Filmmaker Dawn Porter pays tribute to the abortion providers of the Deep South.
From Florida to Texas, abortion clinics in the South are disappearing, forced out of business by bogus “safety” regulations that have become the primary weapon of conservative religious abortion foes. TRAP laws—Targeted Restrictions of Abortion Providers—have been challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which should issue a decision by June. In the meantime, waitlists are swelling at the few clinics that remain open.
Filmmaker Dawn Porter, is director of TRAPPED, a feature length documentary that follows several abortion clinics and one abortion doctor in the deep South as they struggle to meet the needs of women who may have driven hundreds of miles for care. In this interview Porter talks about the people and dynamics that drew her to the subject:
Tarico: You spent the better part of two years filming in abortion clinics in Alabama, Texas and Mississippi. What drew you to this project?
Porter: I was working in Jackson, Mississippi, filming some interviews down there; and I read that there was only one abortion clinic in the whole state. So, I called them up and they said I could come over. I met Dr. Willie Parker, who at the time was one of two or three providers there. I don’t know what I thought an abortion provider would be like, but he was so open and thoughtful in talking about the work and about the whole political climate that it got me thinking about the intersection of politics, abortion and power. So, I asked if I could follow him, and he said yes.
Tarico: Like you, a lot of people can’t imagine what kind of person an abortion provider might be. What did you find?
Porter: We don’t always think about the motivations of people who do controversial jobs. Over the time I followed Dr. Parker, we talked a lot about his faith and his personal evolution. He didn’t provide abortions for the first 12 years of his career, but he saw women suffering, especially low-income and black women, and he thought if not me then who? So he came to his abortion work from a very spiritual place and a place of empathy. I loved how he is with his patients. He takes time with them. He answers their questions. If they cry he asks and listens and offers support. He talks about his own faith and journey. He is very kind. It struck me as the way you would want your health care in general.
Tarico: In the process of filming TRAPPED, you went on to meet a number of other abortion clinic owners and abortion providers. What surprised you most about these people?
Porter: I was struck with them as a group. There was a constant awareness of how important their work is, and their dedication was remarkable. It would be a lot easier for any of them to do obstetrics or just a straight gynecology practice and not put themselves on the line every day. They are very strong. Some people, you know they are reliable. These people are reliable. Solid. They have been through a lot, many of them for years or decades, and they are persevering. They don’t take a time out. They are there on the front lines every day and willingly. They are physically and emotionally threatened but they refuse to back down.
Most of us just take abortion access for granted. If you don’t need an abortion yourself or someone you know isn’t in that situation, it’s very easy to not think about it at all. So we only think about it when it becomes personal. These people don’t have that luxury. If you have a right but you have no doctors and clinics, how real is that right?
Tarico: How about the rest of the clinic staff?
Porter: What struck me is that the nurses and staff are in some ways such regular people. But they are doing such extraordinary work and also are efficient and hardworking and very dedicated. One of the owners, her clinic was closed and while she was waiting and hoping to reopen, she kept paying the staff even though they had nothing to do. You could see that doing nothing was driving them crazy. I think a lot of people go into nursing because they want to help; they want to make a difference. The staff realize how alone some of these girls feel. You can see how the patients relax when someone calm and competent says you are going to be ok.
Tarico: The Religious Right accuses doctors and clinic owners of being in it for the money—as if! But even the most crazed pro-lifer knows that the nurses and other staff earn very little. Who are these people? Why don’t they just get easier jobs that don’t include picketers and threats and shunning, and scary envelopes with white powder labeled “anthrax?”
Porter: Some talk about it in spiritual terms. There was one recovery room attendant, Callie, who is a minister. She feels like she is in a position to come into contact with young women and girls who need her and this is what ministry is—that you are kind and loving when people are in need of help. After an abortion procedure, you have to make sure that blood pressure is stable and there is no excessive bleeding, so people wait for a while in the recovery room. Callie let me stay with her, and one young woman who came in was crying. Callie prayed over her, and you could just see the young woman relax. Callie’s God is a loving God, and to Callie, that is what ministry is. People like Callie and Dr. Parker are really living their faith—judge not lest ye be judged—providing a sanctuary for people in a very difficult situation.
Tarico: On the one hand, you talk about the clinic owners and abortion providers and staff as very ordinary people, and on the other hand, when you talk they sound rather extraordinary. It strikes me that this same double reality – surprisingly ordinary and surprisingly extraordinary– comes across in your movie.
Porter: Yes. They are just like anyone. They are mothers and fathers. But they are committed to the idea that people are entitled to quality health care. They are the people you want in your community. They are leaders and reliable.
One of the clinic owners had to resign the leadership position in her church. Another has doctor colleagues who refuse to speak to her in the hall. Bullies stand outside and scream or threaten and mail envelopes of white powder. And yet they stay put and keep doing what needs to be done. We owe them a lot for putting up with so much.
Tarico: Talk about that. What can people do to show support and gratitude?
Porter: If people support the right to choose they should also support these clinics, with appreciation—that is incredibly needed–and we must also show our gratitude with tangible support. The clinics themselves are so generous—the owners and providers are all in. I see a spirit of giving, and it would be great if that was recognized. One of the clinics has been using donations to pay the cost of birth control for women who are uninsured.
It’s also very important that people take about their experience so that the stigma can be shifted. At every screening of TRAPPED people have been so emotional. Abortion is a very common experience. I never needed an abortion, but when I was younger, my friend’s sister had an abortion. We didn’t have any difficulty finding a safe place to go, and she was able to move on with her life. She now has kids and a successful life. It was shocking to see how hard it was for these women in the south. I felt very grateful to grow up where I did.
Tarico: Thank you for talking with me. Where can people find your movie, TRAPPED?
Porter: Our theatrical screenings are opening in twenty selected cities across the country. They started March 4 in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. Interested groups can ask for community screenings, and the film will air on PBS Independent Lens in June. A full list of upcoming screenings can be found at trappeddocumentary.com.