Full Frame Day 2: Bending the Law

In A Man for All Seasons, the 1966 film based on Robert Bolt’s play, Thomas More tells Cromwell that he threatens “like a dockside bully.” When Cromwell asks how he should threaten people, More suggests, “Like a minister of state, with justice.”

Would More, the Catholic saint, turn over in his grave to hear me use the words attributed to him in service of a documentary defending a woman’s right to chose an abortion?

Trapped tells the story of how state legislators, unable to overturn Roe v. Wade or force the closures of abortion clinics, try to drown the service providers in seas of red tape. A subsequent ruling (Planned Parenthood v. Casey) is summarized by the film thusly: states can restrict abortions so long at they don’t create an “undue burden” while doing so. Think we’re going to end up debating what is an “undue burden” and who gets to make that call? Think again. Texas governor Rick Perry says in the film, “My goal is to make abortion at any stage a thing of the past.”

The weakness of Trapped (★★★) is that once it introduces the Casey case with the standard articulated, it retreats into portraits of abortion providers as honorable, beleaguered soles and contrasts them with the now obligatory (but nevertheless dreary) shots of screaming protesters. What, I kept asking the film, are the restrictions that are causing so many clinics to close?

Eventually–finally–the film starts enumerating the restrictions. And that’s the saving grace. At this point in the argument, any documentary about abortion needs to be, first and foremost, informative.

We get a montage of scanned documents with highlighted passages telling us that one bill prohibits a clinic from operating within 1500 feet of a school. Physicians at clinics must have admitting privileges to a local hospital. (The film explains that even if a physician is granted local privileges, some may have to admit a certain number of patients to retain them. Paradoxically (I can’t quite bring myself to write “ironically”), the fact that so few abortion patients get admitted to a hospital ends up working against the clinics.

One law effectively mandates four separate visits to the clinic. Doctors are required to “inform” patients that abortions increase their risk of breast cancer. Dr. Parker, an abortion provider, is filmed complying with the law and then immediately telling a prospective abortion patient that “there is no scientific evidence to support that.” One administrator is cited for not being in compliance with a provision that says a clinic must provide emergency lighting “in compliance with section 7.9.” That bill has no section 7.9. There must be staff lockers, drugs that expire quickly and must be renewed. Operating equipment. One doctor moves his clinic because it is ruled that no clinic can have two stories.

The cynicism of any law or policy can be most easily measured by how much it troubles or scandalizes those who might otherwise be sympathetic to the cause allegedly being served. Here’s the thing, though. In Trapped you don’t have to argue or guess whether or not the lawmakers are cynical. They admit to being so. On camera. On the legislative floor. While creating laws. By the time the laws are spun, the talking points will say the purpose is for “women’s safety”–to ensure that abortions don’t go horribly wrong. But in the unfiltered moment on the legislative floor, the argument is quite different. A trap law, one legislator says, is designed to make obtaining a legal abortion one “little step harder.”

Steven Wise, a lawyer profiled in Unlocking the Cage ( ★★★), is equally clear about his attempts unlocking the cage full frameto make new laws: he wants nonhumans to be granted legal “personhood” so that primates and other sentient beings can have legal cases argues on their behalf.

Here I am not at all averse to using the word “irony.” We are reminded several times throughout the film that a conservative-leaning Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that corporations can be viewed as people and invested with rights that are protected under the law. If a corporation has enough personhood for the court to protect its freedom speech, can not a chimpanzee have sufficient personhood for the court to protect its freedom form captivity?

That’s not a bad argument, even if (like me) you are not particularly desirous of seeing nonhumans accorded legal rights. The judges (real and moot) who suggest seeking legislative relief make good arguments, too. But Wise and company come across as a bit too convinced of their own rightness to concede that anyone else could have a point. At one point Wise lets slip his own agenda: “We’re not in there [court] to save these two chimpanzees in the Bailiwick Zoo,” he says. He almost immediately backtracks that claim.

Sure, the chimps are important, he explains elsewhere, but he’d rather lose the case at the lower level so that it can go to an appeals court and create a state-wide precedent than to win the case and earn the freedom of his test subjects.

In other words, at a key point, Wise treats the chimpanzees not as individual clients to whom he has any ethical or professional responsibility but as means to an end. That end may be a noble one. He is certainly convinced it is. But isn’t his action the epitome of treating the chimps as “things”?

Sometimes we use our expertise in the law to make it serve our ends rather than for the public good. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the perceived rightness of our cause that we forget that law is supposed to preserve and promote justice for all. Sometime we use that which is supposed to protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society as an instrument to threaten like dockside bullies.

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One Reply to “Full Frame Day 2: Bending the Law”

  1. Andrew Spitznas

    I think you’re unfairly judging Wise in an effort to make your larger point (some ‘ends and means’ irony there, perhaps?). I think the film makes clear that Wise cares deeply about the chimps – he’s found a new home for them after all. They’re both an end in themselves and a means to a bigger end.

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