It's been 44 years since Roe v. Wade passed in the Supreme Court, granting all American women the right to abortions. The country should be used to it by now—women have agency over their bodies and lives. The end.
Hardly. Women's rights are now increasingly under attack. During the last six years, more than half of US states have restricted abortion access considerably. In Missouri, for example, only one abortion clinic is still standing, which means women travel for hours, sometimes half a day, to receive a basic medical procedure.
And then they have to endure a 72-hour waiting period. And then they have to endure harassment from the protesters outside the clinic. And life in a society that's becoming more fanatical and militant by the day, a society in which women who have abortions are lambasted as selfish, heartless murderers who will be forever plagued by guilt and shame and divinely mandated diseases.
Tracy Droz Tragos' documentary, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, which airs on HBO on April 3, takes viewers inside that Missouri clinic, providing a glimpse into the lives of the doctors, the patients, and the activists from both sides of the aisle.
Why did you choose to highlight this particular clinic?
Missouri is one of the most restrictive states in the nation when it comes to access to reproductive health care. When faced with the additional burden of a 72-hour waiting period, many Missouri women cross the state line to Illinois for abortion care. Hope Clinic for Women is just outside of St. Louis ...The people there were gracious enough to open their doors and trust us to capture the story of their patients and staff without judgment.
How did you go about keeping the women's personal stories central?
A growing number of states are passing increasingly onerous restrictions on women's health care, including birth control and abortion, without much media attention. We hear little out of these states, where there are deep pockets of poverty and where women's access to affordable healthcare ranges from limited to nonexistent. Women in these states who want to chart their future intentionally—for reasons of work, education, family, health, safety—face barriers that would be insurmountable even for women of means.
A large percentage of women who seek access to abortion care are mothers [already], women who are making choices not for themselves alone, but for their families and their financial and educational future. We don't often hear these stories. Perhaps this film, and the cumulative effect of women's stories, can lift some of the isolation, shame, and stigma women are made to feel, and can soften the stances of those who want to make decisions for others.
Did you feel conflicted about giving voice to the anti-choice activists?
I felt it was important to hear not only from people with whom I agree, but from women across a spectrum of experiences and opinions. If audiences heard only one point of view, they could too easily dismiss the film as an advocacy piece and tune out. I wanted this film to have broad appeal and to be more complex and challenging. My intention was to keep the conversation personal—not to moralize—and to thereby create more understanding and empathy because that's where change happens.
The documentary also touches on the relationship between the people who work in the clinic and the anti-choice protesters outside. There's a scene where one of the doctors is outside smoking a cigarette, quietly singing along to the biblical music the protesters are singing. In our increasingly divided country, is there any hope for useful dialogue between these two camps?
I have hope...If we get pretty basic, we have a lot more in common than what divides us, and that is a good place to start. Maybe this film can help stir up a bit more compassion in audiences, to make people imagine, even for a moment, the myriad of circumstances that women can and do face.
One of the most disturbing moments in the documentary for me came toward the end, when a doctor says matter-of-factly that the anti-choice advocates are getting their way and she can't imagine the pendulum swinging back. Her certainty is chilling. Are we really headed toward the pre-1973, coat-hanger-and-back-alley dark ages?
Yes, if things continue as they are, some women will simply give up. What are the implications when women are unable to finish school, find work, hold jobs, move out of poverty, escape abusive relationships, or continue living in communities where they are shunned? They will become desperate enough to take matters into their own hands.