By CHRIS BYRD, Catholic News Service | Published April 6, 2017
NEW YORK (CNS)—TV viewers may not want to watch a program showcasing pro-life supporters and proponents of keeping abortion legal shouting heedlessly at each other.
Nonetheless, HBO premiered Tracy Droz Tragos’ new documentary, “Abortion: Stories Women Tell,” 8-9:35 p.m. EDT on April 3.
Tragos’ previous films include “Rich Hill,” which she co-directed with her cousin, Andrew Droz Palermo. Awarded the Sundance Film Festival’s top prize for U.S. documentaries, “Rich Hill”—which offered personal, intimate portraits of teenage boys growing up in the poor, rural Missouri community of the title—aired on PBS stations in 2015.
Employing the same storytelling style she did in “Rich Hill”—and once again addressing poverty’s widespread impact—Tragos returns to her native Missouri to explore one of our society’s most divisive issues. Despite her thoughtful approach, and an unusually sympathetic portrayal of the opponents of legal abortion, an unmistakable “pro-choice” slant ultimately undermines Tragos’ good intentions.
Besides its primary topic, other mature themes discussed in the film include drug abuse, AIDS and domestic violence. So “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” makes appropriate viewing only for judicious adults.
The bias underlying the documentary is revealed in its preamble, which declares: “Since 2011, over half of the states in the nation have significantly restricted access to abortions. Many have to travel hundreds of miles for safe and effective treatment.” This statement promotes the tired canard that abortion is somehow a form of medical therapy—rather than the violent destruction of an innocent life.
Missouri’s legislation requiring women to wait 72 hours before getting an abortion was enacted in 2014, during the course of filming, and Tragos focuses on the law’s impact on women living in a state that has only one abortion facility. Numerous women featured in the film travel across the state line to Granite City, Illinois, to seek abortions in the ironically named Hope Clinic.
We meet Amie, a 30-year-old single mother from Boonville, Missouri. She has two kids, and splits custody of them with their father. Working 70-90 hours a week to support her children, she says can’t afford to give up her job to carry another.
The filmmakers follow Amie from her fateful decision to drive to the abortion clinic until the pregnancy is ended. Viewers will obviously feel compassion for Amie’s palpable anguish over her quandary. No woman should be compelled to choose an abortion because of her economic circumstances.
The abortion providers give Amie the pill Mifeprex, and three weeks later—in a process portrayed as of no more gravity than if Amie were working a virus out of her system—a life is tragically extinguished.
Samantha, another young white woman seeking an abortion at Hope Clinic, says the documentary “will help keep these places alive.” Tragos promotes the mistaken idea these outlets of death offer the only recourse for women in such painful situations.
An online registry lists roughly 70 pregnancy resource centers in Missouri. If Tragos had recorded the heroic, unsung work done at these centers, that would have balanced her presentation.
She’s commendably fair-minded, however, to the pro-life women featured in the film. Thus, a New Bloomfield, Missouri, resident named Kathy provides one of the more touching moments in the documentary as she recalls that she was almost aborted. “My mother was in that position, so I understand,” she says.
Reagan, a University of Missouri Students for Life organizer, may be the most appealing person Tragos profiles. She wants to dispel the notion that pro-lifers are exclusively old people given to condemning others. Reagan’s confrontation with a Planned Parenthood supporter at a campus fair memorably reveals the other woman’s stridency.
Tragos gives the documentary’s final word to Chi Chi, a female African-American security guard at Hope Clinic who herself had an abortion because she didn’t want to be on public aid. “Everything is your decision. God loves everybody.”
No one disputes the second point. But “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” doesn’t acknowledge that, precisely because he is an all-loving, God who wants us to choose life.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.