During the 17 years Tony Kaye spent crafting this three-hour think piece on the abortion debate, a number of quality documentaries on the subject were made, notably UNBORN IN THE USA (2007) and HBO's terrifying SOLDIERS IN THE ARMY OF GOD (2000). Kaye's film treads much the same ground, but does find a spot closer to the middle than most.
Austerely shot in silvery shades of black-and-white on 35mm by Kaye himself, the film opens in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the 2006 state senate vote on House Bill 1215 (aka the "Women's Health and Human Life Protection Act"), which would define embryos as human beings and ban doctors from performing abortions under any circumstances, including rape or incest and regardless of the mother's general mental and physical health (only when the mother's life was clearly at risk would the procedure be allowed). The bill, eventually signed into law but later overturned in a referendum, was the strongest challenge to date by a state legislature to Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion and set the subsequent terms of the abortion debate. After a brief credit sequence introducing the religious imagery and liturgical music that will dominate the film, Kaye flashes back to 1993 and the antiabortion "March for Life" in Washington, D.C., for a look at how that debate has been framed by both sides. Kaye interviews academics, doctors, clinic workers and a host of activists, from the homicidal, predominantly male antiabortion extremists who hope to save the lives of the unborn by bombing clinics and murdering doctors to the pro-choice activists (mostly women) determined to keep the right to choose legal. In the middle: women whose lives have been touched by abortion, including Norma McCorvey, the real Jane Roe, who, after working for years at an abortion clinic, had a sudden change of heart and now works to overturn the case fought in her assumed name, and a woman named Stacey whose experience at a clinic Kaye follows with unflinching gaze. Putting the bravest possible face on a difficult decision, Stacey eventually loses her composure and breaks down. Kaye is careful not to dwell too long on disturbed individuals like former Klan member and antiabortion extremist John Burt (recently convicted of molesting two underage women at his Florida "halfway house" for unwed mothers), and murderers Michael Gunn and Paul Hill, whose homicidal deeds and rhetoric only cloud whatever legitimate argument pro-life advocates would like to make. Kaye even manages to find a few articulate voices who attempt to explain why they feel abortion should be outlawed without resorting to "because God says so."
For a notoriously "difficult" director a postproduction dispute over Kaye's one and only feature, AMERICAN HISTORY X, led him to publicly denounce both his studio and star Kaye turned in a surprisingly even-handed film, and his sensitive treatment of his interview subjects leads to a number of revealing moments. Kaye's decision to include such graphic footage during his visits to abortion clinics is bound to be controversial. Showing the torn arms and legs and crushed skulls of aborted fetuses as they're washed and reassembled on a steel tray (the only way to ensure a late-term abortion is complete) simultaneously reveals a plain, painful truth about abortion while defusing one of the radical pro-life movement's favorite tactics of displaying graphic photos of aborted babies by finally putting them into their proper context. leave a comment --Ken Fox