Movie Night in Des Moines

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

“It’s been amazing to see what a little bit of visual truth can do,” 23-year-old Lila Rose, whose undercover Live Action Planned Parenthood expose videos were a shake-up story of 2011, reflects in the new documentary The Gift of Life (available on DVD), which seeks to bring a little to the chaos of campaign trail.

Tonight in Des Moines, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum will join 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee for the premier of the Citizens United documentary, hosted by the former Arkansas governor, who himself moderated a primary forum on his Saturday night Fox News show earlier this month. (Gingrich has himself worked with Citizens United as a documentary host.)

“The focus of this election has understandably and rightly been primary on jobs and the economy, but that doesn’t mean that human life is no longer important,” Huckabee tells National Review Online. “We want to keep this issue in front of the candidates and the people and remind that a president can make a big difference in his or her actions and voice.”

In a year that has heard a lot of “war on women“ rhetoric, The Gift of Life sets out to better “define” what exactly it is we mean by the phrase “culture of life” and how we build one. “For many, ‘pro-life’ has become a negative term of politics, tossed around to tar opponents when, in fact, it represents the basic philosophy of life consistent with the views of our founders,” Huckabee says during the narration. He credits the Declaration of Independence for enshrining “the radical notion that each human soul has intrinsic worth and value, a value not to be determined by inheritance or obtained after birth but present from the very beginning.”

“My heartfelt beliefs on the value of life — all life at any age, have also brought into my path a remarkable number of people who’ve told me stories that changed me, forever,” Huckabee says during the film. “Personal stories about lives that may not have been, but for a last minute decision by a mother to allow her child to be born. Stories of everyday people, who’ve undergone changed of heart. Stories of determination and of the importance of every life. And stories that remind us that life begins at conception.”

“The film will inform and encourage those who are pro-life, but unlike anything I’ve seen before, I think it will challenge those who are not and in a very subtle yet powerful way, raise deep questions that they will be compelled to consider,” Huckabee tells me.

The Gift of Life introduces Dr. Anthony Levatino who walks through with the audience all the inconsistencies in his life as he performed abortions even while he and his wife tried to have a child of their own. After their almost six-year-old adopted daughter was killed in a car accident, he walked in yet again for a “totally routine” D&E abortion. “I wasn’t thinking about this as anything special … I had other things on my mind. And I reached in with that sopher clamp and I pulled out an arm or a leg. And I literally stared at it in the clamp and I got sick.” At this point he had to continue what he had started, he recalls. “But you know when you start an abortion, you can’t stop. When you do an abortion, you have to keep inventory. You have to make sure that you get two arms, two legs and all the pieces because if you don’t, your patient is going to come back infected, bleeding, or worse.” So he “soldiered on” he remembers and afterward, “for the first time in my career, I looked — I mean I really looked at that pile of goo on the side of the table and I didn’t see her wonderful right to choose and I didn’t see what a great doctor I was helping her with her problem pregnancy. And I didn’t even see the $600 cash I just made in 15 minutes. All I could see was somebody’s son or daughter. And suddenly this was looking very, very different to me.”

“I regret every one of those abortions …. Who did I kill? I mean did I kill a great musician or a future president of the United States? I don’t know. Out of 1200 abortions, who knows? But who knows what — what good those children would have done in the world if they were allowed to live.”

Anyone who watches The Gift of Life will meet Rebecca Kiessling, whose birthmother was raped. When Kiessling was 18, she wanted to find her birthmother and found what sounded like “a police description” for her biological father. When a caseworker confirmed she was conceived in rape, she says, she “immediately felt targeted. I knew what people said. You know I’m pro-life except in cases of rape…. I did not want to be part of that classification, I didn’t want to feel devalued by so many people.” When she finally met her mother, she told her daughter that had abortion been legal in Michigan at the time, Rebecca would have been aborted. “Whenever people make the rap exception, I understand that they want to be people of compassion and they think that in order to prove that they care about women and that they care about rape victims, that they need to make the rape exception. But that’s pretty cold-hearted for someone like me. But I understand that most people do not put a face to this issue.”

The Gift of Life does. More compellingly than any debate round or primary interview could do — though former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has done his part in the public-policy arena, using his platform to paint a broader picture throughout his career and campaign

Asked if he has a favorite story of those presented in the documentary, Governor Huckabee highlights James Robison, the founder and president of Life Outreach International, a Christian relief organization, father and grandfather. While all the stories are deeply touching, perhaps the story of one of  my dear friends and a former employer James Robison gets to me because  I’ve known James for 37 years and even though I knew his remarkable  story, it still touches me deeply.” Robison’s beginning is similar to Rebecca’s. But for a doctor who wouldn’t perform an abortion, which his mother took as a sign from God, he wouldn’t be alive. The story doesn’t end there with an idyllic happy-eve-after story for a poor divorced nurse in Houston and the drunk who forced himself on her would again become a part of their life in another violent episode. The story is instead, about the triumph of good amidst evil. Robison is a man who not only almost not born but whose life could have turned out dramatically differently if it were not for prayer, as he tells the story.

When you choose life, you embrace surprises and suffering. You embrace healing and hurt, too. You embrace the messiness of it all and the wonder, too. That which we could never plan or perhaps even fully understand.

The Gift of Life is powerful. And points a primary-election-frenetic audience to the bigger picture about the real lives this “life issue” affects.

The presence of Rose, who represents a new generation, new energy, with a whole new awareness of the power of the visual and the varied ways images can be harnessed is both an encouragement and a nudge to everyone who respects a life to commit to making it possible in the lives of those desperate, scared, and hurt who may not see it that way.