Inside the Infuriating, Terrifying Reality of Abortion in America
In her new documentary "TRAPPED," in theaters tomorrow, Dawn Porter follows several abortion providers in the South struggling to stay open despite an onslaught of strict and bizarre anti-abortion laws.
Image via TRAPPED
In the past four years, conservative politicians have passed nearly 300 restrictions on abortion. The results have been devastating: 162 abortion providers, most of them located in the South and Midwest, have been forced to shut their doors, leaving millions of women unable to access the reproductive healthcare they are guaranteed by the Constitution.
Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws are among the most popular—and the most insidious—of such anti-abortion restrictions. TRAP laws function by singling out abortion providers, mandating that they meet certain medical requirements that are far more burdensome than those imposed on other medical practices. Although proponents of TRAP laws insist that they are trying to protect women's health, their ultimate goal is to regulate abortion out of existence. Indeed, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures in the world—40 times safer than a colonoscopy and even safer than a wisdom tooth extraction. Both the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists oppose this nefarious breed of legislation: "There is no medically sound reason... to impose more stringent requirements on abortion facilities than... on other medical facilities that perform procedures with similar, or even greater, risks," they wrote in a recent amicus brief in the Supreme Court case regarding the onerous anti-abortion restrictions in Texas.
Three years ago, after reading about the way Mississippi's last remaining abortion clinic was struggling to keep its doors open, director Dawn Porter began documenting the struggles that abortion providers in the South face. The result, a feature-length documentary called TRAPPED—which is premiering in LA, New York, and Washington, D.C. tomorrow—is both heartbreaking and infuriating. It depicts several abortion doctors attempting to navigate the byzantine and bizarre obstacles around providing care to their patients.
In a political environment marked by increasingly toxic and extreme rhetoric, it feels nearly uncanny to see the tender banality of running a clinic: June Ayers, who works at a clinic in Alabama, comforting a patient over the phone; Marva Sadler, director of clinical services for Whole Woman's Health in Texas, holding a young girl's hand as she prays after terminating her unwanted pregnancy; Dr. Willie Parker, who moved from Chicago to work in Mississippi and Alabama, gently telling a woman, "I'm required to tell you that there's a risk of breast cancer. There is no scientific evidence to support that."
We spoke to Dawn Porter about making TRAPPED, what it's like to release a pro-choice documentary in a year of ubiquitous anti-abortion vitriol, and the importance of telling these stories.
BROADLY: How did you first get interested in documenting the lives of abortion providers, and how did you first start to conceive of the documentary?
Dawn Porter: I was in Jackson, Mississippi, filming for another project, and I read in the local newspaper that there was one abortion clinic in the entire state and that it was fighting to stay open. At first I thought I read it wrong. I thought, That can't possibly be true. I'm a pro-choice person; I'm politically active. I had spent a lot of time in Jackson making other work, and I was just floored by the idea that not only is there one clinic, but there's one clinic because of state legislators. I was like, "Is this 1952?" I feel like most people understand the danger to abortion providers and abortion clinics from extremists, from violent people. But it seemed to me that this was a far more effective tactic and that it was being underreported.
I called up the clinic. They were starting to get some attention because they were the only clinic. They said I could come over, and I met Dr. Parker that first day. I just felt like he is such a warm person, caring—he's everything you want your doctor to be. Meeting him in person—and then he started to talk about race and class and political power. That's really where it started: I was just fascinated. He could be doing anything he wanted: He could have a nice life in D.C., he could work in a hospital, he could be a doctor. But he was choosing this lifestyle, to work in an abortion clinic, and I just found that really interesting and remarkable. Then the story just got bigger and bigger over the years; it was about two-and-a-half, three years that I was flying back and forth and going back there.
I read in the local newspaper that there was one abortion clinic in the entire state and that it was fighting to stay open. At first I thought I read it wrong.
In reporting on TRAP laws, I've noticed that it's nearly impossible to keep track of how many clinics are open because the number changes so often. Did that cause difficulties for you?
It was very challenging. Also, things would happen either slowly or really quickly. We'd make a plan to go down and film, but we couldn't predict when the Alabama legislature was going to meet. [Clinics were] opening, closing, opening, closing. And also just, when you're covering people in crisis, you're kind of in the way. You know, it's their life. I was very conscious of trying to impress upon them the desire to be there as things happened without adding work for them. It was a very challenging film to make, because things were happening so often and so quickly and because the clinics were literally fighting for their lives, to stay open. They were in a high degree of anxiety for a large portion of our filming.
How far along were you in the production when all the anti–Planned Parenthood videos came out?
Those videos started coming out, and people started saying, "How are you going to deal with this? How are you going to address this?" I felt very strongly that it was a completely different story. You could just kind of tell—I had been in New York City when a similar kind of group went "undercover." And I was like, "You know what? We can't play their game." If you try and unpack everything that's wrong with what he's done, it's its own whole film.
Yeah. But also, when they first came out, you saw all this really, really extreme anti-abortion rhetoric. Did you ever start to worry about the release of your documentary or the safety of your subjects after you started to see this huge uptick in anti-abortion extremism?
I think yes and no. You kind of always are cautious about that. I showed a very small work in progress very early—like, a few months into filming—down at a film festival in North Carolina. Unbeknownst to me, there was an anti-choice blogger in the audience who took pictures. She put my picture up on an anti-choice site and wrote a story, you know, like, "HBO filmmaker turns her camera to the unborn" or something horrible. I was like, "Whoa, this is not a regular film." So from then on, I was really conscious to change the way I look. I took different precautions. We don't announce when the subjects are going to be someplace. I unlisted my phone number. You know, I had to change the way I look! I changed the way I live.
It certainly affects how you behave, the idea that there are people who have been killed—particularly the doctors.
When you're working with people who live with this day in and day out, I kind of took their lead. They don't ignore the safety issues at all. June Ayers is in Alabama. She worked with a doctor who died in Birmingham; there's a picture of him in her office. Her friend owned the Birmingham clinic that was bombed. Dr. Tiller trained Dr. Parker. We would talk about it but not dwell upon it.
After the Planned Parenthood videos and right before we released the film at Sundance, [the shooting at the Planned Parenthood in] Colorado happened. It just came, like, smashing home. We had a lot of security at Sundance. We had bomb-sniffing dogs. Everyone was checked. And then the festival said, "Utah is an open carry state." It certainly affects how you behave, the idea that there are people who have been killed—particularly the doctors. [Anti-choice extremists] are irrational. You can't predict what's going to annoy them.
I thought that that was one of the most striking parts about the documentary: These doctors are so vilified, but you get a sense that they're all so brave and so principled.
I'm so glad you said that, because I wanted to show that they are, in one sense, very normal. They're like you and me—they're just regular people who go to work. And in another sense, there is this core that is resilient and this determination. I'm like, "Would I do that? Would I literally risk everything all the time?" And I don't know the answer to that! I really don't. I so deeply admire their willingness. For all the rest of us, sometimes our rights are abstract. But there are people who dedicate their lives to making sure that what's an abstraction for us is real. They're really strong people, and they have to go through a lot. And they keep coming back. That, to me, is the patriotic, American story: They keep coming back at great personal cost.
I didn't put it in the film, but there was this one time I was filming in Montgomery, and we had had kind of a bad day. June Ayers is a cancer survivor, and she has been through so much. I said to her, "You've been doing this for more than 30 years. Do you ever think, 'OK, I'm just gonna leave?'" And she was like, "Nope. I'm not leaving my ladies." She said, "You know what? I'm Southern, too. I have to live here, too." We weren't on camera; we were just having lunch. It really stayed with me, that whole "I'm here, too."
They shot Dr. Tiller in the head. If they want to kill me, they're going to kill me.
There's one other thing I wanted to say. I think, over the years, because I was so fond of and close with Dr. Parker in particular, I stopped asking him about safety considerations at some point. Because I couldn't handle it. It was almost our last shoot, and I said, "You know what? I think I have not adequately asked you about what you think about all of this." And that's where he said, "I don't wear a [bullet-proof] vest." So we made the film, and I put that in. We did this scene I really loved and thought it was very beautiful and moving, and then Colorado happened. I called him in a panic and asked, "Should I put that in, that you don't wear a vest?" And he said, "You absolutely should, because I don't. They shot Dr. Tiller in the head. If they want to kill me, they're going to kill me. I'm not living my life [in fear]. I'm not foolish; I want to live, but..."
Another striking thing, for me, about all the extremists: It's so clear from the film that this is an issue that really impacts women of color. And then you have protestors outside the clinic screaming at Dr. Parker that he's "killing his own," as though restricting abortion helps the black community.
Anti-choice people could care less about black lives. There is a disturbing statistic that black women and Latina women have abortions in greater proportion than white women, and there's lots of understandable policy reasons for that: poverty, lack of access to healthcare, lack of ability to afford birth control. What has happened is that the anti-choice movement realizes that it's very effective—because the overwhelming about of doctors are white—when you start saying, "You're committing black genocide!"
They will just say anything and do anything, and it's a real perversion of people who are actually doing civil rights work. I really wanted to introduce that idea of the racial component. I didn't get into it completely, but also to give some visibility to the idea that the face of a woman can be anybody. Abortion doesn't just impact one race or one class. One in three American women will have an abortion. It's a very common experience in the life of women of reproductive age. I wanted to show a range of people who are making a choice of what's right for their own lives.
Yeah, and the only thing that would make abortion not a universal experience is if you have these huge barriers that make it so that only women in major metropolitan areas, or only women who can afford to travel long distance who can afford abortion.
It's just so perverse to me: The people with the least political power are being impacted the most by these laws. It shows a real power issue, and I think people should think about it in those terms.
Abortion doesn't just impact one race or one class. One in three American women will have an abortion.
How can you get people to think about it in those terms?
I think that starting to point out that the laws are absurd really shifts the conversation. One thing that's happening that I'm so glad about is that people are just talking about it. They're saying the word "abortion" out loud. One thing that the anti-choice people have been very successful at is stigmatizing abortion so that it's just not discussed. The first thing we need to do is just say, "It happens, and it's medicine, and here's what actually happens." Because you can make up all sorts of lies—you can have those little plastic babies. People are not focused on the fact that it's medicine.
I think having the conversation out there is really important, and then just explaining the truth. Because we don't talk about abortion at all, we certainly don't talk about how many weeks and what the procedure involves and how much it costs. We need to explain who's using public clinics: People who don't have health insurance who can't leave the state. And that's the population who is disproportionately affected by these laws. What are the sacrifices that people are making in order to access an abortion? Focusing on that, I think, is is really important and necessary.
What are your thoughts about the Supreme Court case regarding the TRAP laws in Texas?
I feel like this is a blueprint for how extremely conservative politicians can overtake any social issue that they don't like. Lest we think that that's not scary, let's look at the Republican presidential candidates and think about what they would do. If it is constitutional to let states attack a fundamental right, that's a real problem for democracy. I really feel like this is a political film and that, if people care about democracy so much, they should really worry about this. That's why this Supreme Court is so important. I feel like we are at a watershed moment.
The film is really coming out at such a crucial moment.
We could not have known that there would be a Supreme Court case [at the same time as the film's release]. I'm very grateful to the documentary gods for blessing me. I'm kind of aiming this movie at people like me, who are pro-choice and assume everything is fine. It's not fine. It's really not fine, and people to not just support people's choice at home. They need to actually express, politically, their support.