tracy droz tragos smiling into the camera

The Feministing Five: Tracy Droz Tragos

Earlier this year, Donald Trump’s running mate Mike Pence signed an Indiana bill that prevents women from getting abortions if their fetus has genetic abnormalities.

In many other states across the country, enforced waiting periods, insurance restrictions, absurd physical requirements for clinics, and an increasing number of laws that affect providers themselves are making it more difficult each day for women to access the reproductive health care they need. Though the abortion debate is often discussed in the media, what’s frequently missing is the lived experiences and voices of women who must navigate this system that aims to strip them of their right to bodily autonomy.

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos, best known for her critically acclaimed documentary Rich Hill, aims to change that in her new film Abortion: Stories Women Tell. Droz Tragos and her team filmed the entirety of the documentary, which airs soon on HBO, in her home state of Missouri, one of the most restrictive states in the US. The film, which centers on Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, one of the few places Missouri women can access abortion care, follows various women as they navigate their reproductive health choices. The result is a stunning and much needed exploration of what growing abortion restrictions and stigma mean in women’s lives. The film is remarkable in the many different kinds of abortion stories it showcases, from the heartbreaking to the truly unexpected.

For this week’s Feministing Five, I caught up with Tracy about her new film and what she hopes it can mean for the abortion debate and what it can illuminate to viewers. Catch the film soon on HBO and keep with Tracy on Twitter.

Senti Sojwal: Often times, when abortion is discussed in mainstream media we tend to focus on issues of legislation and restrictions, and it’s presented as a wholly dichotomous issue. What’s often missing is real stories of real people, and how abortion restrictions and dominant cultural attitudes about abortion affect people’s lived experiences. Your film is very different in that way. Can you tell our readers about your thought process in creating this film, and how you chose to focus more on people’s stories than the nationwide debate?

Tracy Droz Tragos: Well that was the original seed of inspiration in making this film — that I really wanted to reclaim the conversation away from politicians, pundits, and even activists into the hands of the real women who are affected. I’m grateful to have had the collaboration from day one of the badass women at HBO, who were so with me on this. They too felt that there were women whose lives were affected who were just not part of the conversation. And now they’ve been given the platform of HBO. “Let’s hear from women” is really where we started.

Senti Sojwal: What is your hope for what this film can do and what it can show viewers?

Tracy Droz Tragos: There’s not a lot of empathy in the national conversation about abortion. It’s about sides. There isn’t room for the complexity of women’s feeling or circumstances. I hope that this conversation can include more, and this film is an opportunity for more voices to be included. It’s not about for or against. It’s about complex circumstances and the challenges women face. That may be women who are decidedly pro-choice and committed to their decision without any regrets, but maybe still have sadness or some measure of nostalgia and want to talk about that. It could be women who are pro-life and yet find themselves choosing to have an abortion. That happens a lot, and was very surprising to me. So many women don’t just fit into a box with their experiences or feelings. One of the young women in the film finds out she is pregnant after being offered a college basketball scholarship. She has the baby, and says that if she could go back in time, she would have the abortion. She had her daughter less than two months before we filmed. She was really grief-stricken. She had a plan for her life, and the plan was to take this scholarship and leave this small town that had very little opportunities for her. She was working two jobs and so ready to take off for the next step. That abruptly ended for her when she got pregnant and couldn’t either place the child for adoption, which she tried to pursue, or have an abortion and access the care that she wanted. I don’t think that story is heard often enough, of what that looks like. A young man would still have his basketball scholarship if he got someone pregnant. Women are the ones who get pregnant, and the ones who become responsible for the big picture. It becomes clear how much of a women’s issue this is, and how much an issue of equality, for people to be able to make this choice for themselves. We are made to be second class citizens if we cannot have this choice, if we cannot make our own decisions.

Senti Sojwal: How did you choose to specifically focus on women and abortion in Missouri?

Tracy Droz Tragos: Missouri is my home state and as a filmmaker I’m often drawn to places that are familiar. Missouri is also one of the most restrictive states in the nation, so there was relevance beyond just my personal connections. What was happening there was largely overlooked by the media, and I started filming on the eve of what would become law — the issue of the 72 hour waiting period. That also felt like a good time to start. I didn’t know then that the law would pass, and when it did I felt that I wanted to stay and understand what the impact of that waiting period was on women. That wasn’t exclusively what the film was about, of course, but that was a bit of a focus for us to see what that’s like when you make women wait for no medical reason.

Senti Sojwal: I feel like it’s not very well known that many people who choose to get abortions are already parents. Already caring for children is an important deciding factor in whether or not you can take on more. Most of the women profiled in your film are already mothers, and single mothers at that, and cannot have more children for financial reasons. Was it a conscious choice to focus on so many women who were already parenting?

Tracy Droz Tragos: No, it wasn’t. It was honestly just the women that we met. I wanted to include a cross section of women and certainly there were women who were experiencing their first pregnancy. We had two teenagers in the film. I wasn’t looking to exclusively look at women who were already parents, but that kept coming up. There were many women who knew, as you said, what it meant to be a mother. As someone says in the film, she wasn’t making this choice for herself but for her children. She knew it was too much for her, and it would be too much for them. In many ways, this is a voice we’re not hearing from. People seem to think that women who have abortions don’t like children. That’s so reductive! People also make these decisions out of love for their families. The women at Hope Clinic are also not anti-parenthood. One of the doctors was pregnant — it was wanted and planned for. She became a mother in the course of the film, and yet she was the abortion provider there and believed in providing care for her patients. She spoke about how being a mother now has allowed her to connect more with her patients and what they’re going through, because so often they are mothers already. It’s such hard work what the providers do. And there is so much burn out. They are called all kinds of names when they go to work, sometimes they feel like they can’t speak out about what they do, they just don’t feel they can go there always. And what they do is so needed and appreciated. The care and empathy they give is exceedingly important. I really did want to give them a voice as well.

Senti Sojwal: What was the greatest surprise for you in making this film?
Tracy Droz Tragos: The thing that surprised me and not in a good way, and one of the things I hope this film will affect, is the shame and stigma that women felt no matter what their choice was. Shame and stigma for having gotten pregnant in the first place. Their feelings of isolation of being utterly alone. So many women felt they had no one to talk to because of their shame. Even the woman who places her choice for adoption experiences this. For a pro-choice person, that’s supposed to be the “good” choice for your pregnancy if you can’t keep the baby. But it’s not so easy. There’s grief and judgement there too — people say, how could you do that and “give the child up”? The young mother who carries through with her pregnancy in high school also feels the shame and stigma of being pregnant in the first place and having a baby out of wedlock and being too young and having it be the wrong time. There’s the planned pregnancy that ends in the fetal anomaly — that couple also feels the shame and stigma of having an abortion. I certainly hope that with the sharing of more stories, and the release of this film, that we can encourage people to share their stories and to not feel so alone and so ashamed.

Photo courtesy of Tracy Droz Tragos.

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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