Reproduction has always been a political act. Hell, in 2017 just being a woman is a political act! From the recent, televised version of Margaret Attwood’s stellar The Handmaid’s Tale to the worldwide Women’s March, gender, power and the function of the female body have been in extreme focus over the last twelve months, and abortion rights are a key part of that.
British Prime Minister (I use the term loosely) Theresa May’s fragile grip on power was exposed last week as she was forced to agree to demands from a backbench Labour MP for a change in abortion laws to head off a historic defeat in the House of Commons. May’s reluctant concession followed mounting pressure from MPs and a proposed amendment to the Queen’s Speech calling for the Government to pay for women who are forced to travel to England to have an abortion. Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except where a mother’s health is in danger, and ministers acted after Labour MP Stella Creasy tabled an amendment to force the NHS in England to offer abortions to pregnant women from that region. The measure, was backed by scores of Labour MPs and a single Tory MP Peter Bottomley, was accepted by the Government less than three hours after it was put forward to a vote.
Similar debates have passed in and out of the courts in the United States for many years now, and recent developments are at the heart of lawyer-turned-documentarian Dawn Porter’s film showing tonight on Rialto Channel, TRAPPED. Porter previously helmed GIDEON’S ARMY, a 2013 documentary film about three public defenders in the Southern United States, and this time she turns her lens on the lives of medical professionals who work at clinics subject to so-called “TRAP” laws in the US. The acronym stands for “targeted regulations of abortion providers,” statutes that opponents say limit access to abortion in the guise of promoting safe health practices. Pretty straightforward in approach, the film lays out a compelling and strong argument that these laws, though designed to sound innocuous and “caring”, pose significant burdens to clinics, doctors and patients.
From 2011 to 2013, hundreds of regulations were passed restricting access to abortion in America, and while these laws have been enacted in 11 states, Southern clinics, in particular, have been hit hardest and are now in a fight for survival. Porter zeros in on clinics in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas that - particularly since 2010, according to the movie’s timeline - have faced a proliferation of regulations that have had the effect of restricting their operations. In many cases, these laws have pushed clinics to shut down, putting incredible strain on those who remain and the women needing access to them. Abortion is not something that most women can go on a waiting list for in the hope that their number comes up in a few months’ time. Quick access is vital.
Although straightforward at times as I mentioned above, I love the personalities that TRAPPED has chosen to showcase, who make the story that much more compelling. Getting to know the incredible Dr. Willie Parker is a real privilege, and his approach beyond inspiring. A serious but extremely affable OB/GYN who moved his family from Chicago to the South to aid in the fight, he gets the most face time among the doctors and directors Porter profiles with good reason. A devout churchgoing man, Parker cites his “traditional upbringing in a black Baptist church” for his tireless efforts on behalf of women in need. “When you have a sense of duty about what you do, it allows you to ignore the naysayers,” he says, and in the face of absurd statements he is compelled to give by law, his grace is admirable. “I’m required to tell you that there’s a risk of breast cancer,” Parker tells a patient at the sole abortion clinic that remains in Mississippi. “There is no scientific evidence to support that.”
While Parker acknowledges people have been killed doing his job, we also meet June Ayers, a clinic owner living off a tax refund to keep her service open, and Gloria Gray, another clinic owner who describes herself as “not a typical southern woman” who supports her gay son and campaigns for abortion rights. Patients shown include desperate young women but also a 43-year-old mother completing her education who fell pregnant despite using birth control, and a 14-year-old who was gang-raped by three boys and a girl. The most devastating moment for me comes when a clinic worker is forced to turn away a 13-year-old rape victim, who made a four-hour trip to the facility, due to TRAP law complications. As a result, the girl has been “sentenced to motherhood”.
Unapologetically one-sided, TRAPPED is not a movie that is going to change anybody’s mind about abortion. It’s not the most artistically inclined documentary I’ve seen but it doesn’t need to be - the personal stories Porter captures make her argument all the more compelling.
TRAPPED premieres on Thursday 6 July at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel
Click here for the trailer
Click here to remote record