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By Phil Hall | April 5, 2001

“On Hostile Ground” is a curiously inert documentary focusing on a highly volatile issue: campaigns of harassment and violence aimed against medical professionals who perform abortions. By focusing on a trio of remarkably dull abortionists and a sprinkling of equally monotonous pro-life protestors, filmmakers Liz Mermin and Jenny Raskin achieve the unthinkable in taking a socio-political hot potato and mashing it into a cinematic plate of cold potato salad.
Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, anti-abortion campaigners have conducted a fruitless struggle to void the court’s decision. Having failed to convince politicians and public opinion to embrace an overturn of Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement turned its focus on the abortion providers and conducted endless demonstrations outside abortion clinics. Most of these demonstrations have been harmless gatherings with mild chants and unpersuasive slogans which provide more entertainment than emotion. However, in recent years the level of aggression from some protestors have dipped into open harassment of patients and clinic staffs, arson, telephone and mail threats of violence and even the assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian, a doctor who performed abortions in upstate New York.
“On Hostile Ground” follows three abortion providers and details the effects of the threats and violence they’ve fielded. One physician, the 76-year-old Richard Stuntz, travels across Alabama with police protection. Another physician, Dr. Morris Wortman, was forced to build his own clinic following a long-running legal challenge by his landlord to evict his medical practice. The third provider is not a doctor but a Montana physician’s assistant named Susan Cahill, who was singled out by her state legislature with a law that banned physician’s assistants from performing abortions (she was the only member of her profession in Montana who conducted the procedure–she eventually fought to have the law overturned in court).
One would imagine the emotional, physical and financial struggles faced by this medical trio would make a compelling documentary. But strangely, the subjects profiled here are not the least bit interesting. The elderly Dr. Stuntz plods along casually and stoically, indifferent to the needs of the camera and its needs. In this film, Dr. Stuntz comes as close to being inanimate as any functioning living person can get. Dr. Wortman, on the other hand, is too annoyingly aware of the camera and clearly enjoys being in front of the lens. This is especially obvious in a strange sequence where he handles a parade of TV reporters who interview him on the anniversary of the murder of Dr. Slepian (whom Dr. Wortman never knew). Ms Cahill is the most relaxed and natural of the three, but she relates her dramatic legal challenge in a very off-handed manner that makes it seem as if successfully overturning laws was as easy as opening a tight jar.
The filmmakers, in fairness, provide a little camera time to a few pro-life protestors. These poor souls, however, come across like humorless Jesus freaks who recite canned warnings about punishment in the hereafter (although no one actually cites the exact Biblical passage which promises afterlife comeuppance). Unintentional amusement can be found in the painfully bored expressions on the various police officers who stand around guarding the abortion providers. These officers, if their faces mirror their minds, would clearly prefer to be doing anything else and it is unfortunate that they are not tapped for their opinions on the issue at hand.
“On Hostile Ground” is a bore, which is a shame since the subject deserves the electricity of eloquence and outrage. Box office proceeds for this film are being pledged to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Medical Students for Choice. However, pro-choice supporters would be better off sending their funds directly to those non-profits and avoiding the numbing effect of “On Hostile Ground.”

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