By the end of June, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, a case challenging Texas House Bill 2 (HB2), which imposed new — and, critics would say, unconstitutionally onerous — stipulations on abortion clinics. The Supreme Court's decision will likely affect women far beyond Texas because it may be seen as a larger statement on the constitutionality of TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws. This category of anti-choice legislation aims to limit abortion access by adding stipulations like, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described, "medically unnecessary" restrictions on providers or placing an "exorbitant fee" on clinic licensing. According to a Guttmacher Institute briefing from March 2016, more than 20 states have some form of TRAP laws, be it "laws or policies that regulate abortion providers that go beyond what is necessary to ensure patients' safety" and/or "onerous licensing standards."
And yet, there is a good chance that even people who identify as pro-choice do not realize how severe of a threat TRAP laws pose because they are less obvious restrictions on abortion access than, for example, late-term limits, waiting periods, or parental consent laws.
But Dawn Porter has made it her mission to showcase the insidious way TRAP laws are quashing women's access to abortions with her documentary, TRAPPED, which premiered this March at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking. TRAPPED airs Monday night on PBS at 10 p.m.
TRAP laws are so sneaky because they attack abortion access without directly challenging a woman's right to an abortion. "It doesn't matter so much if you have a right if you have nowhere to go," Porter tells Bustle in an interview. "Maybe they [anti-choice activists] can't overturn Roe v. Wade but they can close most of those clinics — and that's frightening."
Porter herself became aware of the threat posed by TRAP laws when she was working on another movie, Gideon's Army, in Jackson, Mississippi in 2013. She recalls reading an article in local newspaper The Clarion-Ledger mentioning there was only one abortion clinic left in the state. She visited the clinic and met with Dr. Willie Parker, a man who (at the time) lived in Chicago but commuted back and forth to Mississippi on his vacations to provide abortions — because there weren't enough doctors in the state performing them.
"I just was so struck that there was such a lack of available physicians and a lack of clinics," Porter says. "He [Parker] then started describing what he was going through and what the clinics were going through trying to comply with these laws. That really got my interest going because I think most people think the greatest threat to abortion is mentally ill people or violent people who are violent, but actually the greatest threat to abortion is these state laws."
Porter, herself a lawyer by background, explains the rise of TRAP laws — which she, stresses, are not limited to the South, even though that region is the main focus of TRAPPED. "I think it's incredibly important for people to understand that: 2008, President Obama is elected, 2010, there's this big political backlash at the state level. You have this real foothold of the Tea Party take hold, and one of the first things they start to do is pass anti-choice laws at state level." Some anti-choice groups "were dedicated to overturning Roe v. Wade, and efforts to overturn directly were not successful," Porter says. "But what was successful was to chip away at access and at clinic's ability to operate."
For two and a half years, Porter filmed at six clinics across the South. "Over and over, I saw people had no idea what kind of challenges there were to clinic access and how hard the clinics were fighting to stay open," she says. TRAPPED showcases the array of sacrifices doctors and clinic owners make to keep a handful (if that) of abortion providers open in the South. June Ayers, the director and owner of Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery, Alabama, speaks about how she's living off her income tax return because she's struggling to pay for all the changes and requirements her clinic must make under state TRAP laws.
"I've spent close to a million [dollars] to meet all of their requirements," Dalton Johnson, the clinic administrator of Alabama Woman's Center for Reproductive Alternatives in Huntsville, says in TRAPPED. Johnson also reveals that he's refinanced his home and withdrew from his retirement fund. At the time Johnson was being interviewed for TRAPPED, Alabama was contemplating a law prohibiting clinics from operating within 2,000 feet of a school. "There just basically trying to knock us off one by one," Johnson says. "Within the last five years, it's a constant thing where you never get a break, you're going from one battle to the next." In May, that legislation was signed into law.
Parker is shown using his vacation days to travel from Chicago to Mississippi on his personal time, ultimately deciding to move there to better serve women at the last abortion clinic in the state. Multiple times during TRAPPED Parker is seen being harassed specifically for being black and "kill[ing] his own race," one white anti-choice heckler yells at him. At another point, a white woman shouts, "What sickens me is you're a black man. All black lives matter!"
At another point in TRAPPED, Marva Sadler, the clinical director of Whole Women's Health (of the Supreme Court case), shows how the clinic is forced to waste money — $13,000 a year, according to her — stocking medicines required by Texas state laws that aren't needed for an abortion. Knowing her clinic could be shuttered, Sadler is both distraught and enraged by the state laws hindering Whole Women's Health. "I worked so hard to make this place beautiful for these women who deserve it. And they're going to snatch it," she says.
Perhaps the only parts of TRAPPED that are more upsetting than hearing from the doctors and administrator are the ones that show the impact of TRAP laws on women seeking abortions. Sadler is shown on the phone turning away a 13-year-old rape victim who is on the verge of passing the five-month restriction because she cannot locate a nurse anesthesiologist — who is required by state law to put the girl to sleep — in time. Sadler suggests to the girl that she travel to New Mexico for an abortion, but she knows that almost certainly won't happen: "We sentenced [the girl] to motherhood. Because what are the odds of her making that trip?"
An abortion clinic worker recounts in TRAPPED getting a call from a woman, saying "What if I tell you what I have in my kitchen cabinet, and you tell me what I can do."
At another point in TRAPPED, a young woman in Alabama is able to get an abortion, but she's wracked with guilt after being harassed by protesters. "I want to have healthy, beautiful children some day. I want to have a nice, loving husband. Those are all things I think about, 'Well, what if I never have a little girl? What if I don't get married? What if this happens? What if that happens?'" she says. "All because I had an abortion and that's my payback."
Porter was able to get some incredibly intimate interviews with women seeking abortions, but she tells Bustle her priority was always being respectful of their privacy. If a woman declined to be interviewed, Porter says she never asked twice. "A lot of what's happening is women's agency is being taken away from, and I didn't want to be another stress for anybody in a stressful period," she says.
Still, Porter was determined to show a range of abortion experiences to emphasize how widespread the procedure is and chip away at the stigma surrounding it. "One of the things I really wanted to do with this film is open up that conversation and say this is a very common experience for American women. Up to one in three American women will have an abortion before she is 45 [Editor's note: The Guttmacher Institute estimates three in ten women will have an abortion by age 45]," says Porter. "It should be normalized because that's the actually truth."
Yet, Porter wants to do more than merely get people talking about abortion; she wants them to start paying close attention to legislation and taking action. She hopes TRAPPED will be a wake-up call of sorts to people who are pro-choice.
"[TRAP laws are] a blueprint for imposing a conservative agenda across the board," Porter says. "I think this generation of people in their twenties, who are more likely to need an abortion, it's really important to put this on their radar. If people are supportive of the ability to have safe medical care for them, for their friends, for their family members, they need to be really vigilant about it and not assume the clinic will be there if and when they need it."
Images: Trilogy Films