‘Trapped’ Reveals The Human Cost Of Anti-Abortion Laws
A 13-year-old rape victim makes the long journey from McAllen, in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, to the closest open health clinic that provides abortions. At the time, it’s the Whole Women’s Health Clinic, 200 miles away in San Antonio. At 20 weeks and five days pregnant, she arrives just as the deadline for their services approaches.
Despite the willingness of the clinic workers to help, and the availability of an increasingly rare abortion doctor, the clinic is unable to obtain a nurse anesthetist. Nothing can be done, short of another expensive journey of hundreds of miles into New Mexico. The impoverished victim will never be able to make that journey in time.
“We sentenced her to motherhood,” declares a tearful Marva Sadler, director of clinical services at the clinic, in one of the most affecting scenes of the film Trapped.
The girl becomes yet another victim of a TRAP law, or a Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. Republican-led state legislatures have passed so many of these laws, which put onerous burdens on abortion providers that are absent from far more dangerous medical procedures, that many people are slipping through the cracks.
This 2016 documentary, now playing in some theaters and at special screenings around the U.S., reveals the human costs of these laws for both the people who provide abortions and for those who need them.
Its arrival in theaters couldn’t come at a more crucial time, as the Supreme Court prepares a decision on HB2, the Texas TRAP Law that would close most of the state’s abortion clinics.
After Trapped played at the SXSW Film festival in Austin earlier this month, I got to sit down with Wendy Davis, the former state senator whose filibuster against HB2 catapulted her to national fame, along with Dawn Porter, the film’s director.
Although Davis appears in Trapped, she’s not the focus.
“I loved that Dawn made the heroes of the film the people who are the heroes in real life,” Davis told me. “Those health workers who are fighting every day against a barrage of ridiculous laws to continue to provide care to the people who need them.”
SCOTUS Debates The ‘Undue Burden’
“There are very real-world consequences at stake in this Supreme Court case,” said Porter.
Though the McAllen clinic is open again thanks to an injunction against HB2, many other clinics are still victims of TRAP laws nationwide, and Texas’ remaining providers are overloaded. Beyond the Lone Star State, the consequences of a Supreme Court decision could be far-reaching.
In 1973, the Supreme Court, through the Roe V. Wade decision, affirmed the right to an abortion up to the point of fetal viability. But, in Planned Parenthood V. Casey in 1992, the justices, led by Sandra Day O’Connor, declared that states could pass restrictions on abortions as long as they didn’t create “an undue burden.”
Ever since then, Republican-led state legislatures, under the guidance of anti-abortion think tanks like Americans United For Life, have passed hundreds of TRAP laws. Over 282 of them have passed since 2010, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit which analyzes reproductive health policy.
Clinics have closed nationwide, and those that remain open face an ever-increasing series of hurdles, ranging from waiting periods that can force abortion recipients to make multiple journeys and miss extra days of work, to expensive and unnecessary safety procedures such as requiring all abortions, even those performed via pills, to be carried out in fully-equipped “ambulatory surgical centers.”
The Supreme Court heard arguments on March 2 in Whole Woman’s Health V. Hellerstedt, the case that will test the constitutionality of HB2 — in other words, whether the host of restrictions it puts on abortion in Texas create that undue burden. The Center For Reproductive Rights, the organization that represented Whole Women’s Health, argued that “HB2 buries clinics under medically unnecessary regulations so burdensome as to make it vastly more difficult, if not impossible, to obtain safe and legal abortion care.”
As Katie Klabusich explained at The Establishment in February, Justice Scalia’s death makes it less likely that the Supreme Court will decide to uphold HB2, preventing the decision from setting a dangerous precedent on TRAP laws nationwide. However, a 4–4 tie is still likely, meaning the lower court’s ruling would stand, and HB2 would be upheld for Texas, as would similar laws in Louisiana and Mississippi, which Klabusich warned would be “a disaster of epic proportions and a violation of United Nations recognized human rights for hundreds of thousands of people in America.”
Abortion Is A Safe, Everyday Health Procedure
Though young rape victims are perhaps one of the more compelling, albeit disturbing, arguments for reproductive justice, Trapped makes it clear that abortions take place for a wide variety of reasons, under many circumstances.
Porter told me that she and the film’s editor, Sari Gilman, “didn’t want to judge abortions. We didn’t want to say there’s some good ones and some bad ones. We were worried about how to portray women’s stories.”
Getting patients to share their abortion stories was no easy task, but Trapped features a variety of patients who speak frankly and openly about their reasons, though some do so anonymously.
“I had been trying to collect interviews from people but there’s a lot of stigma and shame. So I tried to really hard to get a variety of circumstances: people who are older and younger, and married and not. Wanted a child or didn’t want a child. The lesson for me was just how personal each of these stories is,” Porter recalled.
According to Guttmacher, nearly 3 in 10 U.S. women will obtain an abortion before age 45, and 61% of those who get abortions are already parents to one or more children. About 69% are impoverished.
Porter wants viewers of Trapped to “connect the dots, to see this is a war on choice, but this is also a war on women and a war on poor people.”
Davis shared her abortion stories in her 2014 memoir Forgetting To Be Afraid, but still feels politicians can do more to reduce the stigma around abortion, since anti-choice politicians are so vocal in their opposition to reproductive health care.
“I think those of us who support abortion rights in this country, who have and hold political office, and have a bully pulpit to speak from, we need to speak more about this and just as loudly and vociferously about why this right ought to be protected,” she said. “The more we do that, the more we give cover to people who support this to feel comfortable talking about it themselves.”
Davis said one lasting effect of the 2013 protests, which featured many hours of testimony about abortion, is that people are more willing to open up about their experiences.
“I’ve been so impressed with some people who have been willing to share very personal health-care information about themselves in an effort to make people understand this is something we talk about, that it’s worth fighting for and we don’t have to be shy about our fight.”
“It was also empowering for some women to share their experience,” Porter said, “and to have that sense that they’re not by themselves. And to explain how they had worked through what the right thing for them to do was. And that’s really what the story is about.”
Clinic workers like Sadler, or abortion providers like Dr. Willie Parker, who also appears in Trapped, are required by law to give clients state-sponsored information about abortions, and the documentary reveals the workarounds they must utilize to comply with the law while also doing right by their patients. In January, Rutgers analyzed 23 of the state-mandated abortion pamphlets and found that 31% of the statements they contained relating to fetal development were medically inaccurate. It’s clear from Parker’s advice to his patients that much of the information about medical risks is inaccurate as well. Fewer than 1% of all abortion patients in the U.S. experience serious medical complications.
“That is a travesty,” Porter lamented. “The health departments in different states should not be politicized that way.”
“Addressing the stigma has long-reaching consequences,” she added, suggesting it could reduce people’s fear and ignorance about the procedure as well.
“Step Up, Use Your Voice, And Get Involved”
Although Wendy Davis is often credited with temporarily preventing the passage of HB2, the legislature actually shut down her filibuster. The voices of thousands of enraged Texans (including this reporter) then shouted down the legislators, preventing them from passing the bill until Gov. Rick Perry called an expensive special legislative session just to force it into law.
“I did not carry that filibuster over the midnight deadline,” she recalled during our conversation. “The people did it. It’s just such a beautiful statement on what it means to step up, use your voice, and get involved.”
Davis stressed the importance of increasing voter turnout. “Right now, the people who agree with the actions of these politicians are speaking loud and clear and they’re voting every time they have an opportunity. The only way to push back on that is for the people to disagree to vote as eagerly.”
Porter believes that a majority of Americans support abortion access, but they’ve been a “silent majority” for too long.
“I think the one silver lining to this incredible Republican circus is understanding that the people who would strip you of your rights are quite active, vocal, and out there. It’s not enough to count on a free active people to preserve the rights for the rest of us.”
From clinic escorts to the voting booth, she wants to see more involvement in reproductive justice. “It’s a lot harder when you’re a person who believes in respecting other people’s rights for real,” she said. “So sometimes I think that with organizing on the pro-choice side, we have to be really strategic.”
“Texas is a great example of that,” Davis agreed. “I still firmly believe that Texas is a not-red state, it is a non-voting blue state. And when our blue voters decide they’re going to wake up and own their power, that’s when we’re going to change things.”
Images courtesy of Trapped