At a gathering of reporters at the Colorado State Capitol Tuesday, Amy Runyon-Harms, director of ProgressNow Colorado, said: “It’s time to name names. It’s time to call out and stop this dangerous campaign of lies from right-wing politicians before more lives are lost.”
Runyon-Harms asked three Colorado politicians to apologize for their “extreme” anti-Planned Parenthood rhetoric, which, she said, played a role in inciting a man to kill three people Friday at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.
“It must stop, and stop now,” Runyon-Harms said. “We call on right-wing politicians across the state and nation to stop their false attacks on Planned Parenthood, and apologize for lies that are directly contributing to politically motivated violence in America today.”
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The three elected officials, all Republicans, spotlighted at Tuesday’s news conference were U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt (R-Colorado Springs), and state Sen. Tim Neville, who represents a West Denver suburb and is running for U.S. Senate.
Supporters standing on the steps behind Runyon-Harms and other speakers held signs containing recent quotes from each of the three lawmakers, showing the type of rhetoric organizers of the news conference say leads to violence.
One sign contained a quote by Coffman, in which he stated that abortion practices at Planned Parenthood “fly in the face of human decency.”
On another sign, Klingenschmitt was quoted as saying, “Planned Parenthood … I think they’re also filled with the demonic spirit of murder.”
“Some of the most disgusting videos of Planned Parenthood cutting to pieces and selling unborn baby parts were filmed right here in Denver, Colorado,” was written on another sign, quoting a Neville fundraising letter.
“People take these comments quite literally, and you see the results,” Karen Middleton, director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, said at the news conference, calling on the public to let politicians know “this extreme rhetoric must stop” immediately. “It’s dangerous,” Middleton said.
Klingenschmitt, Coffman, and Neville did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
Runyon-Harms said that the release of discredited and heavily edited Center for Medical Progress (CMP) videos pushed anti-Planned Parenthood discourse “over the top” into a “veritable feeding frenzy.”
She pointed to an “informational hearing” to investigate Planned Parenthood, staged November 10 at the capitol by the state legislature’s most conservative politicians, as an example of how the videos sparked misinformation and extremism. The legislators at the hearing were among 30 state GOP lawmakers who signed a letter calling Planned Parenthood’s actions “barbaric” and “unethical” as well as accusing the organization of the “trafficking and sale of aborted babies.”
“The attacks on Planned Parenthood have been discredited, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from lying about the organization,” said Runyon-Harms. “And now, three people are dead.”
Runyon-Harms said “words matter,” and she finds it “hard to believe” that Friday’s killings and the inflammatory rhetoric are not connected.
Activists’ sentiments today were echoed in part by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Sunday, who told CNN that Americans should “tone back the inflammatory rhetoric” that may inspire “emotionally unstable or psychologically unbalanced” people to “commit these acts of unthinkable violence.”
Unlike the activists at today’s news conference, Hickenlooper did not identify specific politicians or public officials as throwing such verbal assaults but instead called out “bloggers and talk shows”—along with the “community” generally.
“I demand not only a responsible dialogue but also a dialogue that is, at a minimum, honest,” said Leslie Herod, a witness who said at the conference she was across the street from Planned Parenthood when the shooting occurred Friday.
Alleged shooter Robert Lewis Dear reportedly used the phrase “no more baby parts” in a conversation with police.
Coffman faces a tough re-election campaign next year against Democrat Morgan Carroll, and Neville is up against numerous Republicans in his Senate primary race. Klingenschmitt in the midst of a primary campaign against fellow Republican state Rep. Bob Gardner.
State Rep. JoAnn Windholz, in a statement to the Colorado Independent, put the blame for Friday’s violence on Planned Parenthood, writing that when such a shooting occurs, “the left goes on ‘auto-pilot’ blaming everyone in sight when they should be looking in a mirror.”
“The left is hoping this will somehow silence the truth tellers,” Dan Caplis, an anti-choice talk radio host, said on air just prior to the news conference. “But it won’t.”
“David Daleiden contacted our agency May 21st of 2015 and filed a criminal report against StemExpress here in Placerville,” a spokesperson at the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office told Rewire. “All he was, was a reporting party. He didn’t consult with us and he didn’t cooperate with us. In fact, I’d characterize him as uncooperative.”
See more of our coverage on the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress here.
In late May of last year, David Daleiden was reaching the culmination of a project he had been working on for three years. Over that time, the anti-choice activist had been living a lie of his own creation. He had set up a bogus company, complete with a fake website, and corporate officers whose names were in fact aliases.
He had enlisted half a dozen other anti-choice activists to help him, most notably Sandra Susan Merritt, a 63-year-old resident of San Jose, California, who—using the alias Susan Tennenbaum—posed as the CEO of the bogus company, Biomax Procurement Services.
Together, Daleiden—going by Robert Daoud Sarkis—and Merritt hopscotched the country, traveling from California to Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Texas, and Washington, D.C. They attended conferences for abortion providers and parlayed those attendances—and the trust and credibility they engendered—into visits to abortion clinics, where the pair secretly recorded meetings and site visits and tried to goad their targets into making statements that could be twisted to look like evidence of illegal activities.
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By May 21, Daleiden was nearly ready to bring his elaborate scheme to a head. The next night, he and “Tennenbaum” were scheduled to have dinner with executives from StemExpress, a tissue procurement company based in Northern California. As he had done for virtually every encounter as a Biomax official, Daleiden planned to secretly video record the meeting and then to release doctored versions of that footage to the public.
But this time, Daleiden did something different. On the eve of this particular meeting, he delivered a bundle of so-called evidence of alleged wrongdoing by StemExpress to the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, claiming that the company had engaged in a range of crimes including trafficking in human organs and human tissues, and “homicide of babies born alive during the abortion procedure,” according to legal documents obtained by Rewire.
In a deposition taken late last year, Daleiden would claim—in sworn testimony, under penalty of perjury—that the purpose of his meeting with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office was “to coordinate [his] investigations going forward on how to bring StemExpress criminal conduct to light.”
Following his lawyer’s advice during that deposition, Daleiden refused to say more about that meeting, or the other authorities he had supposedly “coordinated” with in his spying campaign, but he did heavily imply that the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office was just one of the “governmental authorities” that he met with “contemporaneously with the actual undercover operation.”
The notion that law enforcement authorities were actively colluding with Daleiden and his associates in conduct that has resulted in criminal indictments is curious, to say the least.
It’s just one of the loose ends that surrounds Daleiden’s project, a year after he released the first smear video against Planned Parenthood (the organization and some of its individual employees), abortion providers in general, and companies that assist in the procurement of tissue for medical and scientific research.
Despite the dozen-odd state and federal investigations his project sparked, the multiple civil and criminal cases it sent ricocheting through state and federal courts, and the untold damage it caused to companies, organizations, and individuals targeted by his group, many questions remain about who funded Daleiden, which politicians supported him, and who else was involved in his operation—including the identities of the other operatives that posed as Biomax employees.
Using freshly obtained legal documents, Rewire has taken a look back at some of the most mysterious aspects of the Daleiden affair, comparing what we have learned since the videos were first released with what remains unknown or unclear.
What emerge are some disturbing claims that have yet to be fully resolved, not least of which is the extent to which members of Congress were aware of—or involved in—planning or executing Daleiden’s campaign.
El Dorado Sheriff’s Office: Daleiden Was “Uncooperative”
When Daleiden met with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, he handed over a report he had prepared containing his “best kind of summary or list of the different California and federal laws that are implicated in the actions between StemExpress and Planned Parenthood,” along with “a few representative examples of the evidence that CMP gathered that indicates probable cause for violations of those laws,” according to a transcript of the deposition he gave on December 30, 2015.
When Rewire contacted the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office about this anecdote, its spokesperson, Jim Byers, said he clearly remembered Daleiden’s visit, but disputed Daleiden’s characterization that his office was “coordinating” with the spying project.
“David Daleiden contacted our agency May 21st of 2015 and filed a criminal report against StemExpress here in Placerville,” Byers said. “All he was, was a reporting party. He didn’t consult with us and he didn’t cooperate with us. In fact, I’d characterize him as uncooperative.”
Byers said that it was unclear to his colleagues what exactly Daleiden wanted them to do with the information he had provided. Flipping through the report while speaking with Rewire, Byers explained: “It just says that he had been conducting a multiyear investigation and was going to go public with it and wanted to make this report to us, but when we asked him to hold off so we could investigate his claims, he went ahead and went public anyway.”
The reason the sheriff’s office asked Daleiden not to go public was because doing so would hamper any investigation they might do into the allegations Daleiden had made. “That’s very common, for us to ask something like that, because then the people we need to talk to aren’t going to talk to us,” Byers said. “He declined to follow our request.”
Regardless, the sheriff’s office spent months investigating Daleiden’s claims; they found no evidence of illegal conduct by StemExpress. As is routine, the sheriff’s office then referred the matter to the El Dorado District Attorney for further review. Dave Stevenson, the spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, told Rewire he was unable to comment on the matter as the investigation is ongoing.
If it seems odd that Daleiden would make a report to law enforcement—but not give them any time to actually investigate the allegations he’d made and actually jeopardize those investigations—that might be because the act of making the report itself was part of Daleiden’s legal strategy.
Daleiden was consulting with the Life Legal Defense Foundation for at least two years prior to releasing his videos, according to published reports. It’s therefore likely that he knew that California creates criminal and civil penalties for people who intentionally make a secret recording of a person in a private meeting without their consent. And indeed, that’s one of the key charges within the lawsuits that have been filed against Daleiden and his co-defendants.
It’s also likely that Daleiden and his advisers knew that there is an exception to that law for people who make a secret recording “for the purpose of obtaining evidence reasonably believed to relate to the commission by another party to the communication of the crime of extortion, kidnapping, bribery, any felony involving violence against the person.”
Throughout the deposition he made on December 30, Daleiden maintained that he believed he was exposing criminal conduct as a justification for his spying activities. Merritt made similar claims in the deposition she gave in the same case, on December 29. In particular, both insist they believed they were recording evidence of murder.
It appears plausible that Daleiden made his report not because he thought the county sheriff’s office would really investigate, but because he anticipated that once he published the illegally taped videos, he would be charged with a crime, and he was simply laying the groundwork to be able to show a court later on that he had filed the criminal report as evidence of his belief that he had uncovered a crime.
Daleiden did not reply to Rewire‘s questions about whether this was in fact his legal strategy. Catherine Short, his lawyer at Life Legal Defense Foundation, did not immediately respond to our emails seeking comment.
However, for that defense to work, a person must show they had an honest and reasonable belief that they were uncovering a crime. And when it came to the specifics of the supposed crimes they were uncovering, both depositions are striking for the extent to which Daleiden and Merritt refused or were unable to give clear definitions of those offenses.
For instance, both Daleiden and Merritt were reluctant to answer questions about who, if anyone, they believed had actually committed the murder they were supposedly reporting, despite that being one of their key allegations. Both Daleiden and Merritt made vague statements about “doctors” being responsible, or about the “abortion industry” writ large, but when it came to the specifics of how anyone at StemExpress could have been guilty of murder, their answers were evasive.
In one chilling passage, Daleiden gave stammering and elusive answers to questioning over whether he believed that one of the people who assisted him in his smear campaign—a former StemExpress employee named Holly O’Donnell—had provided him with evidence that she had herself committed murder. Discussing O’Donnell’s account of one incident she related where she claimed to have procured fetal brain tissue, Daleiden initially said he did not believe O’Donnell had murdered that fetus. But under questioning about the overall processes involved in preparing tissue samples, Daleiden’s answers became confused.
After Daleiden noted that O’Donnell went with him to his first meeting with El Dorado law enforcement, the StemExpress lawyer asked: “Did you ever tell Holly that you thought she should be investigated by El Dorado County for her conduct?”
Daleiden never definitely said “no,” but rather, “I think that, you know, the testimony of people who worked at StemExpress is—you know, is relevant to that investigation but I think the ultimate culpability is with the—with the business entity.” He also said he would “put culpability on the doc,” but then he said:
I’m not sure what Holly’s obligations were there. But, you know, but this is—this is highly speculative and, like I said, this is why I think this is really serious information that I—and really serious allegations and actions that—that needed to be brought to law enforcement, which is what I did.
Ultimately, Daleiden’s lawyer summarized his client’s position on O’Donnell’s potential guilt thus: “He explained as best he could that it would be the doctor or it would be [a different StemExpress employee] and it’s ambiguous as to Holly’s role at that point.”
Merritt appears to go further. Towards the end of her deposition, she was asked to clarify whether she believed that any StemExpress employees had committed murder. She described what she believed O’Donnell had done, and then said, “Yes, I believe that to be murder.”
One can only wonder whether O’Donnell was aware that Daleiden considered the possibility—or perhaps, had not considered the possibility—that he was giving law enforcement authorities evidence that she had committed murder, when she accompanied Daleiden to their offices and helped him with his “investigation.”
Rewire’s attempts to contact O’Donnell for her comment on that question were unsuccessful.
Further Evidence That Daleiden and His Associates Are Not Reporters
The very fact that Daleiden claimed—albeit incorrectly—to have been “coordinating” with law enforcement further undermines his dubious assertion that he is an investigative reporter. Reporters would seldom coordinate their efforts with law enforcement, except for rare instances where, by way of example, they might inform law enforcement if they had learned of an imminent risk to a person’s life or to national security.
The deposition also revealed Daleiden’s investigative methods to be far from objective, and in some respects, amateurish.
Under questioning from StemExpress’ attorney, Daleiden explained that much of his knowledge of how tissue or organ transplantation worked was based on “research,” which comprised Googling for journal articles, which he admitted to cherry-picking. He also based most of his understanding of the equipment used in heart transplants on watching videos that the equipment manufacturer had posted on its website and YouTube channel.
He relied disproportionately on the expertise of a scientist whose otherwise impressive credentials are marred by her support for widely debunked theories that vaccines are linked to autism. He used this patchwork knowledge to cobble together flawed theories about how fetal tissue is acquired, and the circumstances in which it could be used for research.
He even made assumptions about what medical professionals meant by the words “case” or “specimen”—he said he believed the people he filmed were referring to a fetus, when in fact those words can also refer to a particular organ or piece of tissue. He said that he didn’t give the subjects of his secret video recordings the opportunity to clarify what they meant by these terms because he didn’t want to blow his cover—or as he put it, he didn’t want to get greedy for information and “get lost in the Cave of Wonders like Aladdin and go like looking for all the other treasures.” He just ran with his own assumptions, something no professional reporter would do.
And he acknowledged that the reason he embarked on his project was because he had formed an unshakable belief that abortion providers engaged in unlawful trafficking of human organs and tissues, instead of remaining open-minded about the facts and attempting to report against his own biases, as a real reporter would do. None of the multiple investigations into Planned Parenthood have found any evidence that substantiate Daleiden’s allegations. Indeed, Daleiden manipulated his videos to omit passages where the targets of his campaign explicitly told him that profiting from human tissues was unethical and illegal.
Merritt’s deposition is even more astonishing in terms of just how flimsy her claims to be a reporter turn out to be.
Like Daleiden, Merritt is trying to assert that she is a reporter and therefore protected by the First Amendment.
A lawyer for StemExpress asked Merritt, “Do you consider yourself a journalist?”
Merritt answered, “Yes.”
The lawyer then asked, “Have you ever published any articles?”
Merritt answered, “I have not.”
She said she didn’t do any original research. She didn’t do any writing. She didn’t edit. Merritt specifically told the lawyer for StemExpress that her sole role in the ruse orchestrated by Daleiden was to wear a video recorder while playing the part of Susan Tennenbaum, which may explain why Daleiden has frequently referred to his associates as “actors.”
Wearing a camera does not a reporter make.
Which Members of Congress Knew About the Planned Smear Campaign, What Did They Know, and When?
An especially curious aspect of this saga is how some members of Congress had seen at least one of the smear videos before Daleiden released them to the public. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) both told Roll Call that they had seen the first video about a month before it was published. How and why they came to see the video, and what their role was in helping plan the political response to the tapes, if any, remains unclear.
But the following exchange during Daleiden’s deposition provided a tantalizing tidbit about that mystery.
In his December 30 deposition, Daleiden declined to answer the following questions from StemExpress’ lawyer:
When is the first time you spoke with anybody from, or had any contact with anybody from Congress?
When is the first time you provided any materials to anybody that is a member of Congress?
Daleiden responded: “I don’t think the answer to that question is a matter of public record so I’m going to follow the advice of my counsel.” He declined to respond.
Ostensibly, the reason Daleiden declined is that he believed it was outside the scope of that particular deposition, which was confined to some narrow legal arguments. However, there is an implication in the December 30 deposition that those questions were within the scope of a related case, along with questions about who funded Daleiden’s efforts, and information about the specific role of his board member, the anti-choice extremist and head of Operation Rescue, Troy Newman.
A year has passed since the videos were first released, and a lot of time and taxpayer dollars have been spent as a result of Daleiden’s endeavors. But a year is a short time in the life of a lawsuit, and many cases are still wending their way through state and federal courts. As they do, it is possible that we will learn more about these unresolved questions.
Time will tell whether the pattern Daleiden has established will continue: Instead of exposing wrongdoing by others, the only wrongdoing he has thus far managed to record and expose was his own.
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 countless—and 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 case. Even 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 are—I guess the most charitable way to describe it—unpredictable. 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 it—could 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.
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.