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PBS Tackles Abortion Debate In Frontline Documentary And Gets It Right

PBS Frontline/Screenshot

Rachel Stoltzfoos Staff Reporter

A recent PBS “Frontline” documentary on the abortion debate in the U.S. was a tour de force in traditional journalism, and the result is stunning.

Producers tell the story with balance and respect, by including perspectives from all sides of the debate, as well as startling footage of the abortion process — including surgical and medical abortions — that informs viewers without telling them what to think. They anchor the film in the current political debate, but carefully avoid choosing sides. No side of the debate is glossed over, dismissed or downplayed.

This is remarkable in a new media landscape where reporters eschew old-style norms in favor of increasingly one-sided and openly biased journalism. And it’s an especially welcome addition to abortion reporting, which is plagued by deliberately opaque language and ideologically driven imbalance. (RELATED: The 7 Most Outrageous Screwups In The Planned Parenthood Scandal)

The hour-long documentary, “The Abortion Divide,” revisits an abortion clinic in Philadelphia where a similar documentary was filmed in the 80s. It’s available to stream online here. Viewers are taken inside the clinic, where they see women struggle with their choice to abort, and hear from some of the doctors and technicians who help the women carry out the killing process.

A woman begins an abortion at a Philadelphia abortion clinic filmed by PBS “Frontline” for “The Abortion Divide” documentary. (PBS Frontline/Screenshot)

Then they see and hear from some of the pro-life activists pleading with women as they enter the clinic not to abort their babies, including one Catholic doctor who has been a visible presence there for more than 30 years. Viewers are taken inside a home he started for women who don’t want to abort, but need a place to live and financial support, as well as to a pro-life pregnancy center operating in the community.

Two scenes stand out: the moment a woman discovers she is pregnant with twins, and subsequent footage of her going through with the surgical abortion. She is an older married woman with an autistic child at home.

“Oh my god,” she says, as she covers her face with her arms, after a technician performing an ultrasound tells her she has twins. After a few moments of silence, she stands up, and interrupts the technician as she begins to explain what’s next. “What does that mean? So like, is the procedure any different?” The technician assures her it’s exactly the same.

“Why does it feel so different?” she asks. Her face is visibly strained.

Later, in a straight to camera interview, she remarks: “When she said that there were twins, I wasn’t prepared for that at all. I didn’t even consider the possibility. I don’t know. It’s not a rational thing.” And then, sitting with her husband after the procedure and talking to the technician about scheduling the abortion, she adds: “It felt, it made things a little different.”

An abortion clinic worker examines the results of an ultrasound showing a woman is pregnant with twins in the PBS “Frontline” documentary, “The Abortion Divide.” (PBS Frontline/Screenshot)

Nevertheless, she and her husband decide to go through with the abortion, and the procedure is caught on camera. Viewers hear the sound of the vacuum pump a woman wearing a face guard uses to suction the unborn children out of her womb, as she lies sedated on a table with her feet in stirrups. Afterward, she embraces her husband in the waiting room. (RELATED: Ex-Planned Parenthood Staff Describe What Happens To A Fetus After Abortion)

Three other women are seen on camera ingesting the pill that begins the process of killing their unborn children, and one other goes through the surgical procedure, which in her case is shown from start to finish. The remains of her unborn child are seen traveling through the tube into the container on the counter, where they are picked up by a technician and placed inside a blue cooler for transport to a back room. There, another technician dumps them into a strainer and then a pie plate, so another technician can sort through the remains to ensure the entire fetus was removed.

Pro-life activists and clinic escorts interact outside a Philadelphia abortion clinic filmed by PBS “Frontline” for “The Abortion Divide” documentary. (PBS Frontline/Screenshot)

All of the women explain their reasoning. Another woman pregnant with twins is recently divorced and wants to focus on her career and other kids. A young girl wants to “get it over with” and worry about the depression and sadness she says will result later. A married woman regrets that she got pregnant at the wrong time — she and her husband just bought a house and don’t feel they can afford another baby. And a fourth feels she simply doesn’t have the resources to care for another. (RELATED: WaPo Fact Check Rates Planned Parenthood Talking Point About Roe Totally False)

One woman’s statement is chilling. “What I hope I feel is a sense of peace, not only with myself and the decision that I’ve made, but also a sense of peace with these two beings that I have chosen not to bring into the world,” she says. “Thank you for choosing me, and I’m honored to be given this gift of life, and also I can’t do it right now. I can’t accept that mantle in terms of the other lives that I’m taking care of and I’m responsible for.”

The women’s emotional struggle is plain, and colors the black and white view of the abortion debate offered by both the pro-life and pro-abortion sides elsewhere in the film. Abortion clinic workers and pro-abortion activists portray the procedure as an unambiguous good for women, while pro-life doctors and activists stick on their view that it is murder of the unborn.

The larger theme of the documentary — that the the two sides remain unmoved in their convictions in the decades since Roe — is clear. The spliced in footage from the 80s documentary is striking in its similarity to the present. The same kinds of women face the same emotions and moral dilemma, and those on either side of the debate employ the same talking points.

A couple taken in by a pro-life activist discuss their decision not to have an abortion in the original PBS “Frontline” documentary, “The Abortion Divide.” (PBS Frontline/Screenshot)

“Women are not vessels for just carrying pregnancies, they are full human beings who deserve to have control of their lives,” an abortion clinic worker says in the conclusion of the film. “And being able to choose whether you are going to continue your pregnancy or not is a life changing thing.”

Her remarks are followed by a longtime pro-life activist who says he is committed to ending abortion: “It’s going to be brutal and bloody, and we’re only in the second or third round of this fight. This fight is going to be multi-generational just as the fight against slavery was, and it’ll be our successors that eventually win this fight. I’m not predicting a quick and easy victory, but we will eventually win.”

Viewers are left to make of it what they will.