Reproductive freedom is one of the most hotly contested issues in the United States, with ever more restrictive bills being floated by Congress as abortion clinics shut their doors at a record pace. Since 2011, at least 162 providers have closed. Nearly one fifth of these closings occurred in Texas, which passed sweeping, possibly unconstitutional restrictions in 2013. Even in blue states like California, which lost 12 clinics, access is declining.
Enter Tracy Droz Tragos's timely documentary, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, which premiered this month at the Tribeca Film Festival and will air on HBO later this year. The intimate, emotionally affecting film forgoes the usual hot-button rhetoric. Instead, Tragos chooses to spotlight the experiences of the passionate, thoughtful, and occasionally desperate women on the front lines—abortion seekers, clinic workers, and pro-life activists, some of whom have had abortions themselves.
Jettisoning political jargon, Stories Women Tell examines the personal effect of HB 1307, the 2014 Missouri bill that instituted a 72-hour waiting period between a patient's initial consultation and her chosen abortion service. Although Missouri isn't the first to pass such a bill—Utah has that honor, followed by South Dakota—Missouri doesn't allow exceptions for cases of rape or incest. The increased restrictions are an alarming harbinger of what the future might have in store. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 28 states have instituted waiting periods, and 14 of those require the first appointment to be in person, an undue burden for many prospective patients who already have to drive hundreds of miles or even out of state for services.
One provider helping women who live in hostile territory is Hope Clinic, located just over the Missouri-Illinois border in Granite City, Illinois. It's where women like Amie, a 30-year-old single mother of two in Missouri, go when faced with an unplanned or otherwise unwanted pregnancy. Amie estimates she works "about seventy to ninety hours a week." "There's no way I can physically carry a baby and work," she says in the doc, and it's impossible for her to work fewer hours and still support the children she does have. She's one of many women Droz Tragos interviews on camera about their choice to have an abortion, whether it's motivated by timing (such as a heartbreakingly shy teen with a mouth full of braces), fetal anomalies, or a brutally abusive partner.
I recently met with Droz Tragos at the Smyth Hotel in Manhattan, where we joked about Fitbits and manicures before settling down to talk about the nitty-gritty business of what it's like to attend a pro-life meeting in a church basement and to interview women on one of the most stressful days of their lives. It's clear from her demeanor why the women who participated in the documentary would trust her with their experiences.
VICE: How did you find people to interview?
Tracy Droz Tragos: When the seventy-two-hour law [HB 1307], was passed, many Missouri women were going to Granite City because there's one clinic in Missouri, and that one clinic is in St. Louis, so women were already having to drive hundreds of miles, depending on where they lived obviously, to access abortion care. Then when the seventy-two-hour waiting period came down, many Missouri women would go in, across the border, to Illinois, to Granite City, to access care, and so focusing there made a lot of sense.
How did you actually find people who would talk to you? I noticed that one of the women chose not to have her face on camera, but the rest were very open.
There were many women that obviously weren't on camera and weren't a part of the film, and women who believed in why I was making the film and were grateful that I was making the film, but couldn't be on camera because they feared the repercussions. It was a big ask to say, especially on the day of your procedure, "Would you like to share your story?" You know, a lot is going on. It's not necessarily the best day, and something that people want to sign on for, especially in Missouri, when there is such a culture of stigma and shame, and the sex education is abstinence-based, and there's very little access to birth control. And so the presumption is that you shouldn't be having sex to begin with. So, to be in that position and to be making the choice that these women are making, in Missouri, is extra controversial.
I didn't realize that some of the interviews were actually on the day of the procedure itself. We go through the different steps with Amie and her arc, but I didn't realize that so many of them were actually that day.
When we were at Hope [Clinic], it's the day of their procedures, so yeah... I had to be very patient. There were days that no patients wanted to speak with me, and that was OK. That had to be OK. You know, you can't force this kind of thing. It's a bit of being in the right place at the right time. But for women who did want to share their stories, they were often very intentional in wanting to do that. They felt disenfranchised. They felt, you know, why is there this seventy-two-hour waiting period? They were unaware that that law had recently been passed, and now they were facing this additional hurdle. Or they had just passed through this gauntlet of protestors who were telling them they were going to hell and they felt like, You know, listen, I'm not a bad person. This is who I am. Why am I being damned to hell ?
Many of them wanted to share their stories for themselves, but then they also—and I would say this was universal among the women in the film—they wanted to share their stories for other women, so that other women would benefit from knowing that they were not alone, they were not bad people, and encourage this kind of sharing of stories.
I really appreciated that very few men were present in the film [ laughs]. In fact, I think my favorite moment is when the security guard is like, "Ugh, I wish I could abort him" [in reference to a protester], you know? Because it's such gallows humor, but what else are you going to do?
Those guys out in front of that clinic and who were always there, we didn't want this film to be about them. We actually talked about it at one point. "Should we go interview that guy?" It was like, No, no—[laughs] He really doesn't get a say in this ! But we couldn't cut him out because he was always there. And [there] was even the day that we were following [clinic escort] Debra and spending time with her as an escort—he was following her to her car, and he was there, and that's the context for women who are working in abortion care or supporting women who are accessing this, or the patients themselves. That context is there, so that became a part of the story. But, again, that wasn't our focus, so we weren't going to sit down and interview them... The men that did appear, also with women, did so at the invitation of those women. It wasn't our instigating, but it was the woman saying, "Well, I want you to hear from my boyfriend" or "my husband."
"Even pro-lifers have abortions. Lots of women have abortions."
Watching the documentary, I also felt a great deal of anxiety. I was preparing myself for—is someone going to be harmed? Is everyone OK? And I don't mean from the procedure—I mean from the protesters. Did you feel that same anxiety?
I did, at times. Not in the clinic so much, because they were very much taking precautions and had bulletproof glass, and unfortunately, it's a reality that they have to live with, but I wasn't comfortable being in that church basement [ laughs] with [pro-life activists] Kathy and Susan. I knew when I was in their homes or when I was with them privately that these were not violent people, and so I wasn't worried for myself then, but certainly when there were large groups, it's uncomfortable.
But I wanted to listen very deeply to them too, and even though I have an opinion, and don't necessarily agree with their opinion, I wanted to listen deeply to what they had to say and where they were coming from and how they had come to the place where they are. I felt like there was value in doing that, and not isolating them.... In making this film, the thing that became really clear was that it's hard to break things down in that black and white—all kinds of women have abortions, and that was really something that would not have necessarily occurred to me until I got on the ground and started talking to women. Normally, I'd think, well, if you're pro-life, you don't have an abortion. But no, in fact even pro-lifers have abortions. Lots of women have abortions.
I know it's not necessarily part of some greater arc with Rich Hill and your first documentary, but I did find it striking that so much of what it comes down to is money and class. When Amie says, an IUD is $800, it was like, This is what it comes down to. There's always going to be people who can't afford it, legal or not.
Yeah. Women who can afford it can also have private care and go to a hospital and not have to see the protestors and not have to be told that they're bad people and face that, and not everybody has the constitution to face that, you know? Not everybody can do that. It really is like breaking a strike. It takes certain fortitude to withstand that.
And of course, [there are] the restrictions and the fact that many women then have to miss work to drive hundreds of miles and come back if there's a waiting period, so you've got your first thing and then your second appointment—I know the Supreme Court is considering all of this right now, but it is an undue hardship for women. This is something that is legal that is not accessible for many women in this country, especially in Missouri.
And it's sadistic, in my opinion.
It's not medically indicated. When you look at the hearing footage and these state legislators talking about why there should be a seventy-two-hour waiting period, they compare it to buying a car or picking carpet samples. It's so out of the realm of anything that makes sense. But then there's also this layer of, women should be in the house, or women shouldn't be having sex unless they're married. There's a lot of this other stuff that's going on when they pass these restrictive laws. And yet, for some reason in Missouri, they keep passing them.
How did you select which women to feature in the documentary? Sometimes to make a story more palatable or more empathetic you choose "a perfect victim" or what have you. Was that on your mind when you were asking people to talk?
I think we knew at a certain point that there was a cumulative effect, that we needed to have a story [from] many, many women, and different women, and all circumstances. Because it's not like one size fits all, and it's not like there's one abortion story. It was sort of like, "Let's get a lot of stories here that are different." Some are this way, and some are this way. Women are grateful, but they have feelings about it. Women are relieved. Women are sad. Just get the whole thing out there. And as many stories as possible.
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Abortion: Stories Women Tell will air on HBO later this year.