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.