Where the Law Is an Ass

Since 2010, more than 350 laws restricting abortion have been passed by state legislatures across the US. The majority of these restrictions are known as “TRAP laws,” or Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. They range from mandating certain hallway and doorway widths to requiring patients to swallow oral abortion pills in the operating room of an ambulatory surgical center. These laws often purport to protect “women’s health,” but as every abortion provider points out in the latest documentary from filmmaker Dawn Porter, it’s a trap. Trapped documents how reproductive rights are indeed being held hostage by telling the stories of providers who live with these restrictions every day.

The release of Trapped in March 2016 couldn’t have come at a more apt time. That same month, the Supreme Court heard opening arguments for a case involving one of the most onerous TRAP laws, Texas’ HB 2.

Trapped helps make sense of the onslaught of antiabortion legislation that has left a number of states across the South and the Midwest with just one, two or three clinics, forcing patients to travel farther and incur more financial costs. In Texas, the second-most populous state, the number of clinics could have dropped to fewer than 10 this summer.

Trapped travels 200 miles in Texas—from the Rio Grande valley to San Antonio—the drive women seeking abortion in the southern part of the state would have had to make under HB 2. But Porter chooses to frame the narrative mostly around the three remaining abortion providers in Alabama: June Ayers of Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery; Gloria Gray, director of West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa; and Dalton Johnson of Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives in Huntsville.

They’re a peculiar trio, connected not just by their shared work, but by the people who want to see their livelihoods—and possibly, lives—come to an end. When extremist antiabortion group Operation Save America (formerly Operation Rescue) arrives in Alabama to stage large-scale protests, the three clinic owners discuss over Sunday dinner how they’re going to handle these zealous protesters—labeled “terrorists” by Johnson. It would be an absurd scene if it weren’t real.

Surprisingly, there are scenes that play out like a broad comedy. Outside the Montgomery clinic, a lone male protester stalks the edge of the lawn, shouting about Jesus and murder and salvation. Inside, clinic owner Ayers, clad in colorful scrubs, sits behind the reception desk and switches on the lawn sprinkler. She watches the protester skulk away from the lawn, shaking water from his clothes and hair, then turns to the camera and says, “Sometimes in the afternoon, when it seems a little dry out there, I like to turn on the sprinkler.”

It’s easy to poke fun at these antiabortion protesters until we see Ayers sitting at her kitchen counter, sorting through pages of clinic regulations with black-and-white security monitors clustered in the corner…

Dr. Willie Parker, who works at Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson, Mississippi, explains to a room full of patients there that the state requires him to say abortion increases their risk of breast cancer. “But there’s absolutely no medical evidence to support that,” he adds quickly.

Later, Parker is at West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa. He spots the rainbow bumper sticker proudly displayed on clinic director Gray’s desk. Parker raises his eyebrow in bemusement, but he approves of the sticker’s message: “May the fetus you save grow up to be a gay abortion provider.” Gray responds by coyly telling the camera, “I’m not a typical southern lady.”

It’s The Office: Abortion Providers Special. The junk science, the earnest protesters, the tiresome government bureaucracies and the just-as-tired yet still sharp-as-hell clinic directors each bring their own humor. But the chuckles in the cinema are low and hesitant. It’s easy to poke fun at these antiabortion protesters until we see Ayers sitting at her kitchen counter, sorting through pages of clinic regulations with black-and-white security monitors clustered in the corner beside her pet parakeet, surveying her front, back and garage doors.

It’s also hard to laugh when we watch Parker pull into the parking lot of his now-former Chicago clinic, where a middle-aged man clings to the chain-linked fence and chants Parker’s full name. This is obviously not the first time this man has waited outside this Chicago clinic, gripping that same metal fence. He’s not the only stranger who could pick Parker out of a crowd and name the doctor’s employer and workplace. Parker’s face betrays this.

Trapped only briefly explores these abortion foes, intercutting footage from legislative hearings on new abortion bans in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas with scenes of Parker being harassed by clinic protesters on his way to work. Parker has become the most high-profile abortion doctor in the US, one who is integral to preserving abortion access in the South. He recently moved to Birmingham to provide abortions throughout Alabama, and Parker also travels to Jackson to serve Mississippi’s lone clinic.

The documentary seems to depict Parker as the new Dr. George Tiller, the late-term abortion provider whose 2009 murder by an antiabortion activist was preceded by more than two decades’ worth of targeted legislation, dubious criminal lawsuits, vehement protests and an assassination attempt. Tiller’s motto, “This Clinic Stays Open,” has become an anthemic call to arms for abortion providers, activists and patients alike.

But at what costs must these clinics stay open? This is the question Trapped and its subjects seek to answer. We know the hard facts: Johnson refinanced his house and poured most of his 401K into clinic renovations, spending “close to a million dollars” in the last year to meet the state’s new requirements. Gray, meanwhile, had to sue the Alabama Department of Public Health to keep her struggling West Alabama Women’s Center open. Ayers continues to wrestle with red tape and antichoice government workers to obtain judicial bypasses for her teenage patients. Parker is overworked and overbooked, keeping up a circuit between Alabama and Mississippi.

We can delineate these facts and figures, but Trapped leads us to the conclusion that staying open in the current antichoice climate may not be the answer in every case—and it’s Texas that delivers the cinematic gut punch. As HB 2 inflicted its damage across the Lone Star State, we watch as Whole Woman’s Health Center turns away a teenage rape victim who’s 20 weeks five days pregnant. She is right at the late-term abortion cut-off, but the clinic network’s sole anesthesiologist is completely booked. The patient’s only option now is to drive to New Mexico, where she would have to pay nearly $5,000 between the costs of the procedure, travel and overnight hotel stays.

Marva Sadler, Whole Woman’s Health’s director of clinical services, knows the patient and her family won’t make that drive. “We just sentenced her to motherhood,” a tearful Sadler says.

Where do these patients go, and what do they do once they’re turned away? Those are the questions Sadler, Ayers, Gray, Johnson and Parker are most afraid to confront.

 

Lauren Barbato holds an MFA from Rutgers-Newark and teaches writing at Rutgers and Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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