The Matter of Life: A Valuable, If Uneven, Primer on Abortion

The culture wars may well be reflected with the release of the pro-life documentary "The Matter of Life." Rotten Tomatoes posts a 100 percent audience approval of the film—while Facebook banned the film’s posting of paid ads.

The culture wars may well be reflected with the release of the pro-life documentary The Matter of Life. Rotten Tomatoes, the online movie review website, posts a 100 percent audience approval of the film—while Facebook banned the film’s posting of paid ads. The movie, produced and directed by Evangelical filmmaker Tracy Robinson, opened May 16th in a limited nationwide release. Robinson’s other film credits include two obscure films, the 2018 Penny: Portrait of a Birth Mom and the 2012 Jerry and Maggie—This is Not Photography.  

Robinson has described herself as someone who would never have an abortion herself but did not want to force her beliefs on others. However, in 2016 she changed her position after attending “The Case Against Abortion,” a presentation by Christian apologist Alan Shlemon’s Stand to Reason. Convinced that abortion is the unjust killing of the innocent and that a “pro-choice” position could not be reconciled with her Christian faith, Robinson placed her filmmaking talents into producing this pro-life documentary.    

The ambitious project has won three awards at the Christian Worldview Film festival. OK, not exactly the Oscars—but one can hardly expect the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to laud such a film—though in the opinion of this reviewer, while the film is not without certain weaknesses, The Matter of Life could well compete in the Oscar’s documentary film category. 

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The movie’s treatment of “the matter of life” is in-depth, intelligent, and comprehensive—tackling all of the most important dimensions of the controversy over legalized abortion. This movie is a valuable primer on the issue and serves as perhaps the best introductory educational tool advancing the pro-life message. When DVDs become available, every pro-lifer should own one and schedule a viewing at high-school gyms and church halls—as was done decades ago with what has come to be known as the “Willke slides”—an early, popular educational tool produced by the late Dr. Jack Willke, who for many years served as president of National Right to Life. 

The film starts out with a bang. The audience is immediately immersed into the culture war over abortion with numerous video clips of pro-abortion talk show guests, news interviews, and TV commentators articulating the pro-life or the pro-abortion position—contrasting, for example, New York’s 2019 codification of abortion for the full nine months of pregnancy with Alabama’s 2019 abortion ban. 

The film quickly notes that in America seven in 10 women attended a church service in the very month they opted to abort their unborn children. This is a major focus of The Matter of Life—namely, the need for churches to offer compassion and support for women facing out-of-wedlock pregnancies—women who often feel shame and anticipate rejection. 

However, the film’s main focus is to resolve this question: Are the unborn human beings? Are they persons? Are they members of the human family and thus have a right to life that must be morally and legally respected? Later in the film, The Matter of Life provides a well-done tutorial on fetal development to answer this question. 

The movie features well-known pro-life leaders, notably Scott Klusendorf of Life Training Institute; Canadian pro-life speaker and activist Stephanie Gray; Kristan Hawkins, head of Students for Life of America, and several other knowledgeable experts on the abortion issue. 

Robinson chose a highly effective, robust, and engaging method that dominates the first part of the movie. She ably refutes false claims and criticisms aimed at the pro-life movement in the section of the movie that provides a valuable apologetics and equips pro-lifers with strong arguments for their cause. 

For example, Klusendorf responds to the criticism: “If pro-lifers were really pro-life they would work towards social justice on a host of other issues, such as human trafficking, inner-city gang violence, care for the environment and so on.” In other words, to be credible, “pro-lifers must fix everything wrong in society.” 

The criticism is effectively rebutted by noting that no one makes such a criticism of the American Cancer Society—that if this group really cared about health, it would also be working against every other human aliment! No one criticizes after-school programs that accommodate only children ages four to 12—that if such programs really cared about children, all children would be admitted! Yet, pro-lifers trying to end the killing of the unborn are somehow responsible for ending all other social injustices.       

Another issue tackled by The Matter of Life is whether opposition to abortion is strictly based on religious faith, in particular, the Christian faith. Here the film features pro-lifers who espouse a secular world view, are feminist, or even atheist, such as pro-lifer Terrisa Bukovinac of Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU). She explains how protection of the unborn is truly progressive—how it is inconsistent to seek protection for animals while promoting the killing of unborn children. 

Also refuted in this section of the film is the constant slogan of those who favor legalized abortion: “A woman has a right to control her own body.” Here we are introduced to the science of embryology that clearly demonstrates that an unborn child is unique, distinct from the “body” of his or her mother—a true human individual from the moment of fertilization. The film provides an interesting argument, comparing the way in which images are produced on a Polaroid camera with the gestation of the unborn child in the womb. 

As a primer on the issue of abortion, The Matter of Life explains the history of abortion in America going back to the 19th century, the impact of the feminist movement and the so-called “sexual revolution” leading up to the Roe v. Wade decision, and the significance of its companion case, Doe v. Bolton

Here we are introduced to Norma McCorvey, the Roe of Roe v. Wade, and the two young attorneys, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, who, when McCorvey was unable to obtain an abortion in Texas, took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. Viewers learn about early advocates of legal abortion Bernard Nathanson and Lawrence Lader, the founders of NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League. This history leads to an explanation by Kristan Hawkins on the current case of Dobbs v. Jackson—and the possible overturning of Roe

The Robinson movie provides an important exposé of Planned Parenthood, with clips of its early-20th-century founder Margaret Sanger, who wasn’t shy about articulating her racist and eugenicist philosophy that the procreation of “morons,” “imbeciles,” “human waste” must be prevented; that “the greatest sin is to bring undesirable children into the world.” Particularly well done, The Matter of Life explains how Planned Parenthood arrives at the false claim that abortion is only three percent of its services—a claim achieved by the way Planned Parenthood disingenuously calculates the number of its overall services.  

At this point, The Matter of Life makes a dramatic shift it its mode of presentation—a shift that causes the film to lose that robust, hard-hitting articulation of the pro-life position. The rebuttal format is dropped. Instead, the movie spends a great deal of time focused on select pregnancy resource initiatives, such as Care Net pregnancy help centers, Save the Storks ultrasound mobile units, and a special emphasis on Embrace Grace—a Christian-based ministry that, according to its website, connects women with unexpected pregnancies “to judgment-free support groups in churches across the world.”  

It appears that the filmmaker was anxious to highlight pro-lifers’ positive and compassionate aid to women in need. However, this section of the film could easily have been, and should have been, incorporated into the film’s apologetics format. Pro-lifers are constantly accused of only caring about bringing “fetuses” to birth and not being concerned for the women after that point. Here the movie could have shown a montage of pregnancy help centers existing across the country, complete with statistics in response to this false accusation. 

Instead, this portion of the movie takes on the sense of a long infomercial. Featured is one woman’s very long, detailed story of how she became pregnant as a teen, nearly sought an abortion upon her father’s insistence, opted instead to seek help through Embrace Grace, and placed the baby for adoption. It’s almost as if Robinson was making a second kind of movie, so far different is the middle part of The Matter of Life from the first. 

The film perceptively locates four major obstacles to the pro-abortion movement: 1.) parents, 2.) men, 3.) pregnancy help centers, and 4.) former abortion providers; it then spends time explaining the significance of these obstacles. However, the 4th obstacle, former abortion providers, is presented in that same slow, tedious manner as done with pregnancy resource centers. It starts out presenting the engaging story of abortionist-turned-pro-lifer Bernard Nathanson—but the bulk of this section is dominated by former abortionist Anthony Levatino telling his own long, personal story of conversion. 

Certainly, Levatino’s important biography belongs in this section—but again the film abandons the robust, multifaceted mode of presentation. If one of the four obstacles to the pro-abortion movement is former abortion providers, the film leaves out many other examples of such conversion, including the conversion of Abby Johnson.

The film allows Bernard Nathanson to appropriately have the last word as he calls: “Stop the killing.” This would have been a poignant ending to The Matter of Life—movie over, lights up. Instead, the movie shifts into a third method of presentation. Robinson, in a studio setting, first interviews Kristan Hawkins, followed by a second, long interview with Annie Tang Humphrey of Save the Storks. Such gratuitous dialogue is meant to emphasize that, in a post-Roe world, the pro-life movement will spend even more time and resources on helping mothers in difficult pregnancy situations. This point, of course, could have been made in the main body of the film. A movie that starts out with a bang ends in a non-cinematic, anti-climax. 

Finally, Robinson deserves praise for not shying away from showing photos and video clips of the actual victims of abortion—material credited to the pro-life group Created Equal that specializes in the public display of abortion-victim images. As someone who has retrieved thousands of aborted babies from trash containers, spent countless hours photographing these victims, and has written extensively on the topic of abortion-victim imagery, I greatly appreciated the film’s defense of the need to allow the unborn to speak the truth of what they suffered in the violence of abortion—a truth deliberately hidden and denied by the advocates of abortion. 

The Matter of Life, despite its weaknesses, has much to offer. At this point, there’s probably no pro-life movie that will convert those absolutely hardened and thoroughly committed to defending a “woman’s right to choose.” But, this thoughtful movie has the potential to make an impression on those still ambivalent on the matter of life. As a very good educational tool, The Matter of Life makes a real contribution to the pro-life message. Pro-lifers would be wise to take advantage of this film at a time when the matter of life faces new battles in bringing the killing of the unborn to an end and creating a culture of life. 

[Image Credit: The Matter of Life website]

  • Monica Miller

    Monica Miller, Ph.D., is the Director of Citizens for a Pro-life Society. She holds a degree in Theatre Arts from Southern Illinois University and graduate degrees in Theology from Loyola University and Marquette University. She is the author of several books including The Theology of the Passion of the Christ (Alba House) and, most recently, The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church (Emmaus Road) and Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars (St. Benedict Press).

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