The width of a closet can be the difference between terminating and keeping an unwanted pregnancy in the state of Alabama.
This is not an absurdity particular to that state, as Dawn Porter's documentary Trapped makes clear. (Trapped won the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking and is currently screening at SXSW.) The title refers to TRAP laws, a term for the targeted regulation of abortion providers. These are laws that masquerade as measures ensuring health and safety that create the circumstances for just the opposite. TRAP laws manufacture seemingly arbitrary standards around things like the number of parking spaces at clinics, the proper width of a janitor's closet, and ceiling height, in order to close clinics. In states like Texas, these laws are scarily effective. As Porter told me over the phone, since 2010 over 50 percent of the clinics in Texas have closed because of this sort of legislation. Of course, these laws disregard the demand for safe abortions, meaning women must travel hundreds of miles to have procedures performed elsewhere—an impossible economic burden for many—or resort to dangerous at-home methods.
In 1973, the Supreme Court declared that a woman's right to choose was a "fundamental right" with the Roe v. Wade decision. But now, in certain states, the difference between three and four parking spaces can challenge that so-called "fundamental right." The trouble really began in 1992 with the Supreme Court's Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, which created a new legal standard allowing states to pass legislation compromising abortion access, so long as that legislation did not constitute a "substantial obstacle to the woman's exercise of the right to choose.” TRAP laws emerged from that gray language.
For Trapped, Porter spent time in clinics in Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi, interviewing abortion rights advocates, clinic employees, and doctors to document the ways these laws hurt women across the country. She spoke with Complex about the disingenuous tactics of the anti-choice campaign, including twisting the language of today's civil rights movement, and what we need to do in the 2016 election to ensure that reproductive rights aren't trampled.
Who is the audience for your film?
If you believe abortion is murder, this film isn’t going to change your mind. I’m looking at that kind of “silent majority” of people who believe in the legality of abortion in some circumstance. Most Americans believe that abortion should be available in at least some circumstance, but they’re not always vocal about that. One of the objectives of the film is to get people looking beyond the headlines to understand what laws regulating abortion are intended to do and, if you believe in access, how that access is really threatened by TRAP laws.
How can you change someone’s mind on the topic of abortion?
I never set out to change anybody’s mind. A film can help you think through the reasons behind your own opinions. Everyone has a right to their opinion and I think it’s important that those opinions be informed. I count myself among the group of people who weren't aware of how laws that sounded like a good idea were, in practice, going to close clinics.
Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I think that Americans don’t like secrecy. They don’t like things that say they’re one thing and are actually another. If you’re anti-choice, go attack Roe v. Wade. I think it says volumes that activists have been unsuccessful in that and so they've resorted to putting together laws that say they’re for one thing, but are not. We need to be able to not only discuss our differences but respect when we lose. That’s part of the process. What you can’t do, then, is cheat.
I don’t see abortion protesters showing up to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Those are not intersecting groups.
And these TRAP laws are a kind of insidious way to undermine a federal ruling—a cheat, in other words.
They’re disingenuous. They say that the laws are for health and safety, but we know that once the laws are passed, clinics close—that’s not good for health and safety. And pretty much everyone who supports these laws will say in the next breath that they’re opposed to abortion. It doesn’t pass the reasonable person standard to say that “we’re doing this for health and safety.” Clinics have been regulated since the day they opened. It’s not a choice between these regulations and nothing. It’s a choice between how they’ve been regulated since the time they opened and an additional layer of regulations that the American Medical Association and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists oppose. That these laws are disingenuous makes it hard for the public to say if they really support them.
Speaking of disingenuous behavior, there's a disturbing scene in the doc where one of the picketers uses the language of civil rights activists, yelling "black lives matter" at Dr. Willie Parker, who is there to perform abortions.
Sometimes you laugh so you don’t cry. I don’t see abortion protesters showing up to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Those are not intersecting groups. What I’ve noticed by traveling around the clinics is that you see that same racial language used across the country, and I think that it’s coordinated. It’s coordinated because it's effective. There are many black women being served at these clinics, particularly in the south, and the language is being tailored by anti-choice activists to intimidate people. It’s a perversion of a civil rights phrase! And that’s part of the whole spirit of the anti-choice tactics: say anything, do anything—some are even violent. And they’re willing to lie.
We see “crisis pregnancy centers” that lie to people. People call about abortions and they say, “Yes, we can help you.” And then women come in and all they do is try to convince them to not terminate the pregnancy. Once you’ve adopted a strategy of lying, there’s serious doubt cast. What’s happening in the anti-choice movement is not very far removed from what you see with the Trump campaign. You will say anything without any back-up to achieve your end. In Trump’s case, his end is getting elected. I think that we’re at this tipping point in American politics and we have to decide what the rules of the game are. Is it that anything goes? I really hope that the answer is no.
How important is the 2016 presidential election for reproductive rights?
It’s crucial. The next president will appoint certainly one, and maybe two or three, Supreme Court justices. In addition to the Whole Women’s Health case that was argued in March, there are a score of other cases challenging laws that are closing clinics making their way through the courts. I don’t think that if the anti-choice side loses the Whole Women’s Health case that they’re going to give up. There will be new challenges to abortion access that will find their way to the courts and the decisions will shape access and the legal framework around reproductive rights for the next generation. Is abortion going to be legal and accessible in America, or is going to be chipped away until it’s unavailable, depending on where you live?
What’s the ideal situation look like in terms of reproductive rights in America?
Ideally, we would have enough clinics to satisfy demand and they would be reasonably regulated to genuinely protect health and safety. One of the byproducts of sham laws is that the government isn’t really regulating clinics. They’re making laws about how many parking spaces you can have, how wide the closets are, how wide the hallways are. Health departments should be leading the way on the best standard of care if there’s going to be abortions, what training people should have, are they up on the latest medical practices. Instead they’re just trying to shut clinics down. We want clinics that are safe, well operated, and accessible. In other words, the situation that was a reality prior to 2010.
I think it’s really too bad for the REpublican party that a litmus test is whether you oppose a woman’s right to choose. I don’t think that that’s the future of the country.
We’ve taken steps back in the last six years.
Absolutely. Since 2010, there have been about 288 anti-choice laws passed and you’ve seen a huge decrease in the number of clinics. In Texas more than 50 percent of the clinics have closed already. It went from 40 to 19. If current laws are upheld, there will be nine. In Alabama, they have three and a planned parenthood clinic that offers some limited service—Alabama will probably have two: one full clinic and one that offers medication-only abortions. You’ll see a dramatic loss of access depending on how this Supreme Court case is decided. We’ll know in June.
Which candidate will potentially do the most for reproductive rights?
All of the Republican candidates have expressed opposition to abortion—except for Donald Trump, who flip-flops. It’s clear that on the issue of abortion access, we only have the Democratic candidates. I’m not as clear on Bernie Sanders’ position, but Hillary Clinton has supported Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose. In terms of choices, Secretary Clinton’s record is really solid. I would expect that Sanders supports a woman’s right to choose. [Ed. Note—Per his campaign page, Sanders believes that "abortion must remain a decision for the woman and her doctor to make, not the government." It also mentions expanding Planned Parenthood.]
There’s a clear party division. I'm not a Republican, but wouldn’t it be nice to see a pro-choice Republican? There are some and I think it’s really too bad for the party that a litmus test is whether you oppose a woman’s right to choose. I don’t think that that’s the future of the country. I don’t think that that’s a forward-looking position.