Bunk Documentaries (1 of 2): The Right to Confuse

What’s wrong with this picture? (Hint: it’s not the competing fonts.)

A still shot from the trailer of the film. The background is black. In the middle there is a circle featuring an in utero fetus in a very late gestational period. The fetus's eye, nose, and hand are visible. The text above reads 'A Bruce Isacson film. South Dakota' the text below the fetus reads 'a woman's right to choose' in smaller letters.

This still, taken from the trailer of the film South Dakota: A Woman’s Right to Choose might be the first time I’ve seen “a woman’s right to choose” accompanying an in utero photo. Those are both articles of rhetoric from opposing sides of the abortion debate. Could this be a movie aiming to “edify, inform and not take sides?” Yes, according to director Bruce Isacson. But after reading Robin Acabin’s assessment of the movie in the L.A. Times (“Creators of abortion film say they want honest debate”), I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s not only unbalanced, but entirely pro-life.

The movie is about two young women who have unplanned pregnancies. Barb is a track star whose boyfriend seems to have a LOT of issues, only one of which is denial of his girlfriend’s pregnancy; Chris is homeless, pregnant from rape, and seeking a late-term abortion. And while I’m glad they’re trying to depict more than one woman’s experience with abortion, they could have tried a little harder to move away from the woman-of-color-from-the-street vs. white-blonde-who-has-everything-going-for-her archetypes.

But how is the movie anti-abortion? I mean we see Barb in a hospital gown at a clinic, which is more than we could have said for Juno. And in the trailer we hear Chris say, “I don’t think it’s right to bring a child into the world…I can’t have this baby,” letting the viewer know that she has very real doubts about carrying her pregnancy to term. Well, let’s dig a little deeper!

• Here are some of the players behind the movie:
-The film features songs by Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries, who in the past has made anti-abortion statements. She is moderates all-girl discussions at screenings.
-It’s promoted by Motive Entertainment, the company that also promoted for The Passion of the Christ and Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
-Its Executive Director is Howard Kazanjian, named “Hollywood’s Most Powerful Christian” by Christianity Today magazine in 2007.

• That screenshot at the end of the trailer isn’t the only time they show a developing fetus. Apparently the movie features “evocative videos of 16- to 22-week-old fetuses floating in utero.” Gestational photos or videos are visual rhetoric for pro-life organizations, serving to humanize and personify the fetus. Anyone attempting a balanced look at abortion would not include these purposeful images.

• But the filmmaker interviews pro-choice activists, that’s balanced, right? You read what’s described in the LA Times piece and tell me if it sounds representative of pro-choice voices:

In one scene, feminist attorney Gloria Allred speaks of her own rape at gunpoint, subsequent abortion and lifelong commitment to abortion rights. She also describes the fetus as “a parasite” because it requires the mother’s body to survive. At another point, an abortion doctor tearfully describes the death of her friend from an illegal abortion in Africa and later unemotionally describes how she might wrap an aborted fetus and leave it to die, even if it showed signs of struggling to take a breath.

Hmm, something about how feminists describing babies as parasites or abandoning a living aborted fetus (the extremely rare partial-birth abortion, introduced in anti-choice legislation in 1995) really makes me think that viewers are not going to be taking any worthwhile messages home from abortion rights advocates.

• And finally, spoiler alert, it appears that Barb’s boyfriend “rescues” her from the abortion clinic, which I assume is framed in terms of “Aw, he finally came around and we are so in love!” dangerously reinforcing the idea that if you are having trouble with your boyfriend, that having his baby will bring you closer. I’m not sure if Chris gets an abortion or not, but regardless, I’m pretty sure she represents the “only in extreme cases” clause of abortion legislature of women who are pregnant by rape or incest (which by the way, has to have been properly reported–something I’m sure Chris as a homeless youth is happy to add to her list of hoops to jump through before the procedure), so if she does end up getting an abortion, it will still be in a pro-life frame.

And could someone let Isacson know there’s no genre called “dramumentary”? A movie does not a (half) documentary make even if you do insert interviews with real people (which apparently includes well-known reproductive rights experts like…Bill Clinton! and Mother Teresa!). But besides the laughable nature of the genre, I think by aligning itself with the documentary genre (however weakly) re-enforces its perceived credibility on abortion.

We’re used to seeing anti-abortion messages in popular culture, like Knocked Up, and I’m not entirely surprised by this one. What I do find troublesome is that it’s being presented as balanced. Its very title falsely co-opts pro-choice rhetoric, which could be potentially misleading to people unfamiliar with the details of the debate (people like teenagers, the target audience). And with pro-life activism getting some bad press coverage after Dr. Tiller’s murder, it’s apparent that they’re going to have to try new tactics beyond photos of aborted fetuses.

Creators of abortion film say they want honest debate [LA Times]

Teenage Girls Take Up Both Sides Of The Abortion Debate After Watching “Neutral” Documentary [Jezebel]

Thanks to Maya for the tip!

Stay tuned for a second installment of Bunk Documentaries later this week!

by Kjerstin Johnson
View profile »

Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

10 Comments Have Been Posted


'personalize and humanize the fetus'?

Question: If the fetus is not a personal human being, just what the hell is it?

well, it depends on who you ask

Pro-life advocates would say that when an egg is fertilized, it's a human. Pro-choice advocates would refer to it as an embryo, fetus, or pregnancy. What I meant by "humanize," is attribute developed human features to a developing one. Showing the gestational development of a baby is heavily used by pro-life organizations, opting to de-emphasize the first-trimester cluster of cells and instead emphasize the third trimester human aspects of a developing fetus so that it's easier to come to the conclusion that abortion = murder. (For example, how in the still we see the eye, nose, and fist of the fetus.)

Here's more from Guttmacher Inst. on how "personifying" the fetus is used by pro-life advocates:
<a href="http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/tgr/02/6/gr020603.pdf">"The Antiabortion Campaign To Personify the Fetus: Looking Back to the Future"</a>



St. Therese

St. Theresa

Mother Teresa. She cared for people no one else would care for. give her a little respect.

not my intention

no disrespect was meant against Mother Teresa. I was just using that as an example of how the filmmakers seem to be a bit all over the place (even for a dramumentary): a narrative about two teens, interviews with women on playgrounds, AND Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa giving soundbites on abortion? Maybe I just have to see it.

thank you

I would have to see the film to really be able to judge it, but on the surface, it definitely seems to claim pro choice and I probably would have taken it to just be an okay pro-choice documentary. But your deeper investigation of the players behind the movie is something I wouldn't have explored or questioned to be pro-life! I am shocked and the overall argument of this makes a lot of sense, a clarity I probably would have never found myself and just disregard the film as weak. Thank you for sharing this.

Why O Why....

Does it have to be titled "SOUTHDAKOTA"? We voted that law DOWN. Please, please can we not have SOUTHDAKOTA (TM) forever associated with anti-choice. *Headdesk*

Coupled with the fact that people literally ask me if I have ever used an elevator before when they find out where I'm from, I feel like damning these people for defamation of character.

I am a lefty feminist South Dakotan, and this just feels like more of the same from the anti-choice coalition that brought that asinine proposition here in the first place. Argh.

are you comfortable being

are you comfortable being called "anti-life"?

I've seen the trailer, read

I've seen the trailer, read the la times article, even did a review of the article for my college class. I have not seen the film, but am excited for the movie to come out. I am a feminist who has done her undergraduate research on pregnancy among college-age women, among whom abortion is the highest for any other age group. I think that the problem with the debate, especially among women, is that it becomes too polarized; it should not be either or- pro-choice or pro-life. I am pro-life but I don't think abortion should be illegal. What needs to occur, as I feel this movie is attempting to do, is get women to really talk about abortion. Abortion is not easy, it is not a quick fix, there are long-term emotional and psychological risks and baggage that comes along with it. Most young girls do not know this, it is not talked about. All you hear from the 'feminist, pro-choice' side is, 'Its my body!' I think as women leaders we are handicapping our girls by telling them that its ok. We need to look at why women have abortions- usually they may be poor, do not get adequate family support, or more commonly- are being pressured by the father to get an abortion because he doesn't want the responsibility. What these girls need most of all is support-from their families, from society. Why should we force a woman to 'choose' abortion simply because she is poor and has no support? That is not a choice at all. Now on the other hand, some women are adamant about their decision and want to go through with it, regardless. So be it. But as a society too often we are punishing the poor women, the unsupported woman, who was already born in a socio-economic disadvantaged situation. True feminists should be standing up for these women, look at the larger picture, instead of merely insisting that she maintain the right to not 'keep' her child.
So, I can't wait for this movie to be released, hopefully, nationwide. Women need to start looking at the larger issues of social disadvantage and marginality, and look at who actually gets abortions, instead of letting the issue continue to divide us. Bickering over the micro-perspective of abortion still leaves men to rule and dominate, while they continue to make more money than we do, hold higher positions in the workforce, and can and do tell women when to have an abortion, even if she doesn't really want to.
Empower and informing women should be the focus.

Damn, I was interviewed for this!

Damn, I was one of the organizers of the Haven Coalition when they were promoting this as solely a documentary, and I am pissed! I wondered what their motives were when they spoke to me, but after my interview (and I was interviewed twice), they never got back to me. Nice way to treat people who take time to fucking help you. I guess I'm not surprised that they treated us so shabbily given their intent. The "dramamentary" format makes me sick - we never would have helped them if we knew this is what would happen. Exploitative and crude.

Add new comment