Avoiding a False Morality Debate in The Abortion Documentary Trapped

By  · Published on June 20th, 2016

“I proceeded with the assumption that abortion is moral, legal and a personal right.” ‐ Director Dawn Porter

In her thorough and passionate advocacy documentary Trapped, lawyer-turned-filmmaker Dawn Porter exposes ill-willed and hostile legal regulations abortion providers tirelessly battle with, in order to keep their doors open and their practices operational. As stated during the opening credits of her film, hundreds of laws were passed by conservative state legislatures since 2010 to regulate and restrict abortions across the country, particularly in the South. On the surface, many of these laws pose as necessary safety measures to protect women’s health. But when looked at a bit closer, their underlying objective is loud and clear: to make the rules as difficult and costly to follow as possible, and consequently to force many practices to shut down either temporarily or permanently. These laws are known as TRAP: Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers.

With eye-opening interviews and footage across Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, Porter puts a brave face on many sides of the abortion debate with Trapped: from providers to legal advocacy groups and patients. One of the people at the heart of her film is Dr. Willie Parker, a good humored ob-gyn and abortion provider who flies to several Southern states from Chicago to perform abortions in places where doctors are hard to come by. While various clinics and clinics owners are also portrayed in her film –like June Ayers, the director of “Reproductive Health Services” in Montgomery– Dr. Parker is the only abortion doctor featured in Trapped. Porter notes while several doctors chose to not speak with her due to safety concerns, Dr. Parker was open from day one and did the opposite of most people, by wanting to discuss the details of his practice.

Porter’s crucial film clearly demonstrates how right-wing politics severely impact women on poverty line and robs them out of their already limited options. It also comes at a very critical time with an impending Supreme Court ruling –due in just a week or two- on a high-profile case about the current abortion restrictions in Texas (the hearing for which took place back in March.)

In time for Trapped’s PBS premiere tonight, I sat down with filmmaker Dawn Porter for a deep dive on both her film and the politics that surround women’s reproductive rights.

Below is an edited version of our conversation.

While you were in Jackson for a shoot, you became aware that there was only one abortion clinic remaining in Mississippi. That was your wake-up moment. How did Trapped grow from there?

I met Dr. Parker that day in December 2012. After he finished working in the morning, he said, “Let’s walk over to the deli.” He just started telling me about his work. He’s a very open person. One of the things he says is that he intentionally talks about his work to anybody who will listen. Because the dangers to abortion providers are so severe, many of them don’t want to put themselves out there that way. He does the opposite.

We did a few interviews with him on camera that day. Then, he said, “Why don’t you come to Chicago?” I went to Chicago. We talked more about what the film might be. Then, I started following him [to see] what his practice was like. We filmed in Mississippi, in Alabama, and Chicago. Then, what usually happens with documentaries when you find such a warm and generous character is; they introduce you to other people.

He introduced me to the clinic owners in Alabama. They hadn’t gotten a lot of attention. They were like, “Sure, come. Just hang out.” I [went] with one cameraperson, one sound person as a very small group. We would just spend days in the clinic and film when we could. They let us do that for years.

What were some of the challenges of getting people to talk to you? How did you approach them?

[Other than Dr. Parker], there are no abortion providers in the entire film. Pretty much everybody was like, “I really don’t want to be on camera.” I completely respect that because they’ve already made a lot of sacrifices to provide [those services]. A lot of people fly in from other states and they try and keep a low profile, so that the anti-choice people, who might be violent, are not aware of their comings-and-goings. A lot of them will change. They’ll take different cars. They’ll rent a car and stop and change their route. They have escorts. They always have escorts.

For the women, at first it was pretty hard. Nobody really wanted to talk. You get a lot of “no’s.” Then, the other thing is, the women are there for an abortion, at a very emotional time in their lives. We tried to not add to their anxiety. What I would do is make an announcement at the beginning, when our cameras were there and say what we were doing.

One really interesting thing is most of the people in the clinics had no idea about the big fight going on to keep those clinics open. Sometimes, me saying, “We are here because this clinic is under siege and will close if they don’t win a big court case.” People were like, “I had no idea.”

Then, we got a couple of [clinic owners]. That actually was a real turning point because I think the clinic owners weren’t telling their communities what kind of fight they were in. They felt like the communities were against them in a lot of ways. I think that was a nice moment for them when [they heard] “Thank you for staying open” from women.

Originally, I was avoiding Texas, because I felt like everybody knows about Wendy Davis and Texas. Then, I realized [that was not the case.] When I kept saying to the women, “Do you know what’s happening?” They all said, “No.” We were there for many shoots. Nobody had any idea.

It sounds like they are just struggling and fighting to get through their day-to-day and that they’re not necessarily thinking of the bigger picture, because every day comes with its own set of challenges.

I think that’s exactly right. When people who have the luxury of making politics the center of their world rather than feeding themselves or whatever else happens in life, I thought, “I shouldn’t assume that everybody knows what’s happening in Texas.”

The second thing that happened is, a really fantastic filmmaker –Chris Hegedus, who made the film, The War Room and other really seminal documentaries– said, “I feel like you’re avoiding the lawyers. The lawyers are a big part of this story. Why are you avoiding the legal stuff?” I realized I was, because I’m a lawyer. I had just made a film about the legal system [Gideon’s Army]. As soon as she said that, it unlocked a whole other piece of this story.

I approached the “Center for Reproductive Rights” and asked them if I could film with them. Had many, many meetings. It turned out that the person who became the spokesperson for the Center was the President or the Executive Director. I think she really recognized the power of framing the struggle. The providers you see, they’re working day-to-day.

Then I became like totally obsessed with the Center. I thought all these women are fighting like superheroes. They’re fighting lawsuits around the country for abortion access. That’s all they do. I thought that was such an interesting story. Then, filming with them and filming with the providers, we found this nice back-and-forth to frame the story.

How did you boil all those interviews and all the material down to its essentials to construct that frame?

First, I had a fantastic editor, Sari Gilman. We had a lot of conversations about what we wanted to convey. The coverage of abortion is usually about morality, defined by a small section of conservative Christian people. I didn’t want to do that. I said, “This is not a film about morality. It’s a film about politics, medicine and people. I think they’re moral. I’m going to proceed with the assumption that this is a moral act and not engage in a debate that I think is a false one.”

Once you assume abortion is moral, legal and a personal right, you are freed up to look at what it’s like to seek access to a perfectly legal procedure. If you think about it, all of the providers in Trapped are trying to comply with the laws. They didn’t sue first unless they were going to be closed down. They jump through all the hoops. They make the changes to their hallways. They try and get admitting privileges. They try and go through all the steps that are put before them and they can’t.

I hope that the conclusion from the audience is, “They’re being targeted.” I think the larger question is, “What does that mean for a democratic process?”

I can understand people who are opposed to abortion. I can. I can’t understand people who clothe and cloak their opposition in falsity. If you want to try and overturn Roe v. Wade, say, “That is my objective.” And that’s unconstitutional. I think that there’s a real question about, “What’s a legitimate process if you disagree with the law?” I wanted to insert that political power conversation.

It frustrates me that we –even as pro-choice people– sometimes fall into the trap of talking about abortion very apologetically. Perhaps we’re conditioned to do so. Even the term the opposition uses ‐ “pro-life” ‐ sets a false image of what we stand for. I mean, none of us are “pro-death.”

During this film, I never say “pro-life” [in that context]. I AM pro-life. I am for the life of living women and their families. I am pro their lives and their decisions about their lives. I always say, “anti-choice” now. I think it’s important for us to think about things that way.

Words really matter.

Words really, really matter. Part of the reason they really matter is abortion is so clothed in stigma. The pro-choice side has been silenced at times because of the stigma. A perfect example of that is the Planned Parenthood doctor videos. The response to that was very muted. It was people saying, “We really have to take a look at this.” Planned Parenthood was not selling body parts. I mean, in our fast-moving media world, a day of pause, or any pause is death. Then [people think], “Wait a minute. There’s something there, if all of these pro-choice politicians are saying, ‘let me take a look at this and study it. Let me see if Planned Parenthood is engaged in a black market sale of baby parts for money.’”

I think part of what I also wanted to show in the film is we don’t see abortion providers. We don’t see what it’s like to do that work. I really wanted to put them in the front.

Your film made me think about the polarization of “religion vs. abortion”. Dr. Parker talks about himself as a Christian, but still thinks that abortion is right. I feel like in today’s environment, we tend to put people into buckets. You’re either this or that, and there’s no nuance.

Yeah, smash the buckets. There’s Callie, the nurse in the recovery room, who is a minister. She says, “My God is a loving God and a forgiving God.” There’s first of all, another assumption that women having abortions are not having a moral wrestle. That’s your own upbringing, your own personal beliefs. The way I was raised in religion was [seeing it as] a comfort. It wasn’t a threat. I think what Dr. Parker and Christians like him do, is they use religion as a comfort, which is, “Of course God understands that life is complicated. You are not going to Hell because you’re faced with a difficult decision.”

That is really refreshing.

There were a lot of people [like that]. I wasn’t expecting religion to be such a part of it, but you go where your characters take you. Dr. Parker is religious. He has thought deeply and really long about how religion plays a part in his work and life. I think as a result, he’s very peaceful about his work. He’s not wrestling. At one point he said, “I think Jesus wants me to do healthcare. Jesus ministered to the sick.” I mean, he was teasing a little, but a little not. If you look at what he believes, the Word of God, you help others who are unable and who need you, if you have a skill.

And I love his “This is what a feminist looks like.” t-shirt.

I do too. It’s so funny because it’s not like you ask him to put on these. This is his t-shirt collection. He has other things. He stands up for gay rights. He’s a really interesting person. He’s just fun. We have a good time together too. When you’re a documentary person and spend so much time with people, your relationship with your subjects shows on camera.

If you two are relaxed and curious, your subjects will talk to you. As a result, the audience sees that. It breaks down a barrier. If you’re successful, you can allow the audience in.

There are some creative choices in the film stemming from not being able to show the faces of some patients. There is especially a harrowing moment where you focus on the hands of a patient.

We had two cameras going [during her interview]. We had a couple of different angles. I was watching a monitor that was just on her hands. I thought her hands were really beautiful and watchable. You always want your film to be watchable. But then I thought, there’s a lot of emotion and expression in those hands. You can see anxiety, a little bit of frustration. You can almost see as much as you can see on a face.

That woman, in particular, is interesting. Dr. Parker did her abortion and they got into a long conversation. He said, “There’s this film being made. I think you would be a great voice.” That’s how we got her because they had a connection. I said, “I don’t want you to feel like you have to.” She said, “No, I really want to do this for him because he really treated me with such respect. I want people to know about other stories.”

I saw Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson a while ago, and it also has a segment focusing on hands in an abortion clinic. Was that the same person?

It’s actually not. It’s a different woman. I am doing another short piece about black women’s stories in abortion. We didn’t have that woman’s hands, but now I’m dying and wish that I had.

What Kirsten’s film doesn’t show you, after we stopped, Kirsten got down on her knees in front of that woman who was crying still and said, “You are not alone.” She stayed in front of her until she stopped crying. She is just an incredible person. You really have to cast your crew when you’re doing these stories. She’s so smart and she’s a director herself. If you respect folks and let them bring what they can, you often get these really special moments. I have a lot of respect for her.

2016 is a very critical year. There’s still the impending decision by The Supreme Court. What do you think we should expect and look out for?

It’s due probably next week or the week after. It might be next Thursday. I think this decision is going to be really critical. What is written in the decision is critical, even if the Texas law is overturned, it matters how broad the decision is. The biggest win would be for the Supreme Court to re-validate Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, and reinstate the woman has a constitutional right, and any false protectoral ways to challenge that are going to be struck down.

This year, there have been more than 400 anti-choice laws introduced. It’s not stopping. More than 40 of them have passed. In Alabama, the Alabaman government has passed no abortion clinics with 2,000 feet of a school. A law written by an Evangelical minister because the clinic is located across the street from a school. The targeting continues and people should be aware of this political act.

What can we do to get involved in the fight?

A really big thing is, there’s a National Network of Abortion Funds [you can donate to]. 49% of women that get abortions live below the poverty level. Half of the people in this country. There’s a definite tie-in between economics and rates of abortion. I think if you want to decrease abortion, if that’s your goal, one of the things you would do is give people a living wage.

You really can’t miss the relationship between financial means and abortion. Those who need it the most urgently are usually the ones who just can’t afford or access it.

That’s right. Most people are paying cash because it’s not covered by insurance. That intersects with some of the biggest political questions of our time. I think folks should pay attention to how these topics are intertwined.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.