Interview: Dawn Porter on the Abortion Documentary “Trapped”
Posted on March 8, 2016 at 3:20 pm
Dawn Porter is the lawyer-turned-documentarian who directed and co-produced Trapped, a film about the new laws limiting access to abortion. Known as TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws, they are described by legislators as protecting the health and safety of women by imposing requirements that normally apply to hospital settings, waiting periods, and distribution of misleading or inaccurate information. The release of the film is very timely, in theaters the same week that the challenge to these laws was argued in the Supreme Court. As the movie shows, and as the arguments before the Court made clear, medical authorities do not support these requirements, which are not imposed on similarly risky or risky medical procedure providers (liposuction, colonoscopies). They have no medical benefit to women and are intended to and have the effect of limiting women’s ability to make their own choice to have a Constitutionally protected medical decision.
In an interview, Porter spoke about the impact of these laws, her compassion for the women’s reproductive health care providers in the film, and her decision about the portrayal of anti-abortion voices in the film.
How does the death of Justice Scalia affect the prospects for the Court’s decision on the challenge to the Texas TRAP laws?
This film has taken so many twists and turns. A lot of court watchers believed he might have actually pushed to re-examine Roe v. Wade and its legal underpinnings. With him gone, most people think there isn’t anyone who would push the Court that far. It’s probably doesn’t impact the ultimate decision except that if the Court splits 4 to 4, the Texas decision upholding the law will stand with no precedential value which in itself would be a huge issue because the court likes to take cases that will have some precedents. They look for cases that can actually help govern the law. And if the decision in this case doesn’t provide any precedent it means states across the country will still be in this legal limbo; we will still be fighting about TRAP laws. If Justice Kennedy votes with the more liberal members of the court, then it will be a 5/3 to strike down the laws and then that would be the law of the land. So Justice Scalia’s death is quite significant and the final chapter in this is certainly not written.
How can legislatures enact laws directing doctors and patients to do things that are not medically recommended?
That’s one of the things that makes me the angriest. I read a report this morning that examined the materials that doctors are compelled to distribute to abortion patients and it estimated to 40 percent of the information in some of these pamphlets is inaccurate. I spent times in six different clinics over two and a half years and saw a lot of the patient populations. 60 percent of people in a number of clinics were under the poverty level. A lot of people were not getting any medical information. I saw Dr. Parker just listening to people’s hearts, checking blood pressure, routine medical care. There is a healthcare crisis in this country and the idea that the health department that bears the imprimatur of the state would knowingly distribute false and misleading information to people who do not have resources to help them understand what is happening is so manipulative and such a waste. Most of the equipment in that room is never turned on. And as you see in the film, they are required to buy $1100 of medication every month that is never used but it expires and so has to be thrown away and replaced. We are in a situation where the conservatives are requiring waste and wasteful medicine; that’s not good medicine. While we have people who can’t access healthcare we have this facility that is unused.
What did you learn about the opponents to abortion? Why don’t we hear more from them in this film?
When I first started filming I wanted to talk to the protesters and just see if there was anyone who would present kind of a non-hysterical point of view. There was either just outright misinformation or people who would not present very well, put it that way. And so I kind of had to make this editorial decision about how to give any kind of voice to people who are anti-choice. So what I tried to do was, I included the voices of the anti-choice people. We see protesters and we see the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court appear at an anti-abortion event. But I tried to make the film from the perspective of the providers as they tried to comply with the laws and their day-to-day experiences. And I wanted to show their compassion and commitment to the women who come to to their facilities. When we filmed in that center the thing that kept coming to me was how beautiful it is.
I thought it was incredibly important to put Justice Moore in because he is a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Alabama. He is charged with enforcing the laws. A really important law that the Alabama courts have to enforce are the consents for minors. So in Alabama the only way that you can get an abortion is if your parents’ consent in writing, both parents or if you have a judicial bypass. The minor has to appear and states her reasons for having an abortion and have an Alabama judge decide whether or not that that is ok. So it’s quite relevant and that the the chief judge of the Supreme Court in Alabama is the person who decides what the administrative rules are. So if you have somebody who is violently anti-choice who is part of the funding operation for anti-choice activist, I felt like that was relevant. I also think it speaks to the political climate. A number of people have remarked to me that the legislators are not hiding their true intent. And as a lawyer as a person who is a poli-sci person I find that horrifyingly fascinating that people are open about this tactic.
Why don’t the opponents to abortion pursue initiatives that actually are proven to decrease abortion, like providing birth control and support for pregnant women and babies?
I think is a great question and but I don’t think that there is a good answer. What the anti-choice people would say is that they support adoption, that children are a gift from God and that sex is for procreation. I mean that’s really what it comes down to. There is the protester in the film who says that men are here to adore women and take care of them. And the way that he shows that is by screaming at them and shaming them. And we did not include the names that he calls women. He screams in front of his own children. Women were supposed to be adored but not the woman who were there for an abortion.So I think if you think the same states that are passing laws that are shutting clinics also do not take federal funding for the Affordable Care Act, do not support sex education, and do not support birth control. So the logical conclusion is they are more anti-sex, they are anti-non-procreative sex than they are anti-abortion. So that’s really what this conversation is about.
The irony there is that a number of the women I saw were married, I saw a number of women who wanted to have the pregnancy continue but were literally saying they cannot afford to bring this child into the world. One of the most heartbreaking things I saw was this woman who cried through her procedures and she cried in the waiting room. She wanted to speak with me but she didn’t want to be on camera. I never pushed anybody once somebody who said no but she did say she wanted to talk about it and she said she had a two-year-old, she had just gotten out of welfare she had gotten into school and a part-time job and she was so excited about her life. She was on birth control that failed and she had an unplanned pregnancy and this woman said, “I love my husband, I love my child, we would love to have a second child but if I have that everything we’ve worked for over the last two years would go away. I’d go back on welfare and I don’t know if I’d ever get off.” And so it was not that she still thought it was the right thing to do but it was horrific time for her to terminate a healthy wanted baby with her partner that she loved. And so not only did I watch her go through it but I watched her being screamed at about how she was a slut and a baby killer as she was already so torn up about this and her husband was in the waiting room. It was just such a range of emotions but the biggest thing that I took away from that was as much as I wanted to hear her story, I didn’t want to be the position of judging anyone’s abortion.
I have two kids and I know what kind of a mother I try to be. Why would I want anything less for somebody else? We were able to wait till we could to have kids. And why wouldn’t I give that same dignity to someone else to make that decision for herself?
There is a disproportionate impact on poor women and their families, too.
There is a deep contempt for poor people in these laws. Watching people count off money that was the equivalent of a month’s rent and know that they were literally taking food off the table and making this choice between having another child or being able to pay their bills that month was also infuriating. Because of these extra requirements you have to make these separate visits and take off from work, which is hard because a lot of people are on hourly jobs or if you’re lucky to have a job, then you have to get child care because more than half of the women already have a child. And also because of shrinking number of clinics so many people are traveling so far so then you have to have overnight costs so you have like the people were sleeping in their cars in the parking lot. And so there’s all these obstacles but there’s also the question of dignity and it was really distressing to see people who were already in some level of crisis have these added burdens. I don’t have to go through any of those things, I have good health insurance and I call and make a doctor’s appointment for a time that’s convenient for me. So if I had to have an abortion I would go to a state where I could be seen within a couple of days I wouldn’t be racing the clock. And half the people who are racing the clock need procedures that are more complicated and it becomes more expensive and it completely gets out of reach for people. So none of it is good health care policy which is why it makes me just also crazy when people say this is for the health and safety of women because there is just nothing to support that.
What led you to make the film and who do you think the audience for the film is?
I was working on another film, Gideon’s Army, and I was shooting interviews in Jackson, Mississippi and I read in the local paper that there was one clinic in the entire state of Mississippi. To give you a comparison in New York metropolitan area there are about 80 clinics. I was so floored by that. So I did what all documentary filmmakers do. I called them up and I said, “Can I come over?”
I met Dr. Parker that day. He just started talking about abortion access in a way that it just hit me like a lightning bolt that this was such a politicized, such a brilliant way of stopping clinic access is to attack the providers and attack the doctors in the name of women’s health which makes it very difficult for the general public to understand. I thought if there’s a way to show that political story through this individual person that that would be a film that would be accessible to the widest possible audience. And it’s also the kind of film that I like to make. I like films about people. He introduced me to the clinic owners and so the film really kind of unfolded really naturally.
It was complicated and it was challenging logistically because so much was happening and they were actively involved in litigation and the lawyers didn’t always want them to talk or comment so I had to kind of work around those restrictions. I hope and I do think that it will add a different perspective to the abortion conversation. I think most people understand about crazy people who kill doctors, they understand about people who bomb with clinics what they don’t understand is the greatest threat to abortion clinics is the state political process and I think in this presidential year focusing on the mechanics of government is really important. The state and local elections are really important. I really wanted to kind of introduce that this is not an accident that half the abortion clinics in America has closed in the last five years.
I hope this is a wake-up call. Most people support some form of right to abortion, more than 80 percent of Americans. So if that’s the case then my sincere hope is that people will pay attention to the process by which these rights are being eliminated and stop feeling like it’s some private screaming match issue they think they don’t want to get involved in. We can’t sit by the sidelines and allow that to happen. And so I am I’m enough of an optimist and not like so much a cynic that I feel like if people like Dr. Parker can get up and go to work every day, the least I can do is to talk about it.