Panorama, America’s Abortion War: A nuanced look at both sides of the debate

Review: A documentary on the fights to keep and outlaw abortion in the US south

A protest against abortion ban bills at the Georgia state capitol building,  in Atlanta, Georgia. File photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

A protest against abortion ban bills at the Georgia state capitol building, in Atlanta, Georgia. File photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

 

It’s just over a year since the Eighth Amendment was repealed and the Republic began catching up with most of the rest of the world in terms of access to abortion. Panorama, America’s Abortion War (BBC One) is a reminder of the tumult we have left behind.

Hilary Andersson’s documentary avoids the obvious pitfall of smug Europeans lecturing Bible-thumping Americans on how to run their affairs. Instead, this is a nuanced overview of an issue that serves as a prism for the US’s culture wars. Campaigners on both sides obviously regard abortion as a matter of black and white. Andersson’s mission is to interrogate the myriad of greys she discerns in the middle.

Certain clichés are nonetheless unavoidable. Zealots with Jesus placards raise hellfire outside an abortion clinic in Alabama (the state is on course to essentially outlaw abortion in November). A doctor who carries out terminations speaks of her fears for her safety and that of her family. Pro-life activist Kandi Cox describes abortion as “the holocaust of our nation”.

Andersson, who grew up in Texas but was educated in the UK, is determined, however, to go beyond conservative verses progressive stereotypes; she is also drawn to unusual cases. We are introduced to Cox’s 14-year-old adopted daughter Anne Marie. The child was conceived as a result of an incestuous rape. Cox convinced the mother to carry the foetus to term, and then raised Anne Marie as her own.

Heartbreakingly Anne Marie suffers a rare skin condition that leaves her in agony daily and which will dramatically shorten her lifespan. You may disagree with Cox’s position on abortion, but her love for daughter tugs at the emotions.

This is juxtaposed with a story from the other side of the debate. Dina Zirlott became pregnant through rape. For health reasons she did not discover she was carrying a child until the third trimester. She was denied a late-term abortion and her severely disabled daughter, Zoe, died after two years. As if that wasn’t horrific enough, her evangelical father lectured her on having led her attacker into temptation. “The shame,” Zirlott says, “just crushed me.”

Challenging assumptions

There are moments when it seems Andersson is challenging her own certainties and assumptions. She meets LeRoy Carhart, a late-stage abortion provider. Asked if he would carry out a procedure at up to 38 weeks – just shy of nine months – he declines to delve into specifics.

What Carhart is clear about is that the roll back of abortion rights across the US south flows from a desire to narrow horizons for women and “push them into the dark ages”. He also speaks of “babies” rather than foetuses. All the colour drains from Andersson’s face as she and Carhart discuss his methodology of administering lethal injections to the “babies” and, 48 hours later, crushing their skulls with forceps.

As with Cox and Zirlott, the encounter with Carhart is an arresting dispatch from the frontline of a country that has divided into two bitterly opposed camps. But to what extent does it speak to the broader conversation regarding reproductive rights in the US? Is Andersson reporting from the extremes of the debate because it illuminates the wider issue or because it makes for good television?

The rhetoric is likely to grow more heated as the US presidential election approaches. Andersson, though, has little interest in wading into the politics. Her mission is, rather, to take a closer look at a nation increasingly ill at ease with itself.

The most chilling line is courtesy of the governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, whose state has been at the fore in the push to outlaw abortion. “We’re asking them [women] to take a little bit of responsibility in not getting pregnant,” Bryant explains. He says it as if it’s the most reasonable thing in the world.

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