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Creators of abortion film say they want honest debate

But some who have seen 'South Dakota' say it leans more toward the anti-abortion side.

December 06, 2009|By Robin Abcarian

If the town halls generate enough press and word of mouth, the hope is that a distributor will become interested. But the film's executive producer conceded that may never happen.

"I'm not interested in making money," said Howard Kazanjian, a Hollywood veteran ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," " Star Wars: Episode VI Return of the Jedi") who in 2007 was named one of "Hollywood's most powerful Christians" by Christianity Today magazine.

The movie has already been shown to a handful of high-profile abortion foes, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Elisabeth Hasselbeck of "The View."

But Lauer said his marketing plan will focus equally on groups that support abortion rights. "In each market where we do the town-hall screenings," he said, "we will be inviting leaders, organizations and individuals who represent both sides of the debate."

The documentary elements that punctuate the drama include evocative videos of 16- to 22-week-old fetuses floating in utero, clips of impassioned speeches ( Bill Clinton insisting that abortion be "safe, legal and rare"; Mother Teresa telling the United Nations that abortion is a "threat to peace") and interviews with a variety of thinkers and activists on both sides of the debate. Scientists offer divergent views on when a fetus is able to feel pain.

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.

By contrast, a sandy-haired boy who is identified as the real-life son of Barb, says he is grateful his mother did not abort him.

While Isacson remained adamant that the film evenly portrays both sides of the debate, Kazanjian confessed that the film's images of fetuses floating in amniotic fluid gave him pause. "I think that seeing a baby at 22 weeks would tell me that that is a baby and not a virus or a parasite," Kazanjian said. "It's not living out of the womb, but it's a real baby. . . . That might pull me over to the pro-life side."

Eternal debate

Such imagery made USC associate religion professor Lori Meeks, who supports abortion rights, dubious about the moviemakers' claims of neutrality. Meeks was invited by Isacson to co-moderate a town-hall discussion after a separate screening for adults that took place across the street from the teen screening. It was attended by the school administrators, teachers and chaperons who had accompanied their students to Westwood.

Meeks' co-moderator was William Hurlbut, a Stanford medical ethicist who opposes abortion and is known for his embrace of a technique to create embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. Hurlbut, who appeared in the film, said he was prepared not to like it but was brought to tears and found it "amazing." He said later he liked its "ambiguity."

Meeks, however, was uneasy. "I cannot help but wonder if [they] may be trying to attract anti-abortion audiences who will like the film because it allows them to feel good about reaching out to the other side without forcing them to challenge their beliefs in a serious way," she said. "It'll be interesting to see how the pro-choice advocates interviewed in the film react."

Thus far, no high-profile abortion rights supporter has seen it. Allred said she was eager to see the movie and has been promised an invitation.

In the town-hall-style discussion that followed the teen screening, two of the film's actresses, Bates and Thompson, joined O'Riordan. The students, who were urged to ask questions, were more focused on making statements, mostly against abortion.

"If you're not ready to have a baby, then you shouldn't be having sex anyway," said Gianna Halpin of St. Monica Academy.

"Yeah, that sounds like a good idea," O'Riordan said.

"I just feel like if you are woman enough to open up your legs and let someone come in, you should be willing to let something come out," said Jamie Sooniers of Westchester High School. "Abortions are just not right."

Bates seemed taken aback. "Let's take a minute to acknowledge we are lucky enough to live in a country where women can gather to discuss this stuff without risk of being killed," she said.

"I think it's OK to have an abortion, but only if you were raped or experienced something really traumatic," said Paige Baines of Crenshaw High. "But even then I think you still should take care of it because that baby could grow up to be someone important."

But, said Rose Kohn of Beverly Hills High, "Every girl should have the right to choose. . . . It's their right, it's their body, it's their choice."

Days later, some were still stewing about what they'd seen -- for very different reasons

"I thought the movie was very balanced," said Madeleine Lessard, a sophomore at St. Monica Academy in Pasadena. "I am very pro-life, so when that lawyer referred to a baby as a parasite and she referred to having to go through pregnancy as the last legal form of slavery, that struck me as absurd. The thing that ran through my mind is abortion is the last legal form of murder."

Liz Benichou, a Beverly Hills High School senior who favors abortion rights, said she thought the movie was "more pro-life than pro-choice. . . . They made it seem negative when abortion was brought up. When one girl had a baby, they made it seem so positive, but not every story works out that way."

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