away from the actual building than were the Mississippi activists shouting at women as they entered the Jackson clinic.)
One protest tactic with which I strongly disagree is the use of graphic abortion images in protests. I believe they do more to repulse people from the pro-life cause than to convince them of the wrongness of abortion. What you do not see in the video to which I link is that some demonstrators, none of whom was a member of my group, chose to use those signs. Even though their hearts are in the right place, I believe they, like those who shout at women entering clinics, are not winning as many converts as they would think.
The Last Abortion Clinic leaves the viewer with many unanswered questions, largely because in the broader abortion discussion, those questions are just that: unanswered. How does one prevent unwanted pregnancies? Does restricting or even outlawing abortions stop them from happening? Is one side or the other engaging in counterproductive tactics?
Despite these limitations of the film, PBS has done a good service to journalism by using Mississippi as a microcosm of the abortion wars, humanizing both sides of a debate that will likely be argued in our country for many years to come.