With the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a challenge to Texas’s HB2, an omnibus bill aimed at regulating abortion providers out of existence, Dawn Porter’s new documentary, Trapped, is an essential examination of dwindling abortion rights in the South. The documentary, which recently won Sundance’s Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking, outlines the challenges faced by clinics and providers, primarily in Texas, Alabama, and Georgia, in the era of TRAP laws.
Porter follows clinic owners and doctors, among them Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health; June Ayers, the owner of a clinic in Montgomery, Alabama; and Gloria Gray, a defiant clinic owner in Tuscaloosa who has a penchant for Louis Vuitton handbags and bumper stickers that read, “May your child grow up to be a gay abortion doctor.”
(That bumper sticker is a comical reference to Willie J. Parker, the only doctor who performs abortions in Mississippi, a man who has returned to his native South to offer much-needed services despite legislative and personal intimidation.)
Trapped takes the perspective of clinic owners, doctors, and patients; it’s a relentlessly emotional look into how TRAP laws have hindered access to reproductive health—especially among women of color—and the often harrowing consequences of having these services impeded. In the film, health workers cry while they recount turning away teenage rape victims who are past the law’s 20-week cutoff and share stories of women so desperate they ask for advice on how to self-abort (John Oliver used highlights of the documentary in his recent report on TRAP laws).
Porter and I spoke on the phone last week.
Jezebel: I saw that you were at the Supreme Court last week on the day SCOTUS heard Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt.
Dawn Porter: I was, I was. It was a great day. There were a couple thousand pro-choice people there as opposed to maybe a hundred anti-choice people. People were out in force. I got to speak from the podium on the Supreme Court. It was pretty dreamy for a lawyer-geeky-girl who made an abortion rights film.
That makes me wonder: abortion generally and TRAP laws in particular are such controversial, emotional, and politically contentious topics for a lot of people. What drew you towards making a movie about this? I imagine that making Trapped was emotionally very hard.
It is hard. I felt like that there were some complex stories worth telling; that if I could find people living through the issue, and get away from old stereotypical conversations, and actually see some people, then maybe I could interest people beyond the regular pro-choice folks.
The other thing is, I’m a lawyer by training, and I was interested in the systematic degradation of pro-choice rights. I think most people think that it’s extremists who are closing clinics, when it’s state politicians who are closing clinics. I though the topic did lend itself well to a film. If you can get people’s attention, then you can explain something that, on its face, is hard to understand. It’s hard to understand why TRAP laws are so dangerous to abortion rights. I thought that a documentary would be a really good vehicle to wading through all of that.
The film brings up a lot of political and cultural issues that are tied to abortion, which oftentimes haunt the debate but aren’t always prevalent. I was thinking of about how you touched on the issue of race throughout the film. There was a scene in the film where an Operation Rescue protester yells, “All black lives matter.”
It’s my favorite use of Black Lives Matter ever (laughs).
Right? It’s so ridiculous because this white protester is yelling at what are largely women of color. So many of the clinic workers and doctors that you profile in Trapped—these are men and women of color.
I was filming in the South, where you have a much larger percentage of African-Americans and Latinos, and I do think there is a really important racial and economic argument to be discussed. The lack of access to health care and birth control has severely impacted black populations and Latino populations. It’s those folks who are impacted by clinic closures. So you have this very disturbing picture of largely white Southern legislatures making laws that are decreasing access to health care for black women. I thought that it was an important conversation to have.
Having Dr. Parker, a man from the South who is traveling there to literally provide health care to people, I thought it was such a natural way to show the impact of these laws—that in order for women to find one abortion doctor, you have to have a physician fly in from out of state. I thought that just showing him made a point about the lack of access to health care and how hard it can be for black women in particular.
Willie Parker, one of the primary people that you focus on, is an interesting figure: he had left the South and was practicing elsewhere and returns home. This is a theme that runs through your film: many of the people you profile are so committed to staying and providing care despite the dangers and persecution they face. I thought that was a striking aspect of the film.
It was for me, too. Dr. Parker grew up very poor, the last child in his large family, the only child to go to college, and then, of course, the only person to go to medical school. He was living in Chicago at the time, teaching at Northwestern University, and had a successful obstetrics practice. He could do anything he wanted and he was choosing to fly on his off days to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia and provide medical care.
I was so struck by that. He said to me, “If I don’t go, who will?” He didn’t do abortions for the first 12 years of his career and he saw all of these women who would try to self-abort, women who had no medical care, women who had high-risk pregnancies, and he thought, “I went to medical school to help my community, and [abortion care] is what my community needs.” I was really taken by that.
Also, he’s a person of faith, so he does not allow anti-choice zealots to say that they are more Christian than he is.
That to me was also fascinating. In the popular debate, abortion is on one side and religion is on the other. But in Trapped, there’s a very tender scene where one of the clinic workers prays with one of her young patients who is feeling worried about her choice.
Yeah, she’s hurt. And I thought what the worker did, I thought it was such a beautiful exercise of religion, especially at a time when religion can ironically and perversely be used to spread hate. Here, this clinic worker was doing what religion is supposed to do, it’s supposed to be comforting.
In the South, prayer is a part of everyday life. And this is what you want prayer to be, the clinic worker was being generous and compassionate and that, to me, feels very godlike.
There’s a real tenderness to it, in her treatment of the whole patient. In the film there was a stark contrast between this rhetoric, especially with TRAP laws, that abortion providers are callous profiteers that don’t care about women. But you depict these workers as deeply empathetic to not only the patients but to the reality of why women are in these clinics to begin with.
That’s what I saw. Before—I have never had an abortion—I had never been in a clinic. I certainly would have if I had an unplanned pregnancy that I wasn’t prepared for, but that just hasn’t been my experience. One of the things I realized once we were in and filming was how much anti-choice rhetoric had impacted me. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect what I found.
What I found was that people on the inside work very hard to not only provide good medical care but also be emotionally supportive. Not everybody, but some women, are really devastated by what is happening, and they’re working it through, but they might not be there yet. Providers do a lot of social work: they’re very motherly or fatherly. It was such a contrast to the screaming and mean-spirited stuff happening outside. I really wanted to show that. It was really what I saw happening over and over again.
I’m glad that places like the clinics I was in exist; places where women can feel safe and supported and move on with their lives.
You brought up the issue of safety, too. In the film you kind of played with the idea of recording—you were recording clinic staff and they were recording everything, too. There were cameras everywhere, both in the clinic and around the clinic, and even at some of their homes. They’re constantly watching everything around them. I’m wondering how that impact you as a filmmaker? Obviously clinics want to create this space that feels safe, but it’s not necessarily so.
It’s really important when you’re making a documentary to establish a sense of place and there are different ways of doing that. Here, it kind of struck me that the outside was very beautiful—the South is very beautiful; blue skies, lots of green—but what looks beautiful outside can actually be very dangerous; there are protesters who are yelling at people, and a planned protest from Operation Rescue.
I wanted to show the contrast between the beautiful outside, which was actually dangerous, and inside—which might not have been so beautiful, but was warm.
For us just as a crew, you have to cast your crew wisely. Chris, one of the guys who did a lot of the filming, he’s from Alabama and is a white man. He kind of blended in a little bit more than if it was just me. We would go in the backdoor and there were often police around. None of that makes your subjects feel very safe, especially when they have to walk in the building through police.
They were not easy interviews to either find or shoot, which made them very precious to us.
I would imagine they were. So many of the women, even the patients you included, they’re telling you very difficult stories. At the beginning of the film, there’s a woman who acknowledges that out of desperation she bought a bunch of herbs and other unsafe things online and that she was going to attempt to self-abort.
That is something that I thought a lot about. We were filming in Texas, across the border from Mexico, and we went across the border and saw how easy it is to buy drugs off-label that can be used for abortions. We saw people buy them.
In Texas, there’s a statistic out of the University of Texas estimating that 100,000-240,000 women have tried to self-abort. So, this Supreme Court case couldn’t be more important. The reality is that there will be desperate women. There will be really terrible health consequences as clinics continue to close.
Yeah, one of the clinic workers talks about a woman who couldn’t make it to the clinic by the legal deadline, so she was listing off things in her pantry that could potentially induce an abortion. In another scene, a clinic director cries because she had to turn away a teenage rape victim. Watching that was terrifying.
It’s completely terrifying. At least that woman was talking to a clinic worker, but other people aren’t even going to get that far.
The reality has become abstract for too many people. They say they’re pro-choice but because it’s not affecting them, they’re kind of quiet. If you’re pro-choice, now is not the time to be quiet. It’s a frightening political statement that TRAP laws are passing with such ease.
Trapped ends hanging because, obviously, we don’t have a legal conclusion yet. When you finished making the movie, did you feel hopeful or despondent? What was your takeaway?
I think there’s more and more conversation and that’s really good. I think as more and more women start to tell their stories, that that’s good. I also think that it’s not bad that Whole Woman’s is being heard during a presidential election year. This should be a voting issue for people who care about it.
It seems like the argument went well for the pro-choice side. We certainly saw the three female justices doing their part to point out the dangers of these laws. I think there’s a lot to be happy about.
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Images via AP and Triology Films.