“What’s going on here?”
“These people don’t trust women to make decisions about
Sometimes it’s the reactions of those who walk by the clinic
that are the best summaries of the ludicrousness of the situation. Those unscripted moments of shock and frustration that happen when tourists pass by a street littered with ‘sidewalk counselors’ and prayer circles. Us escorts get ‘thank you’s; thumbs up; high fives, and the occasional gift cards for hot coffee during the coldest months. Protestors get an occasional ‘thank you,’ but more often an eye roll or scolding. More often the spectacle becomes a history in feminism: older women walk by with young girls explaining how both of their bodies are apparently suitable for public discourse.
This weekend begins the “40 Days of Life” clinics across the
United States. At my clinic in particular the ‘pro-life’ turn out was meager never quite exceeding 20 bodies. Maybe they were still sleeping off the double punch of Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday? There is a bit of mentoring going on between the various protestors, which isn’t uncommon in any movement. The older man outside of our clinic often twice a week, a man who is tied to Randall Terry and who has been arrested for his efforts models absolutely creepy behavior to the other ‘counselors.’ The newer protestor with a sloppy home made sign now has a practiced stare and holds his sign over by clinic window. I am not sure if a sign is less intimidating than an older gnome like man staring at you as you sign in, but these are not really choices that include ‘a lesser of two evils.’ After all shouting ‘LET ME HELP YOU’ does not model gentle compassion. And it is sad, because this man is so proud of his horrible, lopsided sign. When a group of clearly tourists paused to snap pictures he ran over to make sure his bright yellow sign would make it into their scrapbook. ‘See Timmy, protestors in America really need to apply the rule of thirds to their propaganda.’
The theme of this Saturday where the ice in DC was melting,
and your faithful clinic reporter was too hung over to really appreciate any positive note of being out on such a fine Saturday, was ‘creepy guys.’ After both the old man, and sign carrying fella had tapped danced on my last nerve I decided a quick break was in order. Amid life sustaining coffee run another long-time protestor offered to me and another escort coffee if we would ‘sit and listen to his stories.’ He has a reputation for offering our clinic escorts coffee but what an odd way to try and make friends.
“What’s going on here?”
“Can you picture a comic book on abortion on the stands next to Superman?”
In June 1973, Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli wrote to the National Organization for Women in Chicago, asking this question of their “dear sisters” and pushing them to envision a world where women’s experiences could be considered as valiant as the superhero’s adventures. They enclosed a copy of their new comic book, Abortion Eve.
Published mere months after the Supreme Court’s January 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, Abortion Eve was intended to be a cheap, effective way to inform women about the realities of abortion. Like the few other contemporaneous comic books dealing with abortion, Abortion Eve‘s primary purpose was to educate. But for a comic dominated by technical information about surgical procedures and state laws, Abortion Eve nonetheless manages to be radical. Though abortion had so recently been illegal—and the stigma remained—the comic portrays abortion as a valid personal decision and women as moral agents fully capable of making that decision.
The comic follows five women, all named variations of “Eve,” as counselor Mary Multipary shepherds them through the process of obtaining abortions. Evelyn is an older white college professor, Eva a white dope-smoking hippie, Evie a white teenage Catholic, Eve a working Black woman, and Evita a Latina woman. Evelyn, Eve, and Evita are all married and mothers already.
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Their motivations for getting an abortion differ, too. Evita and Eve, for instance, wish to protect themselves and their loved ones by keeping their families smaller. Sixteen-year-old Evie is the poster child for sexual naiveté. Pregnant after her first time having sex, she spends most of the comic wrestling with guilt. “It’s all so ugly!” she exclaims. “I thought sex was supposed to be beautiful!”
Nonplussed, the older Eves talk her through her choices. As Eve reminds her, “Like it or not, you are a woman now, and you are going to have to decide.”
In an interview with Rewire, Farmer said that the plot of Abortion Eve was a direct outgrowth of her and Chevli’s experiences in the nascent women’s health movement. Both women had started working as birth control and “problem pregnancy” counselors at the Free Clinic in Laguna Beach, California, soon after it opened in 1970. Archival documents at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute show that Chevli and Farmer visited Los Angeles abortion providers in December 1972, on a business trip for the Free Clinic. According to Farmer, one of the doctors they met approached the pair with the idea of doing a comic about abortion to publicize his clinic.
Earlier that year, the women had produced one of the first U.S. comic books written, drawn, and published by women, Tits & Clits alpha (the “alpha” distinguished the comic from subsequent issues). So they took the doctor’s idea and ran with it. They decided to use their newly founded comics publishing company, Nanny Goat Productions, to educate women, particularly teenagers, about abortion.
At the Free Clinic, Chevli and Farmer had seen all kinds of women in all kinds of situations, and Abortion Eve attempts to reflect this diversity. As Farmer noted in an interview, she and Chevli made sure that the Eves were all different races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds in order to demonstrate that all kinds of women get abortions.
Farmer had made the choice to get an abortion herself, when her IUD failed in 1970. The mother—of a 12-year-old son—who was putting herself through college at the University of California at Irvine, she decided that she couldn’t afford another child.
California had liberalized its abortion laws with the Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967, but the law was still far from truly liberal. Before Roe, California women seeking abortions needed doctors (a gynecologist and two “specialists in the field”) to submit recommendations on their behalf to the hospital where the abortion would take place. Then, a committee of physicians approved or denied the application. Only women who could pay for therapeutic abortions—those needed for medical reasons—could get them.
For Farmer, as for so many others, the process was onerous. After an hour, the psychiatrist who had interviewed her announced that she would not be eligible, as she was mentally fit to be a mother. Stunned, Farmer told the doctor that if he denied her an abortion, she would do it herself. Taking this as a suicide threat, her doctor quickly changed his mind. She wrote later that this experience began her political radicalization: “I was astounded that I had to prove to the state that I was suicidal, when all I wanted was an abortion, clean and safe.”
Farmer and Chevli began work on Abortion Eve before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was still illegal in many states. After the Supreme Court’s decision, they added a page for “more info” on the ruling. Yet even as they celebrated Roe, the women weren’t yet sure what would come of it.
The comic reflects a general confusion regarding abortion rights post-Roe, as well as women’s righteous anger over the fight to gain those rights. On the day of her abortion, for example, Evita tells Eve that, at five months pregnant, she just “slipped in” the gestational limits during which women could have abortions.
Eve explains that women now have the right to an abortion during the first three to six months of a pregnancy, but that the matter is far from settled in the courts. After all, Roe v. Wade said that states did have some interest in regulating abortion, particularly in the third trimester.
“I get mad when they control my body by their laws!” Eve says. “Bring in a woman, an’ if the problem is below her belly button and it ain’t her appendix, man—you got judges an’ lawyers an’ priests an’ assorted greybeards sniffin’ an’ fussin’ an’ tellin’ that woman what she gonna do an’ how she gonna do it!”
Abortion Eve confronts the reality that abortion is a necessity if women are to live full sexual lives. Writing to the underground sex magazine Screw in September 1973 to advertise the comic, Chevli noted, “Surely if [your readers] screw as much as we hope, they must have need for an occasional abortion—and our book tells all about it.”
Six months after they published the comic, in December 1973, Chevli and Farmer traveled to an Anaheim rally in support of Roe outside the American Medical Association conference. They were met by a much larger group of abortion opponents. Chevli described the scene in a letter to a friend:
300 to 8. We weren’t ready, but we were there. Bodies … acquiescing, vulnerable females, wanting to show our signs, wanting to be there, ready to learn. Oh, Christ. Did we learn. It was exhausting. It was exciting. We were enervated, draged [sic] around, brung up, made to feel like goddesses, depressed, enlightened … bunches of intangible things. I have rarely experienced HATE to such a massive extent.
That wasn’t the last feedback that Chevli and Farmer received about their views on abortion. In fact, during the course of Nanny Goat’s publishing stint, the majority of complaints that the independent press received had to do with Abortion Eve. Several self-identified Catholics objected to the “blasphemous” back cover, which featured MAD Magazine‘s Alfred E. Neuman as a visibly pregnant Virgin Mary with the caption: “What me worry?”
As archival documents at the Kinsey Institute show, other critics castigated Chevli and Farmer for setting a bad example for young women, failing to teach them right from wrong. One woman wrote them a letter in 1978, saying “You have not only wasted your paper, time, money, but you’ve probably aided in the decision of young impressionable girls and women who went and aborted their babies.”
Farmer and Chevli responded to such charges by first thanking their critics and then explaining their reasons for creating Abortion Eve. In another response, also in the Kinsey archives, Chevli wrote, “Whether abortion is right or wrong is not our concern because we do not want to dictate moral values to others. What we do want to do is educate others to the fact that abortion is legal, safe, and presents women with a choice which they can make.”
Today, abortion opponents like Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson (R) frame abortion as the “dismemberment” of unborn children, suggesting that women who seek abortions are, in essence, murderers. With Abortion Eve, Chevli and Farmer dared to suggest that abortion was and is an integral part of women’s social and sexual liberation. Abortion Eve is unapologetic in asserting that view. The idea that abortion could be a woman’s decision alone, made in consultation with herself, for the good of herself and of her loved ones, is as radical an idea today as it was in the 1970s.
The day after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could determine the future of abortion access, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) invited reporters to virtually experience what many people seeking abortion in the United States face: near-constant protests from anti-choice activists outside of clinics.
Facing anti-choice protesters is so built into the fabric of obtaining an abortion in the United States that many reproductive health clinics design their parking lots and security systems with anti-choice protesters in mind. Clinics hire volunteers known as clinic escorts to walk patients from their cars to the clinic door, to try to prevent patients from feeling intimidated or harassed by anti-choice activists.
Last week at its office in Washington, D.C., PPFA representatives handed reporters virtual reality goggles to watch a screening of the film Across the Line. Producers are calling the project a “virtual reality hybrid documentary.”
PPFA last year teamed up with Emblematic Group’s CEO Nonny de la Peña, who has been dubbed the “godmother of virtual reality,” as well as Brad Lichtenstein of 371 Productions and Custom Reality Services and Jeff and Kelli Fitzsimmons of Custom Reality Services, to produce an approximately five-minute virtual documentary that shows what one woman in particular, and many people generally, have experienced when visiting a reproductive health center.
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The filmmakers have taken what they say is real documentary audio and video footage from abortion clinic protests and used virtual reality, 360-degree video technology, and computer-generated imagery (CGI) to bring a patient’s experience to life. Jeff and Kelli Fitzsimmons told Rewire at the screening that, as far as they know, Across the Line is the first “hybrid documentary” to blend all of these technologies and storytelling forms.
Kelli Fitzsimmons said she believes these immersive technologies will help tap into viewers’ sense of “empathy” and “self-compassion,” by placing viewers directly in the shoes of patients trying to enter a health center to obtain an abortion.
One puts on the goggles and is dropped into a brightly lit room in a reproductive health clinic, where a young woman sitting clothed on an examination table appears to be upset. Because the film was shot with a 360-degree camera, the viewer can turn around to see and hear everything in the room, including the attending health provider, who asks the patient if she is uncertain about her decision to have an abortion.
The patient says she is not.
Soon the viewer is transported minutes into the past, into a car. Along the road, several abortion protesters hold signs, some of which depict what are supposed to be aborted fetuses. A man approaches the car and tries to convince the woman to follow him to a so-called crisis pregnancy center, designed to dissuade pregnant people from seeking abortion care, often using misinformation. It now becomes clear what upset the young woman.
The producers told Rewire that this scene is based on a real experience, adapted from real audio and video footage outside of a reproductive health clinic in Aurora, Illinois.
The third and final scene is more fictionalized. The viewer is the person trying to enter the reproductive health clinic, walking toward the waiting arms of a clinic escort. A gaggle of protesters appears, and some of them begin shouting insults at the viewer, like “jezebel” and “whore.”
Jeff Fitzsimmons said the audio used in this scene is real, but was stitched together from various locations to represent a composite portrayal of what some people face when they try to obtain abortion care. It is not necessarily the experience of all patients.
Molly Eagan, vice president of Planned Parenthood Patient and Employee Experience at PPFA, told Rewire in an email that each person’s recorded comment in Across the Line is from “a unique person recorded from a different part of the country.”
She said the footage was taken at health centers and from anti-choice protests across the country.
“Planned Parenthood was interested in finding a new way to help people better understand the harassment that many people face when seeking health care,” Eagan said, explaining the genesis of this project. “We brought the … filmmakers together to collaborate on a story using both CGI and 360 video, and they were excited to work on a film that helped tell this story. Across the Line is part of ongoing efforts by Planned Parenthood and other sexual and reproductive health organizations to reduce stigma and change the conversation around safe and legal abortion.”
PPFA served as the executive producer on this project and consulted on the film’s script. “Planned Parenthood helped support the film, which was funded by a range of individual donors,” Eagan said.
“Once we began to research and compile nonfiction footage and audio for this piece, we saw a consistent pattern of intimidation and provocation by protesters,” de la Peña said in a PPFA press release. “By putting the audience on scene, it offers an intimate and visceral understanding of what thousands of women face when they seek care at a Planned Parenthood. This virtual reality piece allows viewers the harrowing experience of trying to make it ‘across the line.'”
A former Newsweek correspondent and documentary filmmaker, de la Peña is considered a pioneer in “immersive journalism.” Some of her other immersive projects have involved domestic violence, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a mortar explosion in Syria, and the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Across the Line premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Eagan said that in the coming months, PPFA will show Across the Line at other film festivals, and community and theatrical screenings across the country. The nonprofit is working on ways to distribute the film to a larger audience. Eagan said there will soon be a downloadable format for people to watch the film on their mobile devices using Google Cardboard and other tools.