This Documentary Explains What's Missing From The Abortion Debate

Image: HBO Documentary Films.
Whatever your political beliefs may be, it's impossible to argue with the fact that we're at a pivotal moment in history when it comes to women's reproductive rights. Another absolute: The abortion debate has gotten downright nasty, and it's not always women — a.k.a. the people that abortion access physically impacts — speaking from the front lines. It's time to approach the conversation with a different type of tact. A provocative new documentary from award-winning director Tracy Droz Tragos does just that and more.

: Stories Women Tell is a feature-length film that explores abortion from the perspectives of real women. It premiered in select theaters on August 12, and will be available on HBO in 2017. The doc should be required viewing in classrooms and living rooms across America, simply because it taps into what is largely missing from the national reproductive rights debate playing out across the nation this very moment: respect. Respect for a difference of opinion. Respect for difficult circumstances, and personal decisions. Respect for the stories of women — pro-choice and pro-life alike — and the way they arrived at their perspectives.

I recently spoke to Droz Tragos about the making of the movie and why it's so important for women to lead the narratives we tell about abortion. See our conversation below, and don't forget to add the film to your must-watch list. You might be surprised at the takeaway.

Obviously, you spoke to a lot of women about a deeply personal and controversial subject. What's the hardest part of doing that?
"Particularly, in Missouri, that was a big ask for women: You’re asking them to talk about something that’s very private in that part of the country where there's that added layer of increased shame, because there’s a lot of anti-abortion activism and pro-life billboards all over the place. It’s a very conservative political climate right now, so it’s extra hard for women to talk about their choices.

"I always have tried [to be clear that] this film was going to be made into something that people would see. I wasn’t asking them to speak anonymously. I was asking them to share their faces — their real voices, their real stories. There were some women [for whom] that was too big an ask; they supported the film, and were grateful that it was being made, but just couldn’t be on camera because they feared for the repercussions for their families, in their small towns, or at work. But the women who did come forward really wanted to do so because they believe in the power of what maybe this film could do. They also wanted to have a voice. They felt really disenfranchised by the increasing restrictions they face and wanted to say: I’m not a bad person. This is who I am. I deserve the right to make decisions for myself and to have access to the care that I need."

"I certainly hope that a pro-life woman could see this film and have compassion for caregivers and patients."

Tracy Droz Tragos

It seems like women have been shamed into not talking about their experiences with abortion, and that's a huge part of the problem: the silence. To what extent does this film attempt to take back some of that control?
"That, in a nutshell, is what this film is basically all about: reclaiming the conversation, returning it to women who I hope have a voice, who aren’t silenced, who can speak about what they need, and can ask for what they need and not be shamed into silence.

"The rhetoric and speaking in the abstract has been going on for quite some time. Everybody knows what those talking points are; everybody knows what’s going to come out of the mouths of politicians. But who we don’t often hear from are the patients themselves, about what the impact is of these laws that are restricting access, and how they’re felt. So that was the clear intention: Let’s hear from women, let’s see the full faces — not as criminals, as real women. The more that happens, the more that [pro-choice advocates are] not seen as...some fringe group, the more that you can't dismiss [them]."

Is there anything you wish could have made it into the film but didn't?
"I knew there was going to be a cumulative effect: that we needed to have many voices, not just a handful of voices. Because, again, that’s another way that the film could be dismissed, like: ‘Oh well, it was just her’ or ‘in that circumstance it would be okay but not in every circumstance.’ There’s power [in] including as many stories as we possibly could.

"That being said: I interviewed more women than appeared in the film, and I longed to include every single story. But a 90-minute film ultimately has to have a cutoff. One of the things we’re doing with the film is encouraging women to come forward and share their stories. We have a website, We’ll still surround the film with stories the women choose to share."

This movie is also a good reminder that there are more than just Planned Parenthood clinics out there: There are still independent clinics trying to service women, and it's easy to forget those.
"I think these independent clinics are often the clinics that close first if they don’t have outside backing; they’re not nonprofits, so they don’t operate with a big profit margin by any means, but they can’t take donations. These are clinics working on a shoestring [budget] under the same restrictions and regulations that a Planned Parenthood would. They certainly have to meet all the standards as Planned Parenthood. They’re just independent. Many [clinics] are threatened; the future of being able to stay open [is threatened]; they see so many, many women. Hope Clinic [featured in the film] sees so many women — if Hope Clinic shuts down, I can’t imagine the impact that would have. [None of which is meant to] take anything away from the importance of Planned Parenthood.

We have an election coming up. What would you hope that people might take away from the film, that might help inform their perspective on both sides?
"I don’t think anybody’s mind will be completely changed. But I think the film is really appealing to hearts more than minds. It’s about walking in the shoes of women who come from many different walks of life.

But it’s about compassion. I certainly hope that a pro-life woman could see this film and have compassion for caregivers and patients, and maybe pro-choice women could see this film and have compassion for how some of these women have come to be active in the pro-life movement — that compassion returns to the conversation. It’s about real people. We need to take it away from this political rhetoric land."
This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!

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