The Last Abortion Clinic
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the legislative battle is where the action is
Producer Raney Aronson explains why making this film was her biggest reporting challenge yet, and why some of her most emotional material ended up on the cutting room floor.

raney aronson

Raney Aronson, producer of The Last Abortion Clinic

What made you decide to do a film on abortion? How long did you work on the project?

When I was producing "The Jesus Factor," one of the things I was struck most by was the fact that many of the evangelical Christians I spoke to still considered abortion to be the most important issue to them -- and many said that without question that when they went to the polls they voted on that issue first and foremost. I found it intriguing that other social issues, like gay marriage, didn't register to them as being as important as abortion. After that experience, FRONTLINE Executive Producer David Fanning and I began to discuss the issue of abortion, and last spring he felt it was time for FRONTLINE to revisit the issue.

How hard was getting access? Was it more difficult to get one side to talk than the other? How did you win over the skeptics?

Obtaining access on this film posed a particular challenge because of when we were trying to gain that access. We were working our hardest in the spring and simultaneous to our efforts was the national debate about PBS and liberal bias. Many of the pro-life groups we spoke to were very nervous, especially because of this news, and it took days upon days to gain their trust, sharing both my past work and other work by FRONTLINE and impressing upon them that we would treat them fairly.

The flip side was that the pro-choice groups were concerned that we would be trying to "overcorrect" the problem by leaning too far in the pro-life movement to "prove" that we aren't liberal. It was definitely a challenge, but in the end, we gained access and it was well worth the effort.

Why does the film take place in the South? What was it like to film there?

I spent many weeks pondering where to locate this film, and ultimately chose the South because there are a number of states that have passed numerous abortion regulations and the abortion clinics have diminished in number. My feeling was that I wanted to see the impact of state laws that were allowed since the Casey decision, so we should film somewhere where we could see what effect, if any, the regulations are having in local communities. The South seemed a good place for that.

Why did you choose to tell the story through the legislative history of the abortion debate rather than women's personal emotional struggles?

It was a very big decision to look at the legislative history rather than tell the personal stories of the women we met along the way. Actually, I've never produced a film in which we didn't use our most powerful characters that we filmed in the field to tell the story from a first-person point of view.

It was not an easy decision to make, but as I produced this story I realized that the personal struggle with abortion is a story that has been told (namely in the award-winning FRONTLINE "Abortion Clinic") and I wasn't confident there was anything new or insightful I could add to that story.

Instead, I felt that the legislative battle is where the action is. It's harder to understand and it's certainly less dramatic, but it is where the story is taking place now and where laws are being passed that, in turn, affect abortion access.

The other reason I chose this path is that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, one of the most important abortion rights cases since the Casey decision. So it felt critical that I look at that case in light of the change on the court and what it could mean for the future.

Was it difficult to get pregnant women to talk about their decisions about abortion?

Yes, incredibly difficult, and understandably so. We talked to numerous pregnant women who were not able to access abortion due to lack of funds or transportation issues, who ultimately decided not to go on camera with us because they feared their child would learn someday that they really wanted to abort them and that would be heartbreaking to them.

What is it like as a filmmaker to explore such a heated topic when both sides are so entrenched? How do you cut through the agendas?

It's not easy to report on such a heated topic, but on the other hand, the most interesting films have conflict, and those are the issues that tend to interest me the most as a filmmaker.

With the issue of abortion, both sides have such strong agendas that it was the biggest challenge I've ever faced as a reporter. I spent a great deal of time with each side, listening and hearing them out. I spent time in both of their communities, filming the reality from both sides of this battle -- and I found that in most cases the scenes we were filming said a lot more about the issue than the interviews I did with spokespeople inside the movement. We took the approach of just reporting the facts, with the goal of showing what the pro-life movement has done legislatively and what the pro-choice movement has done to respond to that strategy.

Talk about the crisis pregnancy centers. What are they like? Are they a growing trend?

Crisis pregnancy centers (they can also be called "pregnancy resource centers") are centers that offer counseling to women when they are facing an unplanned pregnancy. We spent almost two weeks on and off in one in Jackson, Miss. Many of the women who came in were what the center calls "abortion minded" and essentially the counselors would talk to them about their options, from a pro-life point of view.

They are a growing trend across the country -- now there are about as many of these types of centers as abortion providers -- and the Bush administration has taken great interest in them. In fact, approximately one-fifth of the money that comes from Title X for abstinence-only education goes to these types of centers.

What was it like inside the abortion clinics?

Being inside an abortion clinic in the South was a little like being under siege. The feeling inside the clinic was combative and it certainly felt that everyone was on their toes constantly, concerned about protesters and concerned about breaches of security.

The film suggests that the pro-life side is winning the battle on the ground in Mississippi and elsewhere. Do you think that's true? What is the pro-choice side's on-the-ground strategy?

I think that the pro-life movement has more success in the sense that they've been able to regulate abortion on a state-by-state basis, but essentially what they are doing is working inside the constitutional boundaries of the Casey decision and not much more. They are trying to push the envelope in some states, such as Mississippi, but they would say they are only making minimal progress and would like to make much more. They are, however, a growing, vibrant and vigorous movement, and they have financial support and major support in the halls of power. This movement now works from within, and that has led to many of their recent successes.

What we found in our reporting was that the pro-choice movement, on the other hand, is trying to motivate their base of support. They have great public support when it comes to questions around Roe v. Wade, but less public support when it comes to regulations on abortion. So they're on the defensive in that area -- and that's where the abortion politics battle is being fought, so it's a tougher situation for them. That's what prompted the abortion clinic owner in our film to state that she wishes sometimes that Roe v. Wade was overturned. She believes this is what it would take for the nation to rise up and support the pro-choice movement again.

What surprised you the most in making this film?

It's always hard to say what surprises me the most while making a film, as much of my reporting surprises me. That said, I think the most surprising part of this film was discovering how important past Supreme Court cases have been in changing the face of abortion politics in this country -- especially the case known as Casey, which we spend quite a bit of time unpacking in our film. It was one of those moments during my reporting when I realized why it is that state-led pro-life movements have been so successful. In the end we decided to use Casey as the central theme to our film, and we found that by tracing what happened from Casey to the present allowed us to explore this movement at the state level.

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posted nov. 8, 2005

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