Usually, when someone says “grandpa” it evokes images of kindly, white-haired men pulling coins from behind young ears or whittling handmade toys out of wood.
Not “chase a woman down a street telling her she’s murdering babies.”
But the Associated Press, in an attempt at “balance,” has put up a profile of anti-choice self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselor” Dick Retta, a clinic regular who tries to talk women out of abortions and has been repeatedly accused of yelling, intimidation, and even blocking access to the clinic.
And they call him “grandpa.”
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“Dick Retta stands outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Washington three days a week, trying to persuade pregnant women not to get abortions. The 80-year-old grandfather has been coming to the clinic for eight years and said he’s personally persuaded over 400 women to leave this clinic and others,” reads the opening paragraph of an article entitled “Anti-abortion grandpa facing DC clinic lawsuit.” The article repeatedly features Retta’s claims, as well as that of his lawyer, rebutted only by a few lines from the lawsuits against him.
As one clinic escort commented on a Retta profile, “I’m a volunteer escort at that clinic. Dick yells at every woman that walks in and out of the clinic, and follows them to the door. He walks extremely close to every patient, and harasses women. This is not ‘sidewalk counseling.'”
The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.
This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.
The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.
Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.
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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.
The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.
In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. HellerstedtSupreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriers—including legislation and stigma—that affect people seeking abortion care.
Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate Choices—Abortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.
One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.
The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.
“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.
The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City toprovide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.
To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.
Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.
While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.
At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.
While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.
However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.
“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.
Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.
Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)
It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?
In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.
The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.
As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”
In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.
My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?
Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.
In a world of corporate media outlets obsessed with eyeballs and clicks for profit, and operating in fear of right-wing claims of “media bias,” the use of false equivalencies to “represent both sides” of an issue has become a mainstay of reporting. Covering sex education? Forget the wealth of social science evidence on what works to protect teens and public health. Just ask people their opinion and cover “both sides”! Reporting on climate change? Forget decades of evidence of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Just ask climate change denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) what he thinks!
Using false equivalencies effectively means giving equal time to those who spread misinformation and, in many cases, outright lies, abrogating the ethical responsibilities of journalists to be accurate and fair. And this is exactly what the Associated Press did last week when it published an article on 20-week abortion bans that epitomized the worst of reporting on abortion.
The article, which focused primarily on a 20-week ban passed in South Carolina, did a fair job of covering the facts on the legislation in that state and in the context of bans in other states… until it came to what mattered: the medical accuracy of claims underlying such bans.
In the article, reporter Seanna Adcox wrote:
Supporters believe a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. Opponents argue such later-term abortions involve wanted pregnancies that go horribly wrong, and politicians should play no role in the difficult decision.
And here you have it: The crux of complicated issues always reduced to “supporters” and “opponents.” After all, they’re all equal, no?
No. They are not.
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“Supporters” of 20-week abortion bans (and many other such laws) include groups like Americans United for Life and the National Right to Life Committee (both of which have drafted model legislation for these bans), as well as others such as the Susan B. Anthony List. Each of these groups uses false science and unfounded claims of “fetal pain” to pass legislation that threatens access to critical reproductive health care; the anti-choice movement’s self-important “pro-life” designation elides the fact that women’s health and lives are in grave danger wherever such care is unavailable.
Who are the “opponents” of 20-week abortion bans? These include the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and a range of international bodies such as the World Health Organization and the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics. In other words, every relevant, respected, and recognized medical body in the world opposes such bans.
This is not a case of the opinions of supporters versus opponents on which uniforms are best for the local softball team or what color curtains should hang in the dining hall. Instead, it is a group of people with absolutely no legitimacy making and passing legislation rejected by the weight of the international medical and public health communities.
In a press release titled “Facts Are Important”—which tellingly reads like a plea for rationality in reporting—ACOG stated:
A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester. Although ultrasound monitoring can show intrauterine fetal movement, no studies since 2005 demonstrate fetal recognition of pain.
Sound health policy is best based on scientific fact and evidence-based medicine. The best health care is provided free of governmental interference in the patient-physician relationship. Personal decision-making by women and their doctors should not be replaced by political ideology.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), representing more than 58,000 ob-gyns and partners in women’s health, supports robust, factual debate on issues of importance to the American people.
Is it “fair and accurate” to posit the assertions of anti-choice groups, which base their claims on ideology and contrived “evidence,” as equal to medical and public health experts? Is it in the public interest to suggest that an issue that is fundamental to both human rights and public health be decided by reducing a vast body of evidence to equal that of organizations with an overriding political agenda? Is it good journalism by any standard?
There is only one answer to all of these questions, and it is “no.” AP’s piece was irresponsible, but it also reflects that current state of reporting on reproductive health care by many outlets, including NPR, the Washington Post, and others.
No matter how strong the backlash from the small but loud contingent of people within the anti-choice movement, it is the media’s job to report fairly and responsibly. Making the claims of anti-choice “supporters” of abortion bans equivalent to the consensus of the medical and public health community not only abrogates the public trust, it puts all of us in danger.
The media’s reliance on false equivalencies has to stop. People’s lives are at risk, and we can’t afford it.