HBO's New Film Shows How Abortion Is Not Something That Happens To Someone Else

Talking to director Tracy Droz Tragos about her film "Abortion: Stories Women Tell"

Photo courtesy of HBO

It's been more than 40 years since the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v Wade gave American women the right to choose whether or not they want to terminate a pregnancy, and yet abortion is a more controversial and topical issue than ever before. While Roe v Wade guaranteed abortion's legality under federal law, states have been able to legislate according to their own whims, making America a country in which access to women's healthcare is as much a matter of geography (and, of course, economics) as it is anything else. It's possible to live in states like New York or California and take for granted the ready availability of birth control, STD testing, and abortion, all things and services to which women in places like Indiana or Alabama have limited or no access. Women's healthcare is the epitome of an issue which is both political and personal, and it is one upon which we so often hear politicians and legislators expound, even if we rarely hear from those who are most affected by restrictive laws and regulations: the women themselves.

Abortion: Stories Women Tell, a new documentary from acclaimed director Tracy Droz Tragos, seeks to remedy this imbalance by focusing not so much on the political, but rather on the personal. Over the course of the film, which opens in select theaters on August 12th, viewers see what the state of Missouri's stringent abortion laws (including a 72-hour wait period for women seeking the procedure; they're among the toughest in the country) have done to women there seeking to terminate their pregnancies. Tragos follows many women from all walks of life who have decided to have abortions for a variety of reasons; she also documents the work of the doctor and staff at Hope Clinic for Women, which is just over the Missouri state line in Illinois, as they deal with the effects of Missouri's strict laws. Then too, Tragos interviews women who have chosen to give birth rather than have abortions, as well as several ardently anti-choice women, including Kathy, an activist who believes she was tasked by God to protest Planned Parenthood, since her middle name is "Anne," which is in the middle of the word "Planned;" and Susan, an anti-choice activist and lecturer who has had three abortions, but believes that other women should not have that choice.

Throughout the film, Tragos' sensitivity for all her subjects is clear; her hand is light and the focus is on the women and their stories. The film is quietly powerful, and the power comes through via the realization that even though each of these women is essentially alone when making their choice to keep or terminate their pregnancy, they are also part of a larger narrative, one which encompasses all the other women who have been on the same journey. No woman who has a pregnancy—planned or not—is alone; there’s other women out there who have the same experience or maybe one that’s just a few degrees separate or one even one that’s wholly different, but which still brings them to the same place. What this documentary demonstrates, particularly in scenes at the clinic, when women are comforted by staff and protected by the fiery security guard who faces constant verbal abuse and taunts by anti-choice protestors, is that no matter how alone we feel when making difficult decisions, we are all part of the same story, and moving forward is easier when we do it by coming together.  

Recently, I spoke with Tragos about her film, how she found the women who participated in it, and what she hopes people who watch it come away thinking and feeling.

I would love to know what inspired you to make this documentary. 
Sometimes people wonder if I have a personal experience with this—have I had an abortion. The answer to that is no, but I certainly realize my privileged position in that for most of my reproductive years I’ve lived in states where I’ve had access to healthcare and I’ve had access to birth control. Nonetheless, it’s a personal issue for me and something that I care about, both for myself and now for my daughters. I have two daughters who will one day soon be thinking about these issues and I want them to have all the opportunities that they can with their careers and lives. So the things that I care about and the things that I’m passionate about are personal even though I haven’t had an abortion myself.

From there, it was a collaboration of two very brave women at HBO, Sheila Nevins and Sara Bernstein; I give them credit for supporting me from day one, because otherwise I’m not sure I would have had the bravery to do it. And I really don’t think I would have been very brave; I would have just said it’s too hard; it’s too divisive. We’ll make a difference in some other way. But I had them behind me to say let’s do it, and our intention was to shift the conversation away from what feels like a very political, rhetorical place to a very personal place, where we could show some women who are very affected directly.

I think that's what made it resonate so much; there was very little political rhetoric. It was about all these women’s stories, and about how abortion is an issue of women’s health in a comprehensive way. It's about family planning and it's about making the choice that's right for their whole lives. A lot of the women in this film were mothers, and even if you know that statistically, it’s still such a powerful thing to see that it’s not all single women who are seeking abortions but it’s many different kinds of women. Sorry that’s not a question. It was a comment! So also: What made you choose Missouri? I've lived in New York my whole life and definitely take for granted my easy access to women's healthcare. It was startling to see what these women had to go through. 

Well, Missouri is my home state. That’s where much of my family still lives. I’d also spent a lot of time there recently for [her documentary] Rich Hill, and spent a lot of time with boys for that movie and spent time with their mothers. And all of the mothers of those boys in Rich Hill who became pregnant when they were teenagers spoke about how that changed the course of their lives. And whatever the plans or dreams were that they might have had for themselves personally, they all shifted when they became parents as teenagers. And I saw that. And I saw what access—what a lack of access—does to families, and the residual effect that that can have. So that’s why I chose to look at Missouri. It can also wind up being overlooked because there’s a lot of other states that get attention, and this is the state that’s one of the most restrictive states in the country for this and you never even hear about it. So I thought in my home state I could do something to shed a little light on the problems there.

How did you find the women who participated in the film? 

Step by step. Some of the access was because one person could vouch for me and then another person would hear about me, but ultimately I met Dr. Erin King from the Hope Clinic and with her trust in me it really allowed for us to meet more women and to share in the most stories. I’m grateful to her for her trust during the making of this movie. 

What about the women who were pro-life? 

I found it was harder because it’s not people that I’m involved with or know personally, but I started doing my research in terms of seeing who was online, and Kathy was the first pro-life person I found. She had faith and trusted me that I was not going to demonize her and that I would fairly demonstrate her point of view and how she came to it. And so she trusted me and that led me to the other women in the film who shared her point of view. She was the counterpoint as opposed to Dr. King in terms of vouching for me. 

You presented her very fairly and the other women who are pro-life, but what I found really striking about them was that they’re all women who are thoughtful and can think about things in comprehensive ways, but they view abortion as such a binary issue even though they must know—particularly in the case of Susan, who is strongly pro-life but has had three abortions—that there’s nuance to it. You know, it’s not black and white. How do you feel about the fact that these women are just not able to see this issue as one that’s not just open and closed?

Yeah, I mean, it’s not easy, but it’s something that, working as a documentary filmmaker, it’s important for this film—that their perspective is being included. We never wanted this to be an advocacy piece. We wanted this to be a personal piece. We wanted this to be a film that included different perspectives so that no one felt left out. We covered a lot of stories, and we couldn’t cover all the circumstances, but we tried to touch on a lot of them. I would also say that in meeting with Reagan [a pro-life college student] and Kathy, I always tried to focus on what we have in common. There’s a lot we don’t have in common, but what we do have in common, I think that’s always a place to start. And there were things we had in common and I hope ultimately that the film is encouraging conversation or shifting the conversation where there is more compassion and there is more understanding about where there is common ground. And, you know, common ground could be the fact that unplanned pregnancies are something we could prevent with education and with birth control, we can make a difference together.  

There’s always a feeling of stigma and shame for these women, and a feeling of being alone in their  choice. I think that we can all rally around the fact that women should be supported to not feel alone and to not be shamed. There is always going to be the kind of lunatic, bullying fringe, and those are the people that you’re never going to influence; but I certainly hope there are people in the pro-life movement who can be moved by seeing this film.

Yeah, I think even if it just works in coming up with ways to think about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. One of the biggest tragedies in this country is that many women can’t even afford to prevent pregnancies but then can’t afford to have children, and they wind up in difficult positions that they never should have been in the first place. And maybe that can resonate with the anti-choice people if nothing else does. Going back to what you said about a support system, I really responded so strongly to the community at the clinic. The security guard was such a wonderful woman and such a great advocate for the patients; and the final shot of the film, when all the women who work at the clinic are gathered around talking to one another, it was very emotional and a powerful last shot. It showed how essential it is for women to have support, externally to their own family, perhaps, or even friends, but just other women in society.

I do hope that this film can impact and encourage that [kind of supportive engagement] because abortion isn’t something that happens to someone else, to single women who don’t want to be parents. It happens to many, many, many different kinds of women from all walks of life, and we really want to talk more about it. It's important to do so.