Amie, a single mother, waits in an exam room at Hope Clinic.
"I have not had an abortion. I'll put that right out there," documentarian Tracy Droz Tragos tells me as we sit down in LA to talk about her film Abortion: Stories Women Tell, which airs on HBO on Monday, April 3. "But it's not like this subject is not personal for me." In fact, the subject quite literally hits close to home. Tragos's home state of Missouri, where she shot the film over the span of more than a year, has some of the country's most restrictive abortion laws on its books. But her film is about people — not just policies. All told, Tragos interviewed more than 40 women who have been touched by abortion in myriad ways. There's Amie, a single mother of two who works 70-90 hours per week and finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. There's Kathy, an antiabortion Catholic activist who pickets Planned Parenthood and is sometimes brought to tears just talking about her cause. There's Chelsea, a devout Christian who made the difficult choice to terminate her pregnancy after learning her fetus had a fatal neural-tube defect.
While few women speak openly or publicly about their experiences with abortion, statistics show that three in 10 American women will undergo the procedure by the time they are 45. Tragos's Missouri upbringing would prove to be key when it came to uncovering these rarely heard stories. She met Dr. Erin King of abortion provider Hope Clinic through a friend of a friend and, via that connection, earned the trust of dozens of women who opened up to her on camera. (While Hope Clinic is located in Illinois, it's just a short drive from the Missouri border and treats many women from the neighboring state.) The resulting film makes a compelling case that women's reproductive rights are eroding not only in states like Missouri but across the country, and that we can't afford to be complacent about it.
A trailer for Abortion: Stories Women Tell.
POPSUGAR: I was really moved by how many women opened up to you about an issue and experience that is so personal and controversial. Was there a domino effect where one woman met you and trusted you and so on?
Tracy Droz Tragos: Well, it's not like there's a club of women who are going to predict that they're going to have these unplanned pregnancies. You wish there was more discussion about it, and you wish there was more support around it. I hope that that's one of the things this film can do: create a community of sorts that makes abortion not so shameful, or stigmatized, or something that has to be uttered in a whisper. But no, the access wasn't easy. Particularly in Missouri, where there is an added layer of social shame, whether you're having sex out of wedlock or going to get birth control at a pharmacy. But we knew that there would be a cumulative effect. It couldn't just include the story of a handful of women because, then, it's easier to dismiss. It's easier to say "Oh, well that's just them." I wish we could've fit hundreds more stories, because there's no film that could contain all the circumstances that women are going to face.
"I hope that that's one of the things this film can do: create a community of sorts that makes abortion not so shameful, or stigmatized, or something that has to be uttered in a whisper."
PS: Once you spoke with these women, what about their experiences shocked you or struck you the most?
TDT: What's just very, very sobering is to really see how disenfranchised women are when they don't have access to the care that they need. From what I saw, and the people that I met, there wasn't a lot of active participation from the men in the picture. It's a burden that's really borne by women, and so they're not allowed to have personal agency. You can't educate yourself, you can't get out of poverty, you can't get a job. For [one woman I interviewed] Sarah, she couldn't find childcare, and then when she did, she couldn't afford childcare. So she had to drop out of high school. It's not to say that every teenage mom can't figure it out. But there is a burden that women bear that often is not shared with men. It's not that women should fear sex, but we need to be empowered. We need to have choices. We need to have access to the protection that we need so we only get pregnant when we want to get pregnant.
PS: You have a family of your own. Did you have any initial fear for your personal safety taking on an issue like this?
TDT: I did; it's certainly something I thought about. I think there were a few reasons not to do it, but ultimately the reasons to do it were stronger. I'm the mother of two daughters. I care about them and I care about their future and their access and for them to be able to be whoever they want to be. I believe deeply that access to health care for them is a right, and a right should be protected.
PS: You do interview several antiabortion activists in the film. Were they happy with how they were portrayed?
TDT: It was important not to demonize them, and it did require deep listening on my part, because I didn't necessarily agree with their point of views or how they came to do the work that they were doing. But I also felt like, in order for this film to not be seen simply as an advocacy piece — and to really do a fair glimpse of perspectives in Missouri — their voices needed to be included. They did see the film; they came to the Tribeca Film Festival [where the movie first premiered]. I think, ultimately, they would've wanted more of a voice or to have the film be only about them, but that wasn't the film it was going to be. I've heard that on the flip side, too: "Why did you include their voice at all? It should've just been prochoice women." I think some people might find the film, dare I say, too prolife. Some people might find the film too prochoice. But I hope that the film is not categorized, but simply experienced, and the audience comes away with a sense of compassion and maybe a greater understanding that this is not an isolated circumstance that happens to creepy people, or bad people, or hipsters, or criminals or whatever.
Antiabortion protesters picket a clinic.
PS: One antiabortion activist you interview had, herself, had several abortions. Her message was that every woman who had an abortion would feel shame, and instead of questioning where the shame came from, it was: "I felt this way after an abortion, so therefore abortion is bad." What do you think her view says about the antichoice attitude?
TDT: That's part of their rhetoric. It's about regret and it's about wanting to prevent women from going through what they went through. I don't agree with it, but I think they may very well regret their abortion and this is how they're choosing to move forward in their lives. That's not part of everyone's story; I think it's rather presumptuous to put that on other women. It doesn't leave room for the stories of women who decided [to abort], but who also have mixed feelings. So then you feel like, well, I can't have sadness, or I can't have the complicated feelings that I have, because if I do, it's going to be used to support the message that everyone is going to feel regretful and it's a bad, shameful thing. I think when people put judgment on top of that, it's just piling on the bullying, where there really just needs to be a space of "what you feel is OK; it's a decision between you and your doctor."
PS: Have you kept in touch with some of the women you met? I'm especially interested to know where Amie, who in some ways is the anchor of the film, is today.
TDT: She has really blossomed with this platform and really feels strongly about being a voice for women. When she first agreed to be a part of the film, I think she was angry and really disenfranchised and felt judged. She was still living with this "I'm a bad person" and had this defensiveness, like "I am not a bad person. I'm trying to get by." When she came to the premiere, the audience was really incredibly wonderful. Wouldn't it be great if everyone had that feeling of it being praised instead of shunned and shamed?
PS: It's only been about 40 years since Roe v. Wade. Why do you think the tide has turned so extremely against abortion in the ensuing years?
TDT: Why there has been so little progress? It's hard to know. It does feel like access on either coast is significantly better than everywhere else. If you live on either coast and you're unaware of what's happening in the rest of the country, it seems kind of unbelievable. I think there's a little complacency. Maybe people don't know that this is actually really seriously a right that you may not have. And it could be coming soon to a state near you.
Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos.
PS: Another story that I think will stick with people is a woman who was very excited to be pregnant but learned that the fetus was not viable. She was then subject to this 72-hour wait period and had to live with that knowledge for three days. The nuance in her experience was something you don't hear lawmakers discuss when they're bickering about abortion.
TDT: I can get riled up about that. The same folks are often against marriage equality, and really push that women should be in the home to take care of the kids, and it's a man's world. There's a lot of nostalgia and looking back to the '50s as the good old days. Who's to know what's really in their hearts, but I think that if they saw the faces of these women and heard their stories — and maybe it was their daughter or their wife — maybe they'd have a slightly different perspective on the matter. It's such a private, personal matter for someone to carry a pregnancy. The one personal experience that I do have is that I experienced having two miscarriages, so I experienced going in, finding out that the fetus had no heartbeat. It's a very similar thing, when it's something you want. It's heartbreaking.
PS: Given how restrictive the laws are in Missouri, did you meet any women who were effectively not able to get an abortion because of those laws? Or did it almost prove that women will go to any length to get an abortion when they are seeking one?
TDT: Well, no, if I had to guess. These state legislators who said that they were doing this for women so they could have more time to think about their decision, they compared it to buying a car or looking at carpet samples. "You really just want to weigh your decisions and sleep on it." Totally clueless stuff like that. My sneaking suspicion is that they want to make it harder and harder to access so women just give up, because they can't take the time off work, and before long, it's too late. I met Te'Aundra in the movie, who wanted first to have an abortion, and then to raise her child for adoption, and both options didn't work out for her. It's not a pretty picture. It's not a happy, easy outcome for her. Too often, it's like, "Oh, you just put your child up for adoption, and it'll be so easy." There's very little understanding of the burden you're asking someone who you don't know to bear.
PS: The latest Supreme Court abortion decision effectively strikes down many of these laws in many states. Why do you feel this film is still relevant and important despite that win for abortion rights?
TDT: Well, Missouri still has one abortion provider. There's still a 72-hour wait period. I don't know how quickly these laws are going to change. They have to be challenged [in court] and I don't know how quickly that will happen. The stigma and shame also doesn't immediately go away either. My hope is that this film can contribute in any kind of way to that sharing of stories, and it would be amazing if it had a snowball effect and more women came forward and talked about it. Because that's where we can change things. We can see each other as human beings and there's more compassion.