Produced and directed by Tracy Droz Tragos, the HBO documentary Abortion: Stories Women Tell shares the experiences of women living in the Bible Belt and coping with unplanned pregnancies. The film is unlikely to change the thinking of firm believers on either side of the issue, but for viewers whose opinions waiver, who are unsure of the morality of abortion or are unclear about the motives behind it, the film will be educational and illuminating.
Tragos grounds her documentary in her home state of Missouri, where one abortion clinic serves the entire state. While Missouri has some of the most draconian restrictions in the nation, it’s hardly alone in limiting abortion access. Since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, over half the states have enacted some form of restriction.
In September 2014, the burden on Missouri women coping with an unwanted pregnancy was compounded when the state legislature overrode Governor Jay Nixon’s veto to pass a law mandating a wait period of 72 hours between the initial consultation for an abortion and the actual terminating procedure (with no exceptions for rape and incest). This meant that women who had already driven hours from their home for their first appointment needed to return three days later before anything was done. Practically speaking, this not only intensifies patients’ trauma but creates a special burden on working women with children and single mothers (who are in the majority among the people whose stories are recounted here).
Much of the documentary is shot at Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, just over the state border, where many women travel for their procedures — among other reasons, to avoid the three-day waiting period. The interviewees include the clinic’s staff: Erin, the doctor (pregnant herself at the time the film was made), the nurses, the receptionists, the escorts (who act to shield the patients from protesters) and a female security guard. Many have personal histories that have brought them to a place where they continue to work under great emotional pressure from their families and the community at large. That pressure is constant; there’s never a moment when one or more pro-birth protesters are not heard outside the clinic calling down God’s judgment on the women and their medical providers.
To frame the situation, Tragos opens with an enthusiastic pro-birth rally being swept away by then-Missouri Speaker of the House Tim Jones, in which he sounds a triumphant note of victory in the fight to do away with all clinics – not only in Missouri but, via “a ripple effect,” throughout the United States.
Besides Jones, the documentary features other prominent pro-birth activists including Susan Jaramillo, a statuesque blonde woman who has had three abortions herself but now actively opposes them, maintaining that the experience cannot help but irrevocably damage a woman and cover her with shame. (Now a devout Christian, Jaramillo has written a book, How God Rewrote My Heart). Another religiously devout pro-birther, Kathy Forck, laments, “I can’t believe that I am a citizen of a country that says it’s okay to kill a baby.” A third, Reagan Nielsen, is a student activist who recruits other students and whose verbal altercation with an articulate pro-choice advocate at a Planned Parenthood conference encapsulates the ideological clash between pro-choicers who maintain that a woman’s circumstances should be a relevant factor in her decision, and anti-choice activists who don’t.
But the filmmaker’s main focus is on the abortion-seekers. First among them is Amie, a divorced mother who works 70 to 90 hours per week as a server and bartender to support her two children, and is now pregnant with a third. In some ways the film’s linchpin because she’s the patient we get to know best, Amie’s choice to terminate has to do with her finances — the virtual impossibility of carrying through with the pregnancy while continuing to work and take care of her family. In later interviews, we learn more as she opens up about her anger, her aloneness, her wanting to reach out to women in similar circumstances — and her struggle to combat the feelings of shame that she rationally understands are unwarranted but that filter, in despite her best efforts to ignore them.
Other women seek abortions for different reasons: Monique, because her husband viciously abuses her, or Chelsea, a churchgoer whose deformed fetus had no chance of survival. Like Amie, many speak of their sense of isolation and of being judged by others. Yet most firmly believe their choice is for the best. A “journal” Erin keeps in the clinic is available for anyone to write in — and they do. Sometimes the doctor peruses it, and the comments — in one way or another a self-affirmation — inspire her to keep at it despite the mounting obstacles involved.
Abortion: Stories Women Tell isn’t uniformly gripping; at 93 minutes, it could be pared. Sequences that document the workings of the clinic — the receptionist taking phone calls, for example, or the conversation between doctor and patient in an examining room, are of minimal interest (especially if you’re someone who’s been there yourself, or knows someone who has.) A slow, mournful soundtrack (by Nathan Halpern) accompanies much of the film, and at times gives it a ponderous and self-conscious feel. A few of the interviews could also be pruned.
But other sequences are powerful. If you’re pro-choice, the intensity of the pro-birth people, as individuals and in a group, is almost terrifying to observe. Against that backdrop, the struggle of women like Amie who are fighting for their dignity and their future emerges in clearly delineated and compelling focus, and is not easily forgotten.
Deborah Klugman is a freelance arts journalist living in Los Angeles. She has been writing about L.A. theater since 1986.