Why HBOs ‘Abortion: Stories Women Tell’ fails the women it portrays
When I started watching Tracy Droz Tragos’s HBO documentary “Abortion: Stories Women Tell,” I expected to be shaken—not only because abortion is such a brutal and violent injustice against the weakest members of humanity but also because, we are told, women who choose to have an abortion often do so because of the dire circumstances they face.
I expected this documentaryto dig as deeply as possible into the underlying causes of abortion—poverty, illness, unstable relationships—to portray the decision to terminate a pregnancy as sympathetically as possible. After all, these challenges are what many abortion advocates cite as the reason for continuing the mass slaughter of innocents: How else will women overcome these obstacles if not by having an abortion?
Pro-life advocates must understand and address these challenges to welcoming a new child into the world if we are going to stop abortion. I thought the film would shed a light on these challenges, even if the “solution” portrayed was appalling.
“Abortion: Stories Women Tell” owes the women that it portrays much more thought, consideration and coherence.
Yet when the film ended, I was disturbed, not just because I had spent 90 minutes grappling with the horrifying reality of abortion, but because I was thoroughly disoriented. “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” fails as a documentary, and it owes the women that it portrays much more thought, consideration and coherence.
Tracy Droz Tragos, the director, tries to fit too many women’s “stories” into a film with a limited runtime. We spend no more than a few minutes with women who have had abortions for a variety of reasons. In Tragos’s attempt to portray the complexity and diversity of situations that lead women to choose abortion, she has successfully portrayed not very much at all.
Most of the stories involve real heartbreak and drama and tragedy. But we never linger with any of them long enough to build a serious connection with the women she is profiling. This lends the uneasy sense that instead of engaging these women as persons, Tragos instrumentalizes them to push her political agenda.
Instead of engaging these women as persons, Tragos instrumentalizes them to push her political agenda.
This is the case even with Amie, the woman “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” spends the most time with. She is a single mom with two kids working 70 to 90 hours a week for less than the minimum wage. She has a college degree, but she makes more off of tips as a server than she would with another job. When Amie says she cannot afford to have another baby, it is hard to argue with her.
There is a profound story to be told here about the many women who are genuinely economically unfree to be open to life. But Tragos is not interested in that story. Instead of seeing Amie harried at work or exhausted with her kids after a long shift or anything that would illustrate the precariousness that leads Amie to decide to have an abortion, we abandon her story entirely for several chapters of the film. The film only returns to Amie 30 minutes later, to show us that the abortion clinic is a long drive for Amie to make and that she finds her abortion an emotionally difficult experience.
Tragos should be given credit for spending a significant amount of time with pro-life activists and casting the same nonjudgmental lens on them as she does on her other subjects. We are introduced to Kathy, a pro-life activist in Missouri, and her work with 40 Days for Life. Still, “Stories Women Tell”remains a pro-abortion documentary, which is the source of its biggest weakness in portraying these subjects.
There is a profound story to be told about the many women who are economically unfree to be open to life. But Tragos is not interested in that story.
While we delve into Kathy’s reasons for her activism, we do not see the work she does beyond standing outside of the abortion clinic. Kathy alludes to giving material support to women facing crisis pregnancies and other work to help women in situations like Amie’s, but Tragos never provides any more details on that work. The treatment of the other pro-life subjects of the film is even less substantial. For instance, when another pro-life activist mentions that she has had three abortions, we do not spend any time learning why this woman later changed her position and became a pro-life speaker.
Ultimately, the pro-life subjects, like the rest of the women in the film, come across as accessories to Tragos’s political argument: a critique of Missouri’s 72-hour waiting law for those seeking an abortion. After all, the film is largely a response to the string of pro-life legislative victories sweeping the country, which have made it more difficult to obtain an abortion in many states. In some ways, the real victims—and the real heroes—of Tragos’s film are the providers of abortion. We hear more about the lives, the stories and the motivations of the doctors and staff of the Hope Clinic, an Illinois abortion clinic 10 minutes across the border from St. Louis, than we do about nearly every other woman in the film.
These are the least compelling parts of the film. It is easy to be sympathetic to women in difficult situations who feel themselves drawn to choose abortion. It is nearly impossible, from the pro-life perspective, to feel sympathy for the industry that thrives off those circumstances.
In some ways, the real victims—and the real heroes—of Tragos’s film are the providers of abortion.
Both the American left and right seek to decontextualize abortion from the circumstances that drive it because the key political battles center around legality. But abortion is driven by factors both cultural and material; it is necessary for we abolitionists to recognize how the culture of death is refracted through economic and racial injustice as well as patriarchal social structures. “Stories Women Tell”hints at these, but only obliquely. It gives its fundamental moral commitments away when it puts someone who seems to blithely choose abortion because giving a child up for adoption would be “like, a thousand times more difficult” on the same moral plane as someone in living in poverty or someone in an abusive relationship.
Still, among the disjointed stories and the haunting shots of tiny white crosses filling a field, a stunning and powerful testament to the reality of original sin hides in Tragos’s film: the shocking realization that I, too, could very easily find myself the perpetrator of the gravest of sins, and only by the grace of God am I restrained. All of us are born into the sin of Cain; by grace are we kept as Abel. To learn to bear this in mind when ministering to those who have obtained an abortion is the most important lesson we might learn from a film like this.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that “Abortion: Stories Women Tell”is so disorienting and structurally disorganized: The stories we tell of the injustice that is abortion must be disorienting and insufficient because sin itself is disorienting and an overturning of the way our lives ought to be structured.
Tragos failed her subjects in the same way that we as a society have failed: We, too, owe the women and the unborn victims who come face to face with abortion much more thought, consideration and support than they receive now.