In 2014, the state of Missouri passed a 72-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. The waiting period, which makes no exceptions for rape or incest victims, is one of the most restrictive in the nation and is particularly difficult for poor and working women to navigate. There is only one abortion clinic in Missouri and the waiting period leaves many women forced to travel across state lines to the overworked Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois.
In her new documentary, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, director Tracy Droz Trago, a Missouri native, traces women whose lives are or have been affected by the remaining Missouri clinic and its Illinois counterpart. In the process, Trago allows women on both sides of the abortion debate—from a single mom who has chosen to have an abortion to a teenager girl who is pregnant; the medical staff at both clinics to women who lead Missouri’s thriving anti-abortion community—to tell their personal stories.
Abortion: Stories Women Tell is an intimate documentary that traces the decisions of women drawn to abortion clinics for a variety of reasons, free of any judgmental strand. Trago is a compassionate storyteller and her documentary is even-handed, interested primarily in letting women speak rather than providing the correct script for their thoughts on abortion or pregnancy. As such, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, is equally heartbreaking and infuriating no matter which side of the issue a viewer might stand on. The contrast between Susan, an anti-abortion activist who gives “glory to God for the 72-hour waiting period,” and Chelsea, a young Evangelical who chooses abortion after discovering the child she was carrying had an unsurvivable anomaly, is stark, and surely Trago means it to be. As the documentary demonstrates, the two sides of the debate are, more often than not, speaking past one another having what seems like a conversation born in the Tower of Babel, steeped in judgment.
Jezebel spoke to Trago about making Abortion: Stories Women Tell. The documentary premieres April 3 on HBO.
JEZEBEL: What drew you to this topic?
TRACY DROZ TRAGO: What drew me to this topic is that reproductive rights for women continue to be such an incredibly divisive issue and we don’t often hear from women directly. I’m a woman of reproductive age and I’m very grateful that I’ve always had access to the birth control that I’ve needed, so I’ve never had an unplanned pregnancy. I have had friends and people who I love who have [had an unplanned pregnancy], as a filmmaker from Missouri, I know that there are places where obstacles are too great for women.
I felt a responsibility to tell these stories. That’s where I’m coming from.
The documentary is a diverse look at women who have strong opinions about abortion. Why was it important to you to show both sides—to show both anti-abortion advocates and women going through the abortion procedure?
I knew that I didn’t want to create an advocacy piece that could be dismissed. I didn’t want a film where women existed in an echo chamber. I wanted women with different opinions who wouldn’t necessarily agree or find themselves in the same place but, through this film, we could hear them and not demonize anybody. I hope that, in the film, we hear from the from a very compassionate gaze.
I thought that the inclusion of anti-choice women from this perspective was really interesting, particularly when coupled with women who have chosen to go forward with unplanned pregnancies. You profiled a couple who had decided to give their child up for adoption and a teenage girl who was in the final trimester of her pregnancy. Could you talk about how, as a filmmaker, you approached these women at these vulnerable moments?
I hope it’s compassionate as possible. My goal with the film was to elevate stories, to hear from women without judgment, and to take it out of the “good choice/bad choices” dichotomy. There’s often this idea that, “Oh, she can just place the baby for adoption or raise it” and that will be easy. I wanted to make sure that we heard from women who made different choices and look at what the impact was.
Reaching out to them was, I hope, always from a very compassionate place and a place where I wanted to hear their stories. The women that did want to share their stories with me, they did so for themselves. Janet [one of the women profiled], she felt judged, she felt alone in her choice. She was really struggling with it because she was alone and she didn’t have a place where she could talk to other women who had placed their child for adoption. As a filmmaker, I felt again and again—and it’s not restricted to Missouri, which is a conservative state with Christian influence—that women felt judged no matter what they did. They felt judged for having sex and for being pregnant. They often felt alone in that and that they couldn’t talk about it. There was some solace in really just being part of this film.
You brought up the issue of judgment. What’s interesting is that judgment really permeates the film in a lot of ways. Aime, the single mom who travels out of state for an abortion, is really the frame of the film. She feels very judged and is very angry. How do you tease out a conversation free of judgment when it’s just inherently there?
So many of these women, no matter their ages or their personal choices, felt this judgment, I hope that by bringing these stories together and sharing that reality...that there’s a bit of an “A-ha!” moment that might come from that. I want viewers to see that we are not alone and that moralizing has no place here. Every single woman in this film felt judgment by someone else who thought that they knew better but, of course, didn’t understand their circumstances.
Even the Christian couple who chose to end the pregnancy after discovering a fetal anomaly, she spoke about the judgment she felt around the Thanksgiving dinner table. She heard whispers from someone at the end of the table about her decision. This film can move the needle and that’s one of the goals of this film. I really wanted to lift some of the shame and the stigma.
In one of the sections of the documentary, you pair a young Christian woman who chose to have an abortion after finding an unsurvivable fetal anomaly with another woman who had an abortion while she was in an abusive relationship. What’s striking about them is that they both needed the same thing: kindness. They find it in unexpected places—from a pastor and from a nurse. Could you speak a bit about that gap between judgment and kindness that’s a persistent theme in your film?
I hope this will appeal to a broader audience who might not normally go see a documentary about abortion and, maybe, someone in the audience can be that kind support for someone else. That is absolutely something that is missing; so many women face this alone and kindness and empathy or simply being a support is so deeply needed. Frankly, too, that support and kindness is needed for those who work in abortion care. They face such judgment day in and day out [the documentary includes interviews with Erin, a doctor at Hope Clinic, who said that protestors regularly picket outside of her home]. I think of the volunteers—the clinic escorts—who are making really crucial contributions to women’s health.