If you’ve never had reason to visit one, the abortion clinic–as–nexus of political turmoil can have a forbidding air. They’re often beset by protesters, they’re shutting down across the country, and states have considered regulating them like sex offenders.
A new documentary from Dawn Porter, Trapped, exposes abortion clinics for what they are: plain old doctor’s offices that have been singled out for attack by legislators largely motivated by a religious agenda. Trapped probably won’t convince any pro-lifers to take up the cause of reproductive justice, but it might impel the casual pro-choice viewer to activism. It’s one thing to read the bonkers abortion-restriction laws—more than 350 so far in 2016—introduced in state legislatures across the country. It’s quite another to watch abortion providers try to navigate an ever-changing, labyrinthine legal puzzle while serving a population of patients that’s growing by the day as other nearby clinics close. The film is an intimate introduction to a community whose struggles few can know: the dwindling network of doctors and clinic owners who provide abortions in the South.
Since the Supreme Court agreed to review the abortion-clinic restrictions imposed by Texas’s HB2 law, there’s been increasing chatter about TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws, from which the film takes its name. Trapped, which opens in select U.S. theaters this month, investigates the consequences of these laws on Alabama’s only three independent clinics: Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery; Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives in Huntsville; and the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa. The last of these was forced to stop seeing patients when it couldn’t comply with new regulations, but has since reopened after filing a successful suit against the state’s health department.
When there are only five doctors performing abortions in a state of 4.8 million people, the stakes are unbelievably high. “You just pray they don’t catch a cold,” Alabama Women’s Center owner Dalton Johnson says in the film. Texas faces the same predicament—Trapped shows clinics flaming out like dying stars across a map of the state, where the majority of clinics shut down after HB2 passed in 2013. Since the closure of the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen, on the Mexican border, women from the Rio Grande Valley have been driving three and a half hours to San Antonio for an abortion. Porter interviews Marva Sadler, Whole Woman’s Health’s director of clinical services, after she learns that the clinic will have to turn away a 13-year-old rape survivor who’s 20 weeks and five days pregnant because the organization’s one Texas nurse anesthetist can’t make it. To get an abortion, the girl would have to travel to New Mexico, find a way to stay there for three days, and pay thousands of dollars. “I’m basically held hostage by [the anesthetist’s] schedule,” Sadler says, through tears. “We sentenced [the girl] to motherhood. Because what are the odds of her making that trip?”
The providers’ clear commitment to reproductive justice makes it all the more nauseating to watch Willie Parker, perhaps the most famous abortion provider in the country, counsel a patient before her abortion with a deceptive spiel mandated by the state. “I am required by law to tell you that by having an abortion, it can increase your risk for breast cancer,” Parker says. And in the next breath: “There is no scientific evidence to support that.” The ambulatory surgical center requirements are just as senseless. Sadler gives a tour of the Whole Woman’s Health clinic’s new digs, modified to comply with the new Texas law that requires abortion clinics to outfit themselves like a surgical theater. There’s a suction outlet in the wall for every bed in the pre-op area and every chair in aftercare, which Sadler says they never use. Patients used to keep their shirts on and wear a disposable garment on bottom; now they have to wear entire linen gowns, which must be sent out to wash. There’s a new pharmacy stocked with drugs the clinic never uses—Sadler estimates that they spend $1,100 each month replacing expired drugs. When the camera peeks inside the clinic’s new procedure room, the view is shocking: It looks like an operating room in a hospital. And it is, just as fit for open-heart surgery as it is for a minor procedure like abortion. Sadler says many patients now ask “Are you gonna cut me?” when they enter the room.
Another of the film’s revelations is the Christian culture shared between many of the clinics’ employees and the protesters outside. Before confronting a sign-waving mob in town for a convening of pro-life activists, Montgomery clinic escorts circle up to say the Lord’s Prayer. Parker cites his faith as the motivation behind his abortion work; a young patient in the film openly grapples with feelings of shame and fear that God will punish her for making the decision to terminate her pregnancy.
But while a large proportion of the film’s abortion providers and patients are people of color, the anti-choice activists are almost all white, a racial divide exploited by some of the protesters. “What sickens me is that you’re a black man. And you’re having black women go in there and destroying black lives. All black lives matter,” one woman says to Parker outside a clinic. “Willie Parker, he goes down to Mississippi twice a month to kill his own race,” another tells the camera. “One of the most important issues to me was to highlight how these laws impact women of color, particularly black and Latina women,” Porter told Slate. “These laws wreak havoc in these communities, and it’s unconscionable for a small group of vocal protestors to have the power to put the lives of these women at risk.”
Here, Trapped becomes a love letter to clinic employees who press on in an increasingly hostile environment, knowing they could lose their jobs in an instant if some state legislator decides to hang his reelection bid on a new anti-choice bill. Sadler says when she started her career in abortion care at a Planned Parenthood in Waco, Texas, she didn’t know there was “a fight going on” around abortion. “On my first day there at that job, I was rushed by protesters telling me that I shouldn’t work there, and that I was a baby-killer, and that I was going to hell,” she says. “And I think I was bit by the bug from that day forth. If these people were fighting against it, somebody had to fight for it.”