INTERVIEW: Mermin and Raskin Shoot "On Hostile Ground"; Abortion Doc Finds the Grey Areas
by Emily Bobrow
(indieWIRE/ 04.09.01) -- Nearly 30 years after the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision, it seems as though a woman's right to abort a pregnancy is in a state of crisis. In the last ten years, antagonism towards abortion providers has escalated, creating a troubling shift in the debate. The conflict between pro-life and pro-choice is no longer merely ideological -- violence, threats and fear have entered the bargain. From 1990 to '99, providers across the country were subject to 97 arsons, 15 bombings, 16 attempted murders and seven murders.
In a country where a "woman's right to choose" is taken for granted, and at least one in four women are likely to get an abortion, a film like "On Hostile Ground" offers necessary insight into a battle that is far from won. Directed by Liz Mermin and Jenny Raskin and produced by Catherine Gund, this impressive directorial debut examines the lives of today's abortion providers, the unassuming front-line soldiers in a war of attrition. Less than two weeks after the police have ended their three-year chase of the murderer of Dr. Barnett Slepian, the bravery of Dr. Richard Stutz, a 76-year-old OB-GYN from Alabama, Susan Cahill, a physician assistant from Montana, and Dr. Morris Wortman, a New York gynecologist who arms himself each morning, seems all the more profound.
"On Hostile Ground" is now playing at New York's The Screening Room through Cowboy Booking. Proceeds from the film's release will benefit Planned Parenthood and Medical Students for Choice. In an interview that began in a SoHo creperie and continued in the more quiet surrounds of Raskin's West Village apartment, both Mermin and Raskin talked to indieWIRE about religion, the dubious status of abortion rights under President Bush, and the small market for important topics.
indieWIRE: A woman in the film describes the abortion debate as an issue where there's "no common ground, no grey area." Why did you two decide to tackle this controversial subject, where there is presumably no middle ground?
Jenny Raskin: We went to graduate school together at NYU, in cultural anthropology and media, and we were both looking for a project to throw ourselves into afterwards. We were both exposed to this issue in various ways -- we went to a talk by Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued [for plaintiff Norma McCorvey (Roe)] in Roe vs. Wade, I had a friend in medical school who was active in Medical Students for Choice, and there was a cover story in the New York Times Magazine which had the specifics about the abortion provider shortage and the violence. It seemed like a great story.
Liz Mermin: Most people of our generation feel like this issue is over, that it doesn't need to be fought. Now that Bush is in office that's less the case, but this felt like something people needed to be made aware of: that it is still a real issue, that the number of people providing abortions is going down.
iW: Were you prompted by Dr. Slepian's murder?
Raskin: We started working on the film before Dr. Slepian was killed, but we hadn't started filming yet. It didn't really affect us trying to win over doctors; while they were more concerned about being public after that, they were also more angry.
Mermin: Originally, before Slepian was shot, the whole "on hostile ground" concept was this idea of abortion in the south, where we thought it was the most controversial. But then Slepian was killed [in Buffalo, NY] and we realized we were being a little northeast-centric. So we decided to expand it. Once we started learning about other providers and other incredible people, we thought it might be more powerful to get these different angles. That was one of the best decisions we made, because everyone who sees the film comes out really identifying with one of the providers.
iW: Considering most of the controversy surrounding abortion is faith-based, very much grounded in religious interpretation, did your religious upbringing somehow affect the way you view abortion?
Raskin: If I had been raised Catholic or Evangelical Christian, it would have probably been more natural for me to be against abortion. I wasn't raised religiously at all. I had a total lack of religion. My father's Jewish, my mother was raised Catholic