In 2014, Missouri passed a law that requires women to wait at least 72 hours between an initial doctor's appointment and having an abortion. Today, Missouri is one of the hardest states in the country in which to obtain the procedure. That's great news for anti-choicers. But for Amie, a 30-year-old single mother profiled in Tracy Droz Tragos' heart-rending HBO documentary Abortion: Stories Women Tell, the law is just another punishing obstacle.
We first meet Amie on a 150-mile drive from her home in central Missouri to the Hope Clinic, an independent abortion center just over the Illinois state line. In the parking lot she's berated by hollering protesters brandishing Bibles and threatening eternal hell. A volunteer escorts her inside, where she explains through tears why she's come: With two kids and a 70-hour workweek, she can’t afford a newborn.
Her story is not uncommon, but it's rare to hear on film. Many pro-choice docs, like the 2013 Emmy Award–winning After Tiller, focus on women who have abortions for reasons some anti-choicers might find sympathetic — their fetuses wouldn't survive birth. But with one exception, this film doesn't go there. It turns instead to patients — more than a dozen, including Amie, interviewed at the Hope Clinic — who've chosen abortion to save their families from additional hardship. Most of these women are in tough spots, financially or otherwise, and having a baby would be life-ending in ways not just metaphorical: “If I had had a baby with that man, I would’ve killed myself,” says a patient named MJ. “I averted a disaster.”
This doc is a tearjerker, but it's also enraging. Taken together, these stories add up to a larger and deeply troubling narrative about what it's like to be a woman living in America today. Systemic sexism, racism, spousal abuse, insufficient health care — society castigates women at every turn, the film argues, and anti-abortion laws further assault women's rights.
Not everyone interviewed here would agree. Spearheading the Hope Clinic protests is Kathy, a retired churchgoer who became an anti-choice protester after interpreting a literal sign as a sign from God: She saw her middle name “Anne” in the word “planned” on the front of Planned Parenthood. Kathy's anti-abortion arguments are far from convincing, and it's a testament to the filmmakers' humane evenhandedness that they let her have some tearful moments — she truly believes she's doing the right thing.
Equally unconvincing is Reagan, a young woman who runs a local Students for Life group. While handing out pamphlets at the student union, she's approached by a pro-choice activist ready to challenge her. A Socratic exchange ensues: “Let's talk about women who don't know about contraception, who haven't been able to get an education on it, because Planned Parenthood has been so limited by your organization,” challenges the pro-choice activist. Flustered and unable to counter, Reagan starts breaking down her booth.
Reagan didn't fare well in that impromptu debate, but it probably didn't change her mind, either. Likewise, Abortion: Stories Women Tell won't change many minds. It's too straightforward. But by providing women a platform to tell their personal stories, it fortifies the arguments of those who already agree with it, and it does so with a frankness that cuts through the heart.