In the new HBO documentary, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, which is currently in select theaters, filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos drops the usual debate-oriented rhetoric surrounding abortion and strips away the politicized approach that many take to discussing the procedure. In her film we hear from the women who have had abortions, sharing their experiences and how their choice to either have the procedure or not has shaped their lives. Tragos focuses on a clinic in Missouri, a state with strict policies on abortion — filming began shortly after Missouri passed a 72-hour required waiting period. We spoke with Tragos about the women she met and the future of abortion.
What was an aspect to abortion coverage that you felt was missing?
The intention with this film was not to make a political film but to make a film that was personal and that gave voice to women and patients and the circumstances that women face. To really wrestle it away from the political, rhetorical, abstract realm and return it to real women.
Did you anticipate moving between so many different points of view with the people you interview? How was it weaving from one side to the other?
It was tricky. At some point, as I started working on this, it became clear that we couldn’t just include a handful of stories because it might be easy to dismiss it as, oh, that’s just that one woman’s circumstance or that’s another woman’s circumstance. But if we had many many other women’s voices in the film it would be harder to dismiss. That was, logistically, certainly challenging. And we also didn’t want the film to be seen as just an advocacy piece and that meant including women from all walks of life who had different perspective’s on their abortions or on abortion in general.
How did everyone feel when they watched the final documentary and seeing how many voices you included? Did anyone feel strange being in the mix of so many varied stories and opinions?
The feedback that I’ve gotten so far has all been, thankfully, very positive and I’m grateful for that. First and foremost I want to honor the women who were willing to be a part of it and share their stories so it means a great deal to me that they are happy to be a part of it now that it’s finished and out in the world. Both the women who would say they’re pro-lifers and the women who are decidedly pro-choice, they’ve both been grateful that their voices have been included in the film.
And for all viewers, do you think it’s possible for people to watch this with their feelings put aside and empathize with the multitude of stories in the film?
I hope so. I’m not naive to think that necessarily every story will strike a chord with every single audience member but I hope that this is a film that appeals to the heart more than the head and that no matter who is sharing their story, that there is some compassion that can be felt towards them. I do think that in addition to taking the film away from the political rhetorical realm there is real value in having compassion in the conversation and not seeing someone who thinks differently than you as the enemy or demonizing what would be seen as the other side. I think it could go a long way towards making progress for all women if we could have more compassion through conversation.
The protestors are interesting and definitely seem like people who are not willing to have a conversation. How was it seeing them day after day and how did you want to portray them?
There’s a spectrum of protestors. There are really loud guys who are yelling and screaming and saying that you are going to go to hell. And those guys, I really didn’t want to give them much of a voice. I wasn’t going to go home with them and interview them. They were part of the experience of patients so I wanted to include them because of that and also they were hard to cut around. I’d sit there in an interview with the security guard and the guys on the sidewalk wouldn’t shut up. So it was hard not to include those guys but I didn’t want to go to deep with them. But the women who were working in what they call the pro-life movement, they were willing to talk to me from a personal place and they knew that the film was not going to include only their side but the voices of many women. They trusted that I was not intending to demonize them but that I wanted to hear from them personally about why they came to this work, how they came to this work, what their personal stories were. So I needed to make sure that they were willing to speak from a personal place, not from a spokesperson place.
Is it difficult for you approaching the subject with your personal feelings as well?
Sure, it takes extra listening and, I think, because I didn’t necessarily agree with their decisions, where they had ended up. Susan has had multiple abortions but now she regrets that and that part of the story is her story and I want to honor that. What I don’t necessarily agree with is that then she wants to make decisions for other people. But that’s part of her story so I had to listen to great compassion but it’s tricky. But I wouldn’t be worth myself as a documentary filmmaker if I couldn’t tell the story of people that I may not agree with.
What was the most challenging aspect of making this? Was there a particular person that was most challenging to meet with?
Well, I think it was very heartbreaking and sobering to meet with women who had been denied access. In particular, Te’aundra, who lived in the most impoverished part of the state, which is the boot-heel of Missouri, where she is pretty isolated from any kind of healthcare and couldn’t come up with the gas money and transportation and money for the procedure itself. So, she wanted to have an abortion but couldn’t access that care because there wasn’t a clinic nearby and then on top of that was rejected by the adoption agency that she pursued to try to place her child for adoption. And she wanted to play basketball and go to college.
After meeting all these women, what do you think of the way abortion is shown or perceived in film and television?
It’s very very complex and one size does not fit all and women have many many experiences with it. Women are complex beings and the thing that I experience is that you can be 100 percent committed to your choice and not regret it but also have grief and sadness at the same time. There’s a lot of emotions that come up and the other thing that really struck me, and I don’t think the media really covers with much complexity, is the shame and stigma that women feel overall with just simply having an unplanned pregnancy, no matter what they may decide to do. Whether they decide to carry the pregnancy to term and be a 16-year-old teenage mom, whether they decide to place the child for adoption and people are telling them, “I don’t know how you could do such a thing.” It’s like you’re in this shamed position no matter what you do. I certainly hope that this film, in telling so many stories of real women, can do some small measure, some part to alleviate that shame and stigma.
And with that stigma women don’t always want to share their story. Do you hope that we get to a place where everyone can be comfortable talking about it?
I think it’s something we need to get through. I don’t necessarily think everybody should be required to talk about it but I think right now we kind of need to talk about. There’s a moral obligation to talk about it because it has been so shamed and stigmatized and unless women come forward and talk about it it’s going to continue to be shamed and stigmatized. So right now we have to talk about it but in a perfect world it’s a private matter between a woman and her doctor. But unfortunately it’s 2016 and it is necessary.
When you look at the history of abortions, what do you think of how the procedure itself has progressed, but the mentality towards it hasn’t matched that same progress?
It’s hard to know what’s exactly happening. Access really is being eroded and chipped away at and why that momentum is gaining ground, it’s hard to understand. It’s happening at a state level and I’m hoping that with the recent supreme court ruling states will understand that you can’t get away with it because it’s still legal. But many, many states still have these restrictive laws on the books, like Missouri with a 72-hour waiting period, and the laws which have meant that there is only one clinic providing care. Why, that is is really hard to know, but more women need to speak out about their rights and access because it’s not the time to be complacent.
How do you feel about the way abortion is being discussed and viewed in the current election?
I’m thrilled that there’s a candidate that has the endorsement of Planned Parenthood, that’s encouraging. And yet I’m also fearful because there is a candidate that has said that women should get punished and does not believe in women’s access. So there’s a lot at stake right now with the current election.
What’s the ideal effect you hope your film will have on viewers and the bigger picture?
I don’t think that this film will necessarily change anyone’s mind. But I do hope that it will maybe change hearts and that will allow for people to walk in a minute in someone else’s shoes and have an understanding of the circumstances that women face and have some compassion for women regardless of what their choice may be. Those that choose to place their child for adoption, those that choose to carry a pregnancy to term, and those that choose to have an abortion. That choices are honored rather than dismissed. This is a film that is appealing to emotion rather than intellect but I think there’s a lot of power with that.