Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Dawn Porter’s newest documentary, TRAPPED, at Barnard College’s 2016 Athena Film Festival. The film follows abortion clinic workers and lawyers who are fighting to keep abortion safe, legal and accessible for millions of Americans. Focusing on TRAP (Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers) laws, the film explains how these underhanded laws are shutting down clinics around the country under the guise of protecting women.
Ms. Porter’s initial focus for the film was on abortion providers and their patients, but upon a colleague’s suggestion, she expanded it to include the legal struggle dominating regional legislatures. The result? A comprehensive understanding of the fight, both socioculturally and politically, to keep abortion an accessible right.
The film jumps between showing abortion providers in the rural South, and attorneys with the Center for Reproductive Rights, a non-profit, international law firm dedicated to securing women’s rights to abortion, who are bringing these providers’ cases to court. The back-and-forth sequencing of the story illustrates the many different battlegrounds on which the abortion fight is being waged—in the legislature, in the courtroom and in the doctor’s office.
To me, the most compelling aspect of TRAPPED was meeting the abortion providers and hearing their stories. June Ayers, owner of Reproductive Health Services clinic in Montgomery, Alabama, talks candidly about why she believes abortion should be safe and legal, citing her own life experiences and how frightened she is at the idea of women losing their right to choose. Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider who travels to various clinics in the South to ensure that women have access to abortion services, speaks from the heart about his maternal grandmother who died during childbirth, and his Christian faith which leads him to do this work. We also meet many nurses, counselors and clinic managers who put all of their energy into helping women receive abortion care in the face of insurmountable obstacles put forth by their own legislators. The real life stories told within TRAPPED are as shocking and infuriating as they are beautiful, honest, and even funny at times, and Ms. Porter truly understands the importance of humanizing these brave providers. It becomes much more difficult to demonize abortion providers when you see their faces and hear their stories.
TRAPPED also explains the history of the fight for abortion rights, from the pre-Roe v. Wade times, when abortion was illegal in the United States, through the 1990’s, when the Supreme Court decided Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which introduced the “undue burden” standard.
The film’s release is very timely, as we approach yet another Supreme Court case regarding abortion, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which is poised to finally establish what exactly constitutes an “undue burden”. Amy Hagstrom-Miller, the plaintiff in this potentially historic case, is also featured in TRAPPED, explaining how TRAP laws have placed arbitrary restrictions on her clinics in Texas under the false claim that they make abortion, an already very safe procedure, more safe for women.
A panel discussion and Q&A followed the film screening and included Dawn Porter herself. At this point, Porter explained why she wanted to make this film: to show that these abortion restrictions disproportionately affect those in the rural South who are disenfranchised and systemically marginalized, primarily women of color. Stories of women forced to travel hundreds of miles because of clinic closures, sleep in their vehicles because of mandatory waiting periods, and the financial barriers to access abortion care for low-income patients give a sobering account of what it takes to terminate a pregnancy in this part of the country.
One of the most moving parts of the film was when a young, black patient cried on camera and shared her internal struggle with choosing to have an abortion. Unlike other documentaries regarding abortion, many patients were also willing to show their faces and share their personal stories on camera. This important aspect of the film helped to further humanize the abortion experience, which one out of every three women will encounter during their lifetime.
The lure of art, whatever the medium, is its ability to reflect society. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet’s famous speech to the players, “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” This idea of art’s power to heal society is at the very heart of TRAPPED, giving us the information, tools, and humanity to push onward. With this film, Dawn Porter is holding the mirror up to our own faces, telling us we need to take another look.
TRAPPED will be released to theatres as well as a community screening tour on March 4th, but you can also catch the film playing in regional film festivals, including South By Southwest.