Dystopia Distilled in “Stories Women Tell”
Holding a Bible to his heart, a man follows a woman down a sidewalk. He recites scripture for several paces, squinting into the sunlight, before ad-libbing about the devil. “He has blinded you.” The man’s voice grows louder. “Dear heart, you don’t have to perish today.”At night, the chants of “all in Christ” echo throughout an ornate state building. The crowd responds, smiling, clapping, “For prolife.”
On the long stretch of highway between the two locations, thousands of white crosses act as grave markers. Amid the rows and rows of crosses, a billboard declares in soft pink letters, “CEMETERY OF THE INNOCENT.”
This is not Gilead, Margaret Atwood’s fictional sterilized dystopia. This is Missouri in 2016.
The HBO documentary Abortion: Stories Women Tell, directed by Tracy Droz Tragos, premiered just weeks before Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale became a smash hit. The popularity of the Hulu series unleashed dozens of internet think pieces all circling the same question: Can The Handmaid’s Tale really happen in America?
Actually, it is already happening. There are no red cloaks or raging environmental crises, but millions of American women of reproductive age now face hours of driving, longer waiting periods, increased costs, mandated counseling and fired-up protesters—many of whom engage in violence, vandalism and harassment—if they choose to terminate a pregnancy.
An episodic documentary that strives to give a panoramic view of abortion, Abortion: Stories Women Tell focuses on women in Missouri, a state which has restricted abortion to the point that only one clinic remains open and women must wait 72 hours before their appointment. Like recent abortion documentaries Trapped and After Tiller, Abortion: Stories Women Tell explores the effects this new anti-abortion climate has had on patients seeking abortion. Here, Missouri represents the battleground states currently embroiled in America’s 21st-century abortion war. Missouri could be Mississippi, Alabama, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kentucky—or any state that has seen its abortion clinics shutter in recent years due to laws targeting abortion providers. Only a handful of abortion clinics remain across the southeastern US, and the majority of the midwestern states are down to just one or two clinics within their state lines.
But unlike Trapped and After Tiller, which extensively interviewed clinic doctors and workers and kept the patients largely pixelated or offscreen altogether, Abortion: Stories Women Tell turns the spotlight on patients of Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois. Located across the river from St. Louis, the clinic provides abortion services largely to Missouri women. For these women, Hope Clinic is their best option—even though it may still be more than a 125-mile drive to get there.
Abortion: Stores Women Tell is framed around Amie, a 30-year-old, single mother who has made the decision to undergo a medication-induced abortion. “I cannot put my family through another kid right now,” she tells the audience when we first meet her. “When I don’t have my kids, I work about 70 to 90 hours a week. There’s no way I can physically carry a baby and work.”
The other patients we meet, it turns out, are in similar situations. Among the women seeking abortion at Hope Clinic, economic strife was the most striking overlapping detail. Many of the patients there are like Amie, single or leaving damaging relationships, and living on low wages and tips. The other common denominator: they already have young children.
“I didn’t really expect to become pregnant this early,” says Hope Clinic patient Samantha, who has an eight-month-old daughter. Like Amie, she also says she cannot financially afford another child at this time in her life.
These details help contextualize Abortion: Stories Women Tell and the inescapable political climate in which the documentary exists. Yet it is obvious through her fly-on-the-wall filming style that Tragos did not set out to make an advocacy film. Tragos opens the documentary with Missouri state representative Tim Jones announcing to anti-abortion supporters that Missouri is one abortion-clinic-shutdown closer to becoming an “abortion-free” state; Tragos also subtly includes the passage of Missouri’s 72-hour waiting period law, which is part of the reason why many Missouri women choose Hope Clinic in Illinois. However, Tragos never sticks with a politician, a TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) law or a clinic worker long enough to make a case against the waiting period, or even against something more general, like religious interference in healthcare or the anti-abortion movement’s seeming hypocrisy.
She does get close, though, with several of her subjects. The most compelling clinic employees are Dr. Erin, Hope Clinic’s pregnant gynecologist, and Chi Chi, the clinic’s main security guard, both of whom underline the present stigma surrounding abortion.
In a short interview segment, Dr. Erin highlights how the anti-abortion movement has politicized medicine. She does not consider herself an abortion provider, or the much-used derogatory term “abortionist,” but rather a gynecologist—performing abortions is just one necessary part of her job. “I think it’s really sad that you have to segregate yourself from what people think is normal medical care,” Dr. Erin says.
And Chi Chi sees it all. From her small office encased in protective glass, she watches the mostly male protesters wave their pocket-size Bibles and sound off, calling the clinic escorts “death-scorts” and following them, the patients and the employees to their cars. When we first meet her, Chi Chi explains that though the clinic is expecting 36 patients that day, only about 19 will show up.
“I never get a whole checklist, never,” Chi Chi says, implying that many women simply never show up for their appointment because they are too afraid of the protesters, too ashamed of the stigma. “[Abortion is] already such a secretive thing,” Chi Chi says.
Abortion: Stories Women Tell strives to lessen the stigma surrounding abortion, but its goal is sometimes undermined by the inclusion of the anti-abortion movement. Early on, Tragos introduces us to Kathy, a grassroots anti-abortion leader in Missouri who has made targeting abortion clinics her mission ever since she stood outside a Planned Parenthood facility in Columbia and realized “Anne,” her middle name, is in the middle of “Planned.” This, Kathy explains, is how she knew God was speaking to her.
Later, there is an interlude with Reagan, a seemingly well-off young woman who runs Students for Life in the Midwest. “I don’t have a personal experience with an abortion,” Reagan says. Yet she feels compelled to “spread the truth about abortion” on college campuses and challenge the “stigma of pro-lifers.”
It is unclear why Tragos chose to so prominently include these anti-abortion voices in a documentary whose title implies that it will only focus on women who have had, or thought about having, an abortion. Neither Kathy nor Reagan has had an abortion; Reagan even admits that she has never personally met anyone who has had one. Kathy claims that the Planned Parenthood in Columbia provides abortions (it does not, thanks to multiple TRAP laws), and Reagan is schooled on reproductive health by a fellow college student at a campus fair. Reagan also falsely claims that the Columbia facility provides abortion, saying she has been praying outside that clinic for the last four years. These two women seem like they would be better off watching this documentary in their cozy living rooms, not being featured in it. Neither woman is shown talking to a woman who has had, or is thinking about having, an abortion. The anti-abortion women never interact with any of the other interviewees—which seems like a significant missed opportunity for a documentary that purports to present the stories of women facing abortion.
This seeming reluctance to make a statement, whether polemical or moral, is what makes Abortion: Stories Women Tell uneven, disorienting, and at times, frustrating. The rawness of the documentary may enable viewers to gain some new insight, or lead them to an “a-ha” moment about the importance of abortion as medical care—on the occasions when those moments come.
What Abortion: Stories Women Tell does highlight is not only the complete erasure of women from the political discussion on abortion, but also the complete absence of men from women’s abortion experiences. This dichotomy is striking and present in almost every scene of the documentary. Patients like Mercedes, who became pregnant with a married man, or Monique, who had an abortion to save herself from her abusive husband and “had no one to tell,” are left on their own. Meanwhile, the juxtaposition of the shouting male clinic protesters with the compassionate female clinic employees is downright haunting.
This dichotomy is also why the image of giggling, freckled-faced teenage boys jumping, clapping and chanting, “All in Christ /For Pro-life,” in the halls of the Missouri statehouse lingers the most. For these oblivious teenage boys it is fun and harmless, even a bit trivial, to yell “pro-life” at a rally. To these boys, who have likely never met a woman who has had an abortion, the message is simple.
But the meaning behind Abortion: Stories Women Tell, and the stories these women eventually do tell, cannot be tied in a neat bow. Maybe that is Tragos’s exact point. Yes, the women interviewed all stated that they felt relief after their abortion and were content with their decision. It is noteworthy that Tragos included the story of one young woman who chose not to have an abortion, declining a college basketball scholarship in the process, and then said that she wished she had had one. But the trajectories that have led women to choose abortion are not so simple and not so pretty. For these women, abortion seems to be the loss and confusion that men have left behind.
That is not to say Abortion: Stories Women Tell is a tragedy. We, as viewers, also find relief when we see Amie return to the clinic for her follow-up appointment. We cry with her, we smile with her.
However, we are left with Chi Chi, leaning back in her office chair as she watches the male protesters on the surveillance cameras, her checklist in her lap. And we are left wondering how many women will drive past that Cemetery of the Innocent and still show up to the clinic that day.