If You Were Shocked by John Oliver’s Abortion Segment, You Need to See ‘Trapped’

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Several weeks ago, John Oliver’s blistering segment on the rise of abortion restrictions in many American states went viral. Merely days later, as a major abortion case — perhaps the biggest of the last few decades — arrived at the Scalia-less Supreme Court, the three women justices (plus honorary feminist Stephen Breyer) reinforced their hero status with harsh questioning about the “undue burden” that Texas’ recent restrictions might put on women. And their sharp inquiries spread quickly through the media.

As someone who spent much of 2011-2013 reporting on the steady uptick of these restrictions in state after state (they number 288 since 2010), I found Oliver’s cogent, funny, infuriating segment — and the fact that the liberal justices on the court really got it — immensely gratifying. Now, Trapped , the documentary from which Oliver got much of his footage, is showing in theaters around the country.

Watchable and gentle in approach, Dawn Porter’s film offers all the background information Americans need so that we can understand the trend in legislation that the court is now considering. But more importantly, it looks, frankly and without exploitation, at the very human toll anti-abortion legislation takes. In one case that Porter shows us, it means sending an underage rape victim away with little choice but to carry her unwanted pregnancy to term, “sentenced” to giving birth. For that young woman, Roe is the law of the land in name only.

Trapped should be mandatory viewing: a film made by a woman of color that stars a group of heroic abortion providers, themselves people of color and women, all working in hostile territory. With the stated aim of looking carefully at the erosion of abortion access in the Deep South due to the same kind of TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider) restrictions that Texas has enacted with such consequence, Porter focuses in on the lives of abortion providers, including clinic owners and doctors. These are some of America’s most overworked, beleaguered, and in-demand healthcare workers, and their daily lives require quite a bit of fortitude.

Porter spends time with the handful of remaining abortion providers in Alabama, who — like the late-term doctors profiled in After Tiller — are compassionate, larger-than-life characters with incredible charisma, living in the line of fire (literally, given the violence visited on their peers) along with their bare-bones staffs, who work every day despite knowing how fragile their jobs are in the face of a legislative ping-pong match. Clinic owner and manager June Ayers, the most stereotypical Southern woman in the film, calls her patients “baby” and “sweetheart” in a warm Southern accent. And another clinic owner, Dalton Johnson, young and handsome, is asked whether he’d like to get married — but he says he’s married to his work, which is so delicate that it leaves him always “one person away from not performing the procedure.” He adds: “They’re trying to knock us out one by one.”

We also meet the astounding Willie Parker, an abortion provider who happens to be a devout Christian. He ruminates about church leaders who condemn abortion despite knowing how probable it is that many in their congregations have undergone the procedure: “Where is the love, where is the compassion, where is the ministry?” he asks. As he enters and leaves work, Parker, who is black, is regularly dogged by (mostly white) protesters who accuse him of being a killer of his “own” race and shout “Black lives matter!” in his face. But he remains gracious, calm, and informed by his conviction, even as he excoriates the TRAP laws that are “letting politics trump medicine.”

As Ayers says, the TRAP laws — which essentially require abortion clinics to be outfitted like mini-hospitals, even when they’re just dispensing pills — are designed to “to regulate us out of business.” The ostensible idea, providers explain to Porter, is to make clinics as “safe” as a place requiring open-heart surgery. But many of these physical requirements are simply impossible to meet. In one incredible scene, a provider tries to read the regulations, and laughs: “Emergency lighting should be in accordance with section 7.9… there is no 7.9!” She likens making sense of the purposefully cryptic regulations to being forced to create the crossword puzzle you’ve been charged with solving — maddening, visceral proof of the hoops that providers are being asked to jump through.

Plenty of people don’t need to see a documentary to understand what’s going on. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked in this month’s hearing, “What is the benefit of having a woman take those pills in an ambulatory surgical center when there is no surgery involved?” Or, as Justice Elena Kagan noted, “It’s almost like the perfect controlled experiment as to the effect of the law, isn’t it? It’s like you put the law into effect, 12 clinics closed. You take the law out of effect, they reopen?”

But Porter’s work has already done a tremendous amount of good. Recently, I overheard two fratty types walking in Central Park, talking about how “effed up” all this abortion stuff “on John Oliver” was. Some people only hear the truth when a cool comedian delivers it, but Porter’s documentary deserves to be celebrated on its own merits. Hopefully between the publicity Oliver generated and the fiery Supreme Court testimony, Trapped will get more mainstream attention, as will the courageous people honored by the film.

Screening this month and next at select theaters and festivals around the country, Trapped will come to Independent Lens this summer.