In September 2014, Missouri enacted a 72-hour waiting period for abortions. Over night, pregnant women were suddenly required to schedule two appointments to end a pregnancy: First, a consultation, and then another appointment three days later to actually have the procedure done. The filmmakers behind Abortion: Stories Women Tell, a new HBO documentary airing Monday night, knew that the restriction would drastically alter women’s ability to access abortion care, so they started asking questions. Who were the women seeking abortions? What would this mean for them? And why were legislators so hellbent on passing this law?
Director Tracy Droz Tragos and her crew of fearless storytellers answer those questions — and more — in their film, a powerful exploration of the harrowing reality of ever-shrinking abortion access in the heartland.
“I think the biggest triumph was when we started to get women to come forward,” says Judy Phu, the film’s director of photography. “At first, there were months where we would just go to Missouri…and people would try to reschedule with us, and it was just so clear that they were backing out, they were getting scared.”
They made it happen though, speaking with all types of women: those seeking abortions; those who’d had them; and others who had carried their pregnancies to term.
One pregnant woman, a college-educated mother of two, said she simply couldn’t afford another baby — carrying the pregnancy to term would mean that her existing children would suffer. She explains in the film that she earns $3.67 per hour as a server, and $6.15 per hour as a bartender, working around 80 hours per week when her children are with their father. A baby, she said, would upend the already-fragile balance of her life.
The filmmakers also spoke to those on the other side of the debate, female anti-abortion activists who have dedicated their lives to protesting outside of clinics, lobbying legislators to pass ever-more restrictive measures, and even spreading pro-life gospel on college campuses.
One woman profiled, a college student at the University of Missouri, is an active member of Students for Life of America, an anti-abortion student group. She explains in the film that while she has had no personal experience with abortion and has never met anyone who has terminated a pregnancy, her dedication comes from seeing a diagram of what she was told was a “partial-birth abortion” as a child, and it stuck with her.
“There’s a stigma of pro-lifers as all old men and women who are just singing the rosary outside of Planned Parenthood,” she says in the film. “That’s becoming more rare now because people are becoming educated on what actually works to help save women and children.”
As the film’s director, Tragos shared her goals for the documentary with HelloGiggles, explaining,
She also says she wanted to avoid “making an advocacy film, something that would live in an echo chamber. But to really make a film that didn’t moralize and judge, and allowed women to feel what they feel, and make the choices they were going to make, and include as many stories as possible.”
Tragos and her team succeeded at profiling a variety of women, from those forced into motherhood because of uncompromising partners, to those seeking to end wanted — but non-viable — pregnancies, to anti-choice activists who see abortion as an act against God. To put it succinctly, the film succeeds mightily at capturing the complexities of the abortion debate.
Stories Women Tell is set primarily at the Hope Clinic in Illinois, just outside of Missouri. Because of existing restrictions on abortion in Missouri, just one clinic remains in the state — a Planned Parenthood near St. Louis — meaning some women must travel up to six hours to obtain the procedure. With the 72-hour waiting period, that effectively means two full days of travel, two full days off work, and two full days of childcare for the many mothers seeking abortion care (which is most abortion patients). A harrowing journey, to say the least.
Says Tragos, “[I hope this film] encourages women to share stories and talk about it so that they don’t feel so alone” — a goal that definitely seems within reach.
Abortion: Stories Women Tell airs Monday, April 3rd at 8 p.m. EST on HBO.