Want To Change The Conversation About Abortion? Listen To Women.

A new documentary puts women’s voices front and center.
Amie, one of the women featured in HBO's "Abortion: Stories Women Tell," waits at Hope Clinic.
Amie, one of the women featured in HBO's "Abortion: Stories Women Tell," waits at Hope Clinic.

In Missouri, getting an abortion is a herculean task.

Restrictive abortion legislation has caused all but one abortion provider in the state to shut down. If you do manage to get an appointment at that clinic, you are legally required to receive in-person "state-directed counseling that includes information designed to discourage [women] from having an abortion," and then wait at least 72 hours after said counseling to get the procedure. This makes Missouri one of the most restrictive states in the U.S. when it comes to abortion, in a country where more than 230 abortion restrictions were enacted between January 2011 and January 2015. But, beyond the statistics, what does it all mean for the women whose lives and choices are impacted by these laws?

That's what Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos sought to find out in HBO's "Abortion: Stories Women Tell." The documentary focuses on Tragos' home state of Missouri, and the women there who get abortions, choose not to have abortions, protest abortions and provide abortions.

The 32 women featured in the film are not a monolith. There's Amie, a 30-year-old single mother of two who drives over the border to Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois to obtain a medication abortion. There's Teandra, whose unplanned pregnancy forced her to give up a basketball scholarship and whose ex-boyfriend prevented her from giving their child up for adoption. There's Dr. Erin, a pregnant gynecologist who performs abortions at Hope Clinic. There's Cathy, who leads chants of "All in Christ! For pro-life!," and tears up talking about how much she wants to protect women.

"The brave women on both sides of the issue made this a little less about sides and a little more about real people's lives," said Tragos at the April 18 world premiere of the film, during the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. "Your feelings are supposed to be exactly fit into a box, and [in real life] it's not like that."

Often the loudest voices we hear in the conversation about abortion are those of men -- specifically male politicians. But as Tragos aptly pointed out to me over the phone, women are the ones who can get pregnant, so they should probably also be the ones to "own this conversation."

What made you want to make a film about abortion?

It started with conversations with Sara Bernstein and Sheila Nevins at HBO documentary films. We talked about how the conversation around abortion was so politicized, and had so much rhetoric and how it was really stuck. We thought, what if we could make a film that really focused on women and women’s stories? And I chose to focus on my home state of Missouri. I needed it to come from a personal place, and for me that’s my home turf.

I thought the focus on Missouri was really interesting, given how much we talk about Texas right now. It was nice to focus on another place that has been hit really hard by abortion restrictions, but perhaps we don’t hear about as much.

Exactly. It made sense, both for me as a filmmaker and also that what was happening there was very relevant and largely uncovered. Missouri is one of the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to abortion. In 2014, they passed a 72-hour waiting period. And it almost feels like the state legislators are able to do stuff that’s pretty outrageous because the rest of the world is not holding them accountable or watching. So these stories and the conditions these women are facing aren’t being heard.

How did you make this movie without getting supremely angry? I think that would have been hard for me.

Well, yeah. I consider myself a feminist. I am absolutely 100 percent [pro-abortion rights]. If there was a way for me to be more so than I was, I am after making this film and seeing what it’s like when women don’t have agency over their own bodies and can’t make choices for themselves. It means they are second-class citizens. It means that they don’t get to go to college or don’t get to have that second job which will allow them to do XY and Z. It really changes the course of women’s lives, and that’s not OK.

You made a real effort to include women who come at this issue from all perspectives. Was that baked into your process?

We started with women and abortion stories, and then it became clear that if we’re talking about “options,” what are those options? What do those options look like? We’re really talking about unplanned pregnancy. Let’s explore what that feels like and what resources are there for women who are facing it.

Teandra, [a woman in the film] who wanted to have an abortion or put her child up for adoption, [but because of her male partner’s objections] these were options that were not ultimately available to her. And the default position, which is that every unplanned pregnancy results in a baby -- is pretty tough to ask of women.

Watch a clip from"Abortion: Stories Women Tell" below:

Were you surprised by the stories you heard from women who are anti-abortion activists, especially coming at this as someone who believes in reproductive access and choice?

When approaching those women and hearing those stories, I felt I really had to listen very closely and very generously. I didn’t agree with them, but I wanted to understand where they were coming from and how they come to the conclusions they did. It was surprising to me that many [of the pro-life women I spoke to] had had abortions. Susan [Jaramillo, an author and anti-abortion activist] is one that you hear the most from, but she was certainly not the only woman who was involved in the pro-life movement who had had multiple abortions. It really struck me that, when she needed an abortion, it was there for her, but she didn’t want other women now to make that choice or have that option. That doesn’t necessarily feel fair, but it was interesting to meet these [women involved in the pro-life movement] and to hear how they had come to their work.

Yeah, I found that really fascinating as well.

Discussions about abortion often become so black and white. And when you really start to talk to women and hear these individual stories, the black and white stuff becomes very gray and very complicated.

Were there any similarities among all of the women you spoke to -- regardless of their opinions on abortion -- that you noticed?

Shame is ever-present. That’s the context around it all for women. It’s like Amie [whose medication abortion at Hope Clinic is followed in the film] says: “I’m not a whore because I had sex.”

But there’s just a culture, and especially in Missouri, of abstinence. There’s the idea that people shouldn't be using birth control, and basically you should wait to have sex until you’re married. There’s a lot of cultural context for keeping women in a certain place.

Anti-abortion activist Cathy Young, in HBO's "Abortion: Stories Women Tell."
Anti-abortion activist Cathy Young, in HBO's "Abortion: Stories Women Tell."

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

Slowly and patiently over time. It started with talking to friends and family, and because I focused on Missouri, I know people there.

Hope Clinic was an amazing partner and, in a way, a collaborator, because they allowed me access -- not to film with patients who did not want to be filmed, of course, but to be there. And being with women on the day of their procedures -- that was a big ask. But the women that appeared in the film, they were the women who chose to be on camera, and there was always a reason. It wasn’t that they were doing me a favor. It was that they wanted to tell their story. Often they had felt somehow unduly criticized or sent to hell by walking through this line of protesters, and they wanted to reclaim their experiences -- for themselves but also for the women that might come after them, so that they would not feel so alone. There was a real understanding among the women in the film that sharing stories was important and might help other women.

What do you hope people take away from the film?

I hope it will be a powerful film that can shift the conversation away from political rhetoric and “sides.” It’s been so many years after Roe v. Wade, and abortion is legal, but so many women don’t have access. So, what does that look like? It’s something we can talk about in the abstract, but until people see what that [lack of access] looks like for real women, it’s hard to fight against. So I hope this film will be used in all kinds of ways to shift that conversation.

This interview has been edited and condensed.



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