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Documentary screening encourages conversation on abortion, other politically charged topics

By Harrison Epstein - | May 11, 2023
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Sarah Perkins, co-director of "The Abortion Talks," talks to people outside Utah Valley University's Noel and Carrie Vallejo Auditorium after a screening of the documentary on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.
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People attend a screening of "The Abortion Talks" at Utah Valley University's Noel and Carrie Vallejo Auditorium on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.
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Jennifer Thomas, co-executive director of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, speaks before a screening of "The Abortion Talks" at Utah Valley University's Noel and Carrie Vallejo Auditorium on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.

On Dec. 30, 1994, John Salvi shot and killed workers at two abortion clinics in the Boston suburb of Brookline. The shooting became a political flashpoint for both the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements in Massachusetts and across the country.

While leaders on both sides sought punishment for Salvi — he was eventually convicted of first-degree murder and armed assault — it was for differing reasons.

Over the next five-plus years, six leaders on both sides met in secret to talk with one another. The women were political and spiritual leaders who, in 2001, published a piece in The Boston Globe together. These women, their meetings and the immediate reaction are central to the documentary “The Abortion Talks.”

The documentary was the main event Wednesday for a gathering by YOUnify, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce polarization and cultural division, and Mormon Women for Ethical Government. It was screened in the Noel and Carrie Vallejo Auditorium on Utah Valley University’s campus in Orem.

While attention is easily drawn to the word “abortion” in the title, the evening’s focus was with the next word. The goal was to get people talking and to encourage open and healthy disagreements while maintaining the humanity of those with opposing views.

“I think it’s an abortion documentary that’s not at all about abortion. It’s really about seeking a way to talk about abortion, peaceably, where people can maintain their authentically held convictions just as passionately and forcefully as ever,” said Sarah Perkins, co-director of the documentary and a Brigham Young University graduate. “This movie is really a movie about leadership. You know, these were the leaders of the field, these were the heads of the organizations.”

Perkins created the documentary with her husband and co-director, Josh Sabey, knowing full well what it means to confront a topic considered as divisive as abortion. But, as the film explains, there is more agreement on abortion than disagreement. According to Gallup polling, about 85% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in some form (50% say legal with restrictions, 35% say legal with no restrictions).

“At the heart of a pluralistic society, there are going to be pretty significant points of conflict, where people have very deeply held beliefs that are oppositional to one another,” said Jennifer Thomas, co-executive director for MWEG. “There have certainly been really intractable moments in our nation’s past when people have been able to come together, and particularly have been able to use nonviolence or peaceful engagement to get over those. And I think we both believe that’s possible still.”

Along with Brandyn Keating, CEO of YOUnify, the two executives outlined their goals for the gathering.

Deciding to screen “The Abortion Talks” was simple, according to Thomas. She said the film “embodied what we want citizens to be” by emphasizing the journey of conversation as opposed to the idea of an end-of-the-road solution, and Keating hoped attendees walked away with a fire for community action either still burning or newly lit.

At one point, Perkins and Sabey considered renaming the documentary “The Talks” to avoid the possibility of people putting up partisan blinders once the word “abortion” was introduced.

“Especially in places like Utah, where so many people are single-issue voters — voters on this — we have to find a way to talk about this,” Perkins said. “Some people will not want to come because of the title, because of the issue. But to them, I would just say, our goal all along has been to reach people like you who are afraid to talk about this, who feel you already know the answer. We’re not here to disprove you. This is the most neutral documentary on abortion you will ever find.”

While a majority of the film discusses the 1990s and early 2000s, it does reflect the modern discussions around abortion. After the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling overturned almost five decades of precedent set by Roe v. Wade, conversations and legislation around abortion changed. States suddenly had the power to regulate abortion, rather than following the lead of the federal government. In Utah, this meant the enacting of a 2020 law banning abortions regardless of trimester with few exceptions, though it’s been put on hold due to a court challenge.

A bill signed earlier this year would have effectively banned abortion clinics from operating in the state, though a judge delayed the ban’s implementation on May 2.

After the film’s showing, organizers led a brief workshop on constructive conversations and a question-and-answer session with Perkins. In the workshop, Keating gave the more than 50 attendees advice to overcome the “fight, fear, freeze, fawn” reactions that can come over people when having emotionally charged conversations, such as those surrounding abortion. That advice was “LAAFSA” — listen, ask, acknowledge frustrations, share and ask again.

People, Keating said, will be better equipped by actively listening, not just waiting for a turn to talk, asking to hear more in an attempt to understand the other person’s beliefs and positions, acknowledging frustrations, sharing vulnerable stories and asking again for a next step.

While ideologies varied among attendees and even among those organizing the event, the ideal outcomes are the same. Everyone there sought a society with healthy disagreement and less vilification with the responsibility to help build it on the shoulders of each individual, activists and those in power.

“We have businesses that create pollution, sometimes, and I think it’s understood that they should be responsible for cleaning up pollution. Similarly, I think activists and political leaders and legislators are sometimes toxic in their rhetoric,” Perkins said. “I think we should hold them responsible and they should feel responsibility for tending to that toxicity that they’ve put out into the public sphere.”

“The Abortion Talks” is not available for streaming, but interested people can find nearby screenings, or sign up to host one, at http://abortiontalks.com.


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