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'The Matter of Life' documentary tackles questions of abortion debate


Tracy Robinson answers audience questions at a screening of her new documentary "The Matter of Life" at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine in Boston on Sept. 24. Pilot photo/courtesy Tracy Robinson

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BOSTON -- "What is the unborn?" That is the question that "The Matter of Life," a new documentary by Tracy Robinson, keeps returning to, emphasizing its centrality while also examining different aspects of the controversy surrounding abortion.

The film is not yet in theaters, but on Sept. 24, St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine hosted a screening of it followed by an audience QandA with Robinson, who has been showing it in various communities while preparing it for wider distribution. Accompanying her on the panel were author and theologian Angela Franks, one of many people interviewed in the film, and Father Shawn Monahan, OMV, the shrine's novice director.

Robinson, an Evangelical Christian with a background in filmmaking, said she was "on the fence" about abortion, even after she began producing videos for a pregnancy resource center. That changed five years ago, when she was invited to an apologetics night. The topic was the case against abortion, and "the message completely struck me," she said.

With the tagline that "Clarity kills controversy," Robinson's film draws on history, science, philosophy, religion, and powerful personal stories to examine the abortion debate.

To make "The Matter of Life," she interviewed leaders and experts from different segments of the pro-life movement. Franks talks about the history, business model, and marketing strategies of Planned Parenthood. Dr. Anthony Levatino, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist who stopped performing abortions after the death of his own child, describes different types of abortion procedures. Jennifer Christie shares how she became pregnant through rape and welcomed the birth of her son. Participants in Embrace Grace, a support group for women facing unplanned pregnancies, testify to how the support of a church community helped them to choose life for their children.

The film is bookended by animated illustrations of Jesus extending a hand to the woman accused of adultery in the Gospel of John. The introduction and conclusion urge viewers not to be judgmental like the Pharisees of the Scriptures but to extend mercy and assistance to women in need of support.

After screening "The Matter of Life" in the shrine's upper room, C.J. Williams, a local pro-life activist who helped to produce the film, moderated the question-and-answer session and offered a few words of encouragement to the audience.

"I really hope that however you felt during this film, you will keep that feeling in your heart, and even when you don't have it anymore, you'll still act on it, because I know this is a really inspiring film, and it's easy to come out of it feeling on fire, and it's really easy within a week to feel demoralized and distracted and busy and everything, but this happens daily, whether you see it or not," Williams said.

Father Monahan spoke about the work of Support After Abortion, an organization for which he is a board member. He cited the statistic that one in four women will have an abortion in their lifetime, and 50 percent of those will have a second or subsequent abortions.

"If we can reach those who've already been impacted by abortion with the message of healing, we can really begin to turn the tide of women seeking abortion," he said.

He also spoke about the harm that abortion does to men, which may not be as immediate or recognizable as the impact on women. He announced an upcoming virtual conference he would be speaking at, Unraveling the Roots of Men's Trauma, which is to take place Oct. 16 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Multiple audience members asked the panelists for advice about how to engage pro-choice people in dialogue about abortion. Some of the film's subjects argue that the key is to not allow a change in subject, and instead return to the question of whether the unborn child is "one of us," a unique human being -- and if so, whether that matters.

Williams pointed out a scene in the documentary in which a pro-life activist speaks to an abortion activist and identifies the values that they share. She said she has often taken that approach.

"Share something where you say, 'I know we have a lot in common, and I want to find out where we're missing each other because I know what our common ground is, and it's protecting human life,'" Williams said.

Franks, who said she grew up in the pro-life movement, answered an audience question about whether to use intellectual or emotional arguments against abortion.

"I think it's always helpful to figure out the question that people are really asking or the concern that they really have, which is often not the thing they put into words, and so to try to address the deeper concerns," she said.

Robinson talked about some of the challenges of making the film, such as fundraising. She formed a nonprofit to finish, promote, and distribute the film. At one point in the editing process, she needed $100,000, and without her asking anyone for it, a donor offered them that very amount after prayerfully discerning how much to contribute.

"That's kind of how this whole project went," she said, relying on prayer throughout the process.

Although the film explains the Christian case for being pro-life, it also features secular organizations and pro-life activists who identify as atheists and agnostics.

"I think that, for some reason, that really inspires the Christians to stand up and do something. Like, 'Wow, God is so powerful to even use the atheists!' Like if the Christians aren't going to do anything about it, he'll make the atheists rise up and do something. I feel like that's so part of how God is using people to end abortion," Robinson said.

Robinson also spoke about the role that churches can play in the pro-life movement.

"A lot of churches don't want to be too political or hurt any feelings because this topic is so sensitive and so personal to so many people. But I really believe that the Church has such an amazing opportunity to minister to people, not only to save babies from abortion but to minister to women and families," Robinson said.

Sonja Morin, a college sophomore who attended the screening, said she thinks films like "The Matter of Life" will be "incredibly important."

"We do need more solid representations of not just the pro-life movement as a whole but the idea that each human is deserving of dignity and deserving of rights," she said, speaking to The Pilot after the QandA.

In addition to studying design at UMASS Dartmouth, Morin is also learning about film through a New York University certificate program.

"To have this portrayed through film, through other media, especially that which uses imagery and audio to convey the story, is very important," she said.

Robinson said they are tentatively aiming to release "The Matter of Life" in theaters in April 2022. The film is currently available to rent on Vimeo.

More information about "The Matter of Life" is available at www.thematteroflife.org. Information about Support After Abortion is available at supportafterabortion.com.

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