Commentary Media

Henneberger and the Pro-Choice Cassandra Syndrome: WashPo Columnist Continues Tradition of Ignoring Reality

Amanda Marcotte

The job of journalists is to investigate, ask follow-up questions, and exhibit skepticism about the claims of politicians. So why are so many journalists refusing to do their job when it comes to reproductive rights?

Over the weekend, one of the most clear-cut examples of the Cassandra syndrome as applied to the pro-choice movement came to pass. For those who don’t know, “Cassandra” refers to a famous figure in Greek mythology, described by Wise Geek accurately as

Cassandra is often thought of as the doomsayer of the Trojan people, according to Greek mythology. She was a chosen prophet of Apollo, who failed to either obey his instructions or return his love, depending upon the version of the myth. Thus Apollo gifted her with prophecy, but at the same time, he made sure that no one would ever believe anything she said.

As such, the prophecies of Cassandra are always true, but people around her treat her like a madwoman. As the daughter of King Priam of Troy, she prophesies the destruction and fall of Troy to the Athenians. Cassandra is, of course, ignored.

In some versions of the tale, Cassandra warns the Trojans not to accept the gift of the wooden horse statue from the Greeks; this warning is ignored and pretty much laughed at, resulting in the final battle that destroys Troy.

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Journalists and researchers who objectively watch and understand the anti-choice movement can certainly relate. It’s been quite clear to us for a long time now that the anti-choice movement not only wants to ban abortion, but wants to restrict access to contraception, and in many cases, ban it outright. But every time we point this out, we’re poo-poohed and treated like madwomen.  It seems that no amount of evidence marshaled to support our argument matters. We stand there around screaming, “Now come on! Don’t you see all the feet and arms sticking out of that wooden horse? Why do you think it sounds like there are people singing Greek battle songs inside it? It’s full of Greeks!”, only to be faced with our fellow Trojans, cheerfully rolling it in and saying, “Don’t be such a pissy pants. This horse is a very nice gift and we don’t like looking gift horses in the mouth.” Because they fear if they did, they wouldn’t be able to deny that there’s a bunch of Greeks sitting in the mouth, sharpening swords.

On Wednesday, Irin Carmon at Salon wrote a round-up of the evidence that Rick Santorum is coming for your birth control: he supports an overturn of the Supreme Court decision, he wants to defund family planning clinics, he has repeatedly said that he thinks contraception is immoral and that all sex should be procreative. Melinda Henneberger responded with a baffling “nuh-uh!” piece in the Washington Post, claiming that she asked Santorum if he was coming after our birth control, and he denied it, which satisfied her.

This, even though, in the very same interview, Santorum admitted that he’s coming for your birth control, reiterating his support for defunding family planning. Putting contraception out of the reach of a huge share of American women certainly sounds like coming after your birth control to me. Perhaps Henneberger doesn’t really see low-income women as part of the collective “you” that Carmon was addressing, and needs a reminder that legally, low-income women are—believe it or not—still considered citizens and human beings.

Irin responded by pointing out that the piecemeal approach has long been the favorite of anti-choicers, and so the fact that any opponent of birth control “just” wants to restrict access severely shouldn’t be taken as evidence of anything but that they’re trying to get away with as much as they can now, hoping to be able to get away with more in the future. But Henneberger wants a much higher bar from claiming that someone is coming for your birth control. The evidence she said she’d accept is “a bonfire of the barrier methods” or “metaphorically riffling through medicine chests and nightstands from coast to coast.” Presumably, if there’s a bonfire of female-controlled methods, or the riffling through medicine chests is restricted to the red states, that wouldn’t rise to the level of bona fide opposition to contraception in Henneberger’s book.

Which brings up a question. Imagine if social conservatives demanded the defunding of all libraries, insisted that states have a right to ban the sale and possession of books that aren’t the Bible, and advocated that schools stop teaching reading. Would Henneberger take umbrage if liberals said that they were “coming after your books,” snottily claiming that we can’t say they have a problem with books until they’re actually burning them in the streets? After all, blue states would still allow legal access to books and wealthy people would be able to afford tutors to teach their children to read. Only hysterics would think that this new movement was anti-literacy, by the impossibly high standards she’s set. They’re clearly just really dedicated to “states rights”.

Santorum has certainly been trying to imply that his open hostility to Griswold v. Connecticut is simply an unfortunate result of his principled belief that the Supreme Court is basically an illegitimate institution that should have apparently no power to rule against states that the Court feels violate the Constitution. Leaving aside whether or not he’s made an argument to support that contention, the question remains: why then use Griswold as your example? Jill at Feministe pointed out the problem with this argument:

Welcome to Disingenuous Central. “Contraception has nothing to do with it”? Sure. Santorum just picked that case of out thin air. I’m sure he was going through the list of cases where the court evaluated state law and was like, “Hmmm, Brown v. Board of Ed, Loving v. Virginia, Engle v. Vitale, Cohen v. California, Marsh v. Alabama, NAACP v. Button, Stanley v. Georgia, Gonzalez v. Raich… Oh I just like the sound of the name Griswold, let’s go with that.”

Exactly. If you want to illustrate that you have an absolutist view that the Court should never consider state law, you would reach for a decision that is more famous, such as Brown v. Board of Ed. Or, if he won’t say it, he should be asked about Brown as a follow-up, instead of simply taking him at his word that he’s simply opposed to federal courts have jurisdiction over states.  If he supports an overturn of Brown, okay, well, he’s being consistent. But I doubt he’d actually say that if asked. So then we have to ask, well, then why on earth would he single out Griswold if it wasn’t for his well-established anti-contraception views?

Henneberger refused to perform simple due diligence in her supposed “debunking” of pro-choice claims. On the contrary, she seems to have already determined that the silly little feminists are being hysterical, and didn’t feel any need to conduct basic journalism that gets to the heart of this question. If she had done her job, she probably would have come to the same conclusions as Carmon did in her Salon pieces.

Culture & Conversation Media

TRAP Laws and the Abortion ‘Crisis’: A Conversation With Award-Winning Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Tina Vasquez

Recently, Porter spoke with Rewire about the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike. Her film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.

Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED focuses on the targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws designed to close clinics. But, as Porter told Rewire in a phone interview, TRAPPED is also about “normal people,” the providers and clinic staff who have been demonized due to their insistence that women should have access to abortion and their willingness to offer that basic health-care service.

Between 2010 and 2015, state legislators adopted some 288 laws regulating abortion care, subjecting providers and patients to restrictions not imposed on their counterparts in other medical specialties.

In Alabama, where most of the film takes place, abortion providers are fighting to keep their clinics open in the face of countlessand often arbitrary—regulations, including a requirement that the grass outside the facilities be a certain length and one mandating abortions be performed in far more “institutional” and expensive facilities than are medically necessary.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this month on a Texas case regarding the constitutionality of some TRAP laws: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The lawsuit challenges two provisions in HB 2: the admitting privileges requirement applied to Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, Texas, and Reproductive Services in El Paso, Texas, as well as the requirement that every abortion clinic in the state meet the same building requirements as ambulatory surgical centers. It is within this context that Porter’s film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.

Recently, the award-winning filmmaker spoke with Rewire about the Supreme Court case, the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue, and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike.

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Rewire: What has changed for the clinicians featured in TRAPPED since the documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January?

Dawn Porter: Now, in Alabama, the legislature has passed a law banning clinics within 2,000 feet of a school. There’s a lot of frustration because the clinicians abide by the laws, and then more are put in place that makes it almost impossible to operate.

Everyone has been really focused on Dalton Johnson’s clinic [the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives] because the clinic he moved to was across the street from a school, but the law has also affected Gloria [Gray, the director of the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama]and that’s not something a lot of us initially realized. She’s afraid this will shut her down for good. I would say this has been a very hard blow for her. I think Dalton was perhaps more prepared for it. He will fight the law.

The good news is that it’s not like either of these clinics will close tomorrow; this gets decided when they go back for relicensing at the end of the year. Right now, they’re in the middle of legal proceedings.

Of course, we’re all also awaiting the Supreme Court decision on Whole Woman’s Health. There’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety right now, for these clinic owners in particular, but for all clinic owners [nationwide] really.

Rewire: Let’s talk about that. Later this month, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on that caseEven if the Supreme Court rules that these laws are unconstitutional, do you think the case will change the environment around reproductive rights?

DP: It really depends on how the Court writes the decision. There may be no case in which it’s more important for the Court to have a comprehensive decision. It’s a multiheaded hydra. There’s always something that can close a clinic, so it’s crucially important that this Court rules that nothing can hinder a woman’s right to choose. It’s important that this Court makes it clear that all sham laws are unconstitutional.

Rewire: We know abortion providers have been killed and clinics have been bombed. When filming, did you have safety concerns for those involved?

DP: Definitely. The people who resort to violence in their anti-choice activities areI guess the most charitable way to describe itunpredictable. I think the difficult thing is you can’t anticipate what an irrational person will do. We took the safety of everyone very seriously. With Dr. Willie Parker [one of two doctors in the entire state of Mississippi providing abortions], for example, we wouldn’t publicize if he’d be present at a screening of the film. We never discussed who would appear at a screening. It’s always in the back of your mind that there are people who feel so strongly about this they would resort to violence. Dr. Parker said he’s aware of the risks, but he can’t let them control his life.

We filmed over the course of a few years, and honestly it took me a while to even ask about safety. In one of our last interviews, I asked Dr. Parker about safety and it was a very emotional interview for both of us. Later during editing, there was the shooting at the Colorado clinic and I called him in a panic and asked if he wanted me to take our interview out of the film. He said no, adding, “I can’t let irrational terrorists control my life.” I think everybody who does this work understands what’s at risk.

Rewire: It seems Texas has become ground zero for the fight for abortion access and because of that, the struggles in states like Alabama can get lost in the shuffle. Why did you choose to focus on Alabama?

DP: I met Dr. Parker when he was working in Mississippi. The first meeting I did with him was in December 2012 and he told me that Alabama had three clinics and that no one was talking about it. He introduced me to the clinic owners and it was clear that through them, the entire story of abortion access—or the denial of itcould be told. The clinic owners were all working together; they were all trying to figure out what to do legally so they could continue operating. I thought Alabama was unexplored, but also the clinic owners were so amazing.

To tell you the truth, I tried to avoid Texas for a long time. If you follow these issues around reproductive rights closely, and I do, you can sort of feel like, “Uh, everyone knows about Texas.” But, actually, a lot of people don’t know about Texas. I had this view that everyone knew what was going on, but I realized I was very insulated in this world. I started with Texas relatively late, but decided to explore it because we were following the lawyers with the Center for Reproductive Rights and they were saying one of their cases would likely go to the Supreme Court, and Whole Woman’s Health was most likely. They, of course, were right.

When you’re making a film, you’re emerged in a world and you have to take a step back and think about what people really know, not what you think they know or assume they know.

Rewire: In TRAPPED, you spliced in footage of protests from the 1970s, which made me think about how far we’ve come since Roe v. Wade. Sometimes it feels like we’ve come very far, other times it feels like nothing has changed. Why do you think abortion is such a contentious topic?

DP: I don’t think it’s actually that contentious, to tell you the truth. I think there is a very vocal minority who are extreme. If you poll them, most Americans are pro-choice and believe in the right to abortion in at least some circumstances. Most people are not “100 percent, no abortion” all the time. People who are, are very vocal. I think this is really a matter of having people who aren’t anti-choice be vocal about their beliefs.

Abortion is not the number one social issue. It was pretty quiet for years, but we’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party and conservative Republicans heavily influencing policy. The conservative agenda has been elevated and given a larger platform.

We need to change public thinking about this. Part of that conversation is destigmatizing abortion and not couching it in a shameful way or qualifying it. Abortion is very common; many, many women have them. Three in ten U.S. women have had an abortion before the age of 45. I think that part of the work that needs to be done is around stigma and asking why are we stigmatizing this. What is the agenda around this?

Evangelicals have done a great job of making it seem like this is an issue of morality, and it’s just not. To me, honestly, it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-choice or anti-choice. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs. I can respect different opinions, but I can’t respect someone who tries to subvert the political process. People with power and influence who tamper with the political process to impose their beliefs on other people—I really can’t respect that.

Rewire: There are a lot of entry points for conversations about abortion access. What brought you to focus on TRAP laws?

DP: People often discuss abortion in terms of morality, but that’s not what we should be talking about. The reason why these laws have been so effective is because they successfully harm the least powerful of the group they’re targeting. Who’s getting picked on, who’s suffering the most? Women of color, people who are low-income, people who don’t have health insurance. There’s something so unjust about how these laws are disproportionately affecting these populations, and that really bothered me. I’m certainly interested in abortion as a topic, but I’m also interested in politics and power and how those things take shape to hurt the most vulnerable.

Rewire: In TRAPPED, we get to see a very personal side of all the clinicians and providers. One clinician discusses having to be away from her six children all of the time because she’s always at the clinic. We get to see Dr. Willie Parker at church with his family. And it was amazing to learn that the remaining providers in Alabama are friends who regularly eat dinner together. Was it intentional to humanize providers in a way we don’t usually get to see?

DP: Absolutely. The anti-choice side has successfully painted the picture of an abortion provider as this really shady, sinister person. I spent three years embedded in these clinics, and that couldn’t be further from what I saw. These are passionate, brave people, but they’re also very normal people. They’re not superheroes or super villains. They’re just normal people. It’s not that they don’t think about what they’re doing; they’re just very resilient and courageous in a way that makes me very proud. I wanted people to see that.

Rewire: Honestly before watching TRAPPED, I never thought about the personal toll that pressure takes on providers. Dalton Johnson used his retirement funds in order to continue providing abortion care. In several scenes, we see an emotional Gloria Gray struggling with whether or not to keep fighting these laws. Do you think people generally understand what it’s costing providers—financially and emotionally—to continue operating?

DP: I don’t think a lot of us think about that. People like Dalton are saying, “I would rather cash out my retirement than give in to you people.” We should not be asking people to make that kind of sacrifice. That should not be happening.

We also don’t spend enough time thinking about or talking about all of the things that have happened to create the conditions we’re now dealing with. It’s like a perfect storm. Medical schools are not training abortion providers, and the abortion providers that are around are getting older and retiring. Of course laws keep getting passed that make it more and more difficult to run a clinic. In this kind of environment, can you really blame people for not wanting to be providers? Especially when there’s the added pressure of having to take not just your own safety into account, but the safety of your family.

Anti-choice people target the children of abortion providers. They target them at home. This is a hard job if you want to have a life. I mean that literally too—if you literally want to have your life.

This is why so few go into this field. As the number of providers in some states continues to get eliminated, the burden left on those standing is exponentially greater.

The reason why we have a crisis around abortion care is not just laws, but because we have so few physicians. There are all of these factors that have come together, and we didn’t even get to cover all of it in the documentary, including the fact that Medicaid doesn’t cover abortion [under federal law. Seventeen states, however, use state funds to cover abortion care for Medicaid recipients.] A lot of this is the result of conservative lobbying. People have to be aware of all the pressures providers are under and understand that we didn’t get to this point of crisis accidentally.

Rewire: It can feel hopeless, at least to me. What gives you hope when it comes to this unrelenting battle for reproductive rights in this country?

DP: I don’t feel hopeless at all. I feel like it’s really important to be aware and vigilant and connect these dots. I wanted to help people understand the complications and the challenges providers are up against.

These providers have done their part, and now it’s time for the rest of us to do ours. People can vote. Vote for people who prioritize providing education and medical care, rather than people who spend all of their time legislating an abortion clinic. Alabama is in a huge fiscal crisis. The education system is a mess. The Medicaid system is a mess, and the whole Alabama state legislature worked on a bill that would affect a couple of abortion clinics. Voters need to decide if that’s OK. I think this is all very hard, but it’s not at all hopeless.

Culture & Conversation Media

‘Trapped’ Documentary Rejects Moral Divide Between Religion and Abortion

Amy Littlefield

Viewers might expect Trapped to be a grim, national montage—but it's not. Instead, it's something much more powerful: an intimate portrait of a handful of providers in Texas and Alabama who are fighting not only to keep their doors open, but to reduce the stigma against abortion propagated by the religious right.

The opening scene of Dawn Porter’s new documentary Trapped is a haunting postcard from the front lines of eroding abortion access. We hear a telephone ringing inside the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, which anti-choice laws have temporarily shuttered. We watch as staff break the news to people on the other end of the line. Would they like the number for Huntsville? Montgomery? Each is about a two-hour drive from Tuscaloosa.

We see the empty waiting room, and are left to imagine what has happened to the patients who are not there. Have they managed to drive to another city? Have they attempted to induce their own abortions, as one Alabama patient—shown with her face in shadow—admits she considered doing, and as up to 240,000 women in Texas are estimated to have done? Have they given birth against their will?

According to the Guttmacher Institute, states have enacted 288 new restrictions on abortion since anti-choice lawmakers took control of legislatures nationwide following the 2010 midterm elections. Many people who follow reproductive rights know this already. We know there are a handful of states with only one abortion clinic left. But we rarely see patients forced to navigate this landscape of gutted access, or providers who dedicate their lives to fighting back. In that sense, Dawn Porter’s film, which premiered January 24 at the Sundance Film Festival, is the documentary we’ve been waiting for.

Due in large part to legislation written and promoted by Americans United for Life, more than half of U.S. states now have TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws, aimed at regulating clinics out of business. Some require abortion providers to make costly, unnecessary upgrades, transforming their facilities into mini-hospitals. Some force doctors to obtain hospital admitting privileges, which they often can’t do, because of anti-choice sentiment, or because abortion is so safe, they can’t admit enough patients to meet hospital minimums.

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Given the impact these laws have on states across the country, viewers might expect Trapped to be a grim, national montage—but it’s not. Instead, it’s something much more powerful: an intimate portrait of a handful of providers in Texas and Alabama who are fighting not only to keep their doors open, but to reduce the stigma against abortion propagated by the religious right.

Trapped director Dawn Porter previously made the documentary Gideon’s Army about public defenders in the South, which premiered at Sundance in 2013 and aired on HBO.

“The films that I’m drawn to and attracted to are strongest when they’re about people,” Porter told Rewire. Specifically, Porter was first drawn to abortion provider Dr. Willie Parker, whom she met at the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. (Porter was in Mississippi filming for her PBS documentary, Spies of Mississippi, when she read there was only one clinic left in the state. That sparked her interest, although she ultimately decided to focus more on Alabama, where Dr. Parker also works, and where the clinics have received less public attention.)

“Sometimes I say, the documentary gods are with you, and you find a remarkable person like Dr. Parker,” Porter said during a talkback after the film’s Sundance premiere. “I don’t how many Christian-raised, Alabama Black men are providing abortions across the South, but I found one!”

Porter called each of the film’s main characters up to the front of the packed theater, one by one. Due to security concerns, their presence at the premiere up to that point had been a carefully guarded secret. Parker stepped down last. The audience members rose to their feet in a standing ovation.

In large part because of Parker’s role as a central character, one of the most powerful achievements of Trapped is to reclaim religion from the anti-choice right. At one point in the film, the scene shifts from a cross-wielding picketer outside the clinic in Montgomery, Alabama, to the facade of a Baptist church. Inside, we expect to find more protesters. Instead, we find Dr. Parker.

For the first 12 years of his practice, Parker did not perform abortions. Now, he performs them in Southern states where few other providers will.

“Someone once said that when you wrestle with your conscience and you lose, you actually win,” he said during the post-premiere talkback. “I didn’t feel like I could call myself a comprehensive women’s health provider if I didn’t provide one of the most essential services that one in three women in this country need by the time they’re age 45.”

The religious right has succeeded in stigmatizing abortion by claiming the moral upper hand, making many, even in the pro-choice community, concede that abortion is inherently wrong, albeit often necessary. But Trapped rejects this moral divide. In one powerful scene, Callie Chatman, a recovery room attendant in Montgomery, consoles an emotional abortion patient.

“The same God that got you through all, everything that you’ve been through? …. He’s still there,” Chatman tells her. She prays over the patient, her hand on the young woman’s forehead.

“Amen,” they both say at the end.

In Chatman’s faith, in Dr. Parker’s faith, we find a compassionate, pro-choice God.

We also find a host of other heroes in Alabama. We meet June Ayers, the Montgomery clinic owner who, in one of the film’s most delicious moments of levity under duress, explains how her sprinkler system works. (“Each morning at eight o’clock, I sprinkle the grass and the picketers, that means they have to move up and down the sidewalk.” Ayers says. “If it looks like, you know, it might be getting just a little bit dry out there, then we can at any point, turn the water on.”) We meet Dalton Johnson, the Huntsville clinic owner who drained his retirement money to relocate to a new facility that meets state requirements; he says he would like to get married one day, but “right now, I’m married to the work.” And we meet Gloria Gray, the owner of the idled Tuscaloosa clinic, who fights back, and succeeds in reopening her doors.

The film premiered at Sundance two days after the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide. Less than one month from now, on March 2, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in another case that could reshape the landscape of abortion access again. The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (previously Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole), challenges sweeping anti-choice restrictions passed in Texas in 2013.

While many of us have seen the map of clinic closures in Texas, here, again, the film humanizes the numbers; we hear Marva Sadler, director of clinical services at Whole Woman’s Health, describe the shortage of nurse anesthetists willing to work in the unstable environment created by the law. Bound by a single nurse anesthetist’s schedule, the staff have been forced to turn away a 13-year-old rape victim, 20 weeks and five days pregnant, who drove four hours from McAllen to San Antonio for an abortion. “We sentenced her to motherhood,” Sadler says, with tears in her eyes.

If there’s a tagline for the impact of TRAP laws, it’s that. If there’s a singular triumph of Trapped, it’s that it introduces us to people like Marva Sadler.

“Because we don’t talk about abortion in a mature and thoughtful way, for what it is, which is medical care, the politics of the extreme silencers tend to be the loudest voices,” director Dawn Porter told Rewire. “Part of what I wanted to do was say, there are a lot of people working in this field and making huge sacrifices so that the rest of us have a choice, and we should see them.”

Thanks to Porter, we do see them. We see the men and women who forgo paychecks and fight, sometimes all the way to the Supreme Court, as Amy Hagstrom Miller of Whole Woman’s Health has done, to keep abortion accessible. As a result, many viewers will emerge from Trapped feeling not angry, nor defeated, but profoundly grateful. Many may also be moved to action.

On Saturday night, Trapped won the Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking at Sundance. But the film’s true impact has yet to come. Between now and March 2, when the Supreme Court hears arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the filmmakers hope to screen Trapped in as many places as possible. (Check the website for upcoming dates or to host a community screening.) The film opens in New York City and Washington, D.C. on March 4. It will be released on PBS’s “Independent Lens” in June, around when the Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision.

Please go see it.