A look at the recent wave of abortion documentaries Trapped, After Tiller, Vessel, and 12th & Delaware.
“Somebody came up with the idea that it’s a woman’s right — it’s her body and she can do what she wants. Unfortunately, that is not true.”
— 12th & Delaware.
The abortion debate is many things: personal, political, religious. But at its core — underneath all of the taboo, shame, and anger — it’s about control. It’s about the idea that a woman shouldn’t have agency over her own body and life. Instead, it should be up to her family, husband, God. And now the Republicans.
Just last week, Senator Paul Ryan pledged, along with repealing the Affordable Care Act (which is the exact same thing as Obamacare, really!), to defund Planned Parenthood. This is because Republicans don’t believe that Planned Parenthood should receive federal funding, because they provide abortion services.
Except, guess what: those federal funds go to everything but abortion services, like testing for sexually transmitted diseases, providing contraceptives, screening for breast cancer. You know, basic healthcare.
If defunding Planned Parenthood wasn’t horrifying enough, some state governments are also actively working to shut down abortion clinics through TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws. The impact of these laws throughout the southern states in particular is the focus of Dawn Porter’s 2016 documentary Trapped. She gained impressive access to clinics in Alabama, where there are only three left; Mississippi, where there is just one (and you thought it was bad in Alabama); and Texas, where the number of clinics dropped from 44 to six after new legislation passed in 2013.
So what is a TRAP law? It’s essentially what it sounds like, a trap. It’s a law that is pretty much impossible to comply with, so clinics have no choice but to close. States claim these laws are for the health and safety of everyone, yet only abortion providers are targeted, and they are targeted hard.
Texas, not wanting to let the other states have all the fun, pulled the ultimate “hold my beer” with the passing of HB2 in 2013. The bill required all abortions be performed in an “ambulatory surgical center” despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of abortions are performed in outpatient clinics.
“The purpose of the bill is not to regulate; it’s to regulate us out of business. The function is a trap.” — June Ayers, owner of Reproductive Health Services, in Trapped
It’s on a tour of a clinic with Marva Sadler, Director of Clinical Services for Whole Woman’s Health, that the realities — and utter ridiculousness — of meeting the ambulatory surgical center requirements really hits home. She points to impressive-looking medical equipment in the walls and explains that there can’t be freestanding machines and after a beat adds, “I don’t know if we’ve ever used any of these things in the walls at this clinic.” (Seriously?)
The operating room is the most shocking of all — it’s full of the sort of equipment you’d expect to see in a hospital, which isn’t far from the truth actually. “This is the same exact building and this is the same exact setup where you would bring someone who was having open heart surgery.” (Oh, come on.)
Standing up to HB2 is the Center for Reproductive Rights, which shines alongside the intrepid clinic owners and doctors in Trapped. They filed a lawsuit challenging the bill on behalf of Whole Woman’s Health. During filming it was announced the lawsuit would be taken to the Supreme Court, which happened after the documentary premiered at Sundance in 2016.
This is perhaps one of most striking things about Trapped: how it manages to tackle the complex law side of the issue while still feeling intimate and human. “When I was there, the nurses and doctors just worked so hard to make the women feel safe, and they recognize and understand how emotional the women can be, so I really wanted to just show how normal the people are and how professional and brave they are,” explains Porter in an interview at The Moveable Fest.
Equally as normal, professional, and brave are the subjects of After Tiller. Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s 2013 documentary focuses on the professional and private lives of four doctors performing late term abortions in the United States. As in, the only four. Late term abortions occur in the third trimester (after 25 weeks) and are restricted in many states. George Tiller was one such doctor who performed them until he was assassinated in his church in 2009. Amazingly, his colleagues LeRoy Carhart, Susan Robinson, Shelly Sella, and Warren Hern continued on in his memory.
It becomes clear within the first few minutes of patient interactions in After Tiller that women most often seek late-term abortions due to horrific fetal abnormalities and/or fatal health risks to their own lives. Faces are never shown; instead, hands and feet are carefully framed as patients tell their stories. There are delicate hands wringing a tissue and a shaky voice explaining that she’ll feel guilty either way, by choosing to either bring an incredibly sick baby into the world or choosing to end its life. It’s an effective punch to the stomach without coming across as melodramatic or overdone.
“What I believe is that women are able to struggle with complex ethical issues and arrive at the right decisions for them and their families.” — Dr. Susan Robinson in After Tiller
Moral compasses are put to the test with each woman’s situation. Is one woman’s suffering more acceptable of help than another’s? Is a rape victim more worthy than a fetus with a severe abnormality? In order to be approved for the procedure, women first have to make a compelling argument to the clinic staff, and even then there likely isn’t space or time to take everyone. “What if you’re just not a good storyteller?” Dr. Susan Robinson muses.
Wilson thought it was important to get people to realize the doctors are human beings, too. “They’re three-dimensional people who have their own struggles and conflicts and different ways to doing this work,” she told RogerEbert.com. Along with the stress and emotional exhaustion of work, they have their home lives to balance, as well. Imagine feeling relief from having a wonderful family to go home to but also fearful because the work you do makes you, and therefore them, a target.
It’s situations like this that make it easy to forget that abortion is actually, technically, legal in the United States. There are still many countries where abortion is illegal, as documented in the 2014 documentary Vessel, directed by Diana Whitten. Vessel explores the reproductive rights of women around the world through the voyages of a ship that provides medical abortions and support for women in countries where it is illegal.
Get this: 12 miles out from any coast is considered international waters. In these waters, the laws of the flagship country are applied to all vessels. So you could, like subject Rebecca Gomperts and her organization Women on Waves, outfit a ship from the Netherlands, where abortion is legal, and travel to places like Ireland, where abortion is illegal, pick up women in need, travel 12 miles out to sea, and provide them with the abortion pill without breaking the law.
“I was compelled by the metaphor of a woman having to leave one realm of sovereignty to reclaim her own.” Whitten explained to Filmmaker Magazine. “I thought it was a rare and interesting example of the offshore being used not for crime or personal gain, but for social justice.” International waters: not just for pirating anymore.
“I have two children and I know how much it takes to be a good parent, and if somebody cannot do that or does not want to, the misery that that creates… I think my fundamental philosophy is the reduction of suffering and I think the right to safe abortion reduces suffering.” — Rachel Gomparts, founder of Women on Waves, in Vessel
Vessel is an activist story through and through. It’s incredibly inspiring because it shows how one organization — and a ship — empowered women around the world and grew a movement. It wasn’t easy, of course. Women on Waves receive push-back in nearly every country they visit, from verbally and physically aggressive mobs of protestors to the Portuguese government actually refusing to let them dock in Portugal.
Gomperts takes it all in stride and always remains focused on her mission. Her belief that a strong offense is required to make change is evident in her work. After being faced with the drawbacks of having a ship, she gets inspired to start Women on Web, an online service to educate women on medical abortions and help them access the required medication. She begins to travel to countries like Ecuador and Tanzania to set up call centers and training facilities, and even starts guerrilla marketing campaigns with local organizations to get the word out. In a word: badass.
Trapped, After Tiller, and Vessel remind us that where there are abortion clinics there will be pro-life protesters. Like bees to honey, they are there with their winning personalities, giant signs, and chants. It’s in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 2010 documentary 12th & Delaware that we actually get to experience the abortion issue from their perspective.
Filmed in captivating cinema verité style, the documentary focuses on an intersection in Fort Pierce, Florida. On one side of the street is an abortion clinic, and directly on the other side is a anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center (CPC). And nope, it’s not by accident.
For the first 45 minutes of the documentary, we see what women experience in a CPC. At first, it seems really lovely. There’s an overstuffed, floral-print armchair to sit on, so how bad can it be, right? Ann, who runs the center, is friendly, but she has an end-game, which is to convince women to carry out their pregnancies—no matter what.
This is done through a variety of tactics, like getting the women to hold a fetus doll, pushing an ultrasound on them, playing graphic, misleading videos in the waiting room, even buying one woman lunch. That might not sound that bad, but when you are grappling with the realities of an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, being given an ultrasound picture that has “HI MOMMY HI DADDY!” printed on it is some manipulative shit.
It’s almost unbearable to watch and makes you wonder how Grady and Ewing were able to even stand filming at the CPC. “We really had to be objective and watch extremely vulnerable women not get comforted, not get relief. That wasn’t our role, but it hurt. I would just be dying, these girls were in so much pain, I felt like a traitor because I couldn’t do anything about it,” Grady told the L.A. Times.
Outside the CPC, Grady and Ewing focus on some of the protesters. We hear them shouting inspiring and definitely true things like, “God made you pregnant; it’s not a mistake!” and “95% of women will tell you they regret their abortions; you’re not going to be different!” One man makes it his personal mission to stalk the doctor who works at the abortion clinic He wanted to find out his name and where he lives and didn’t care about the risks; he thought it was “worth it.”
His conviction is particularly sickening, but on the flip side, it’s the same sort of dogged conviction that all of the doctors and clinic owners possess. They do this because they think women’s rights are worth it. They also possess the sort of temperament that doesn’t back down when faced with bullies — or death threats. Dr. Carhart (After Tiller) describes how it was protesters setting fire to his barn, killing dozens of his horses, that pushed him to commit to working with Dr. Tiller. Sadler (Trapped) talks about seeing all of the protesters on her first day of working at a clinic and realizing that if people were going to fight against it somebody had to fight for it.
Another common theme in all these stories should be a most obvious truth: fighting against abortion clinics isn’t going to end abortions. All together now: no shit. Clinics and doctors don’t cause abortions, they provide them. Nearly every provider says this in some way or another throughout each documentary. Women are always going to need abortions, so at the very least they should be safe and available. That, Gomparts (Vessel) believes, is a basic human right.
“Closing clinics is not going to stop abortions. Women are going to have abortions. It’s just that they are not going to be safe and legal.” — Gloria Gray, Owner and director of the West Alabama Women’s Center, in Trapped
It’s a basic human right and it should be up to a woman to decide. But because of these pervading laws and beliefs, women have increasingly less and less autonomy when it comes to their reproductive rights—or never had any to start with. At the end of 12th and Delaware, Candace, the owner of the abortion clinic, watches from her window as protesters talk a woman out of entering the clinic with promises of money, clothes, and toys. “If they really did talk her out of it, that’s fine. I just don’t know who they think they are to try and control somebody they don’t even know.”