Dawn Porter
Dawn Porter

There is one abortion clinic left in the state of Mississippi, and there are three in the state of Alabama. Since 2010, in a flurry of backlash aimed at the Obama Administration, state governments particularly in the South, passed a series of restrictive laws attacking women’s health rights and access to abortions. These TRAP laws, or Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers, are spreading rapidly across the United States, primarily affecting impoverished women and women of color.

Filmmaker Dawn Porter’s “TRAPPED” focuses on the three remaining clinics in the state of Alabama.  The film follows Dr. Willie Parker, a Black abortion doctor who left Chicago to return to his hometown of Alabama and practice, and Marva Sadler, an administrator at Whole Women’s Health. Sadler works tirelessly to make sure that women in Alabama continue to have access to abortions. The film also chronicles the lives of everyday women, who are grappling with very difficult decisions in the midst of unfathomable circumstances.

“TRAPPED” is now available on Netflix streaming. I sat down with Dawn Porter to chat about the film, TRAP laws, our current political climate, the shamming of women, and how these laws are significantly affecting Black women.

Aramide Tinubu: First of all, I would like to say that “Trapped” is incredible. I was just outdone as a Black woman who perceives herself to well-versed in women’s rights issues and Planned Parenthood and so forth, that, I knew nothing about these TRAP laws. I also had no idea what was happening with abortion clinics in the South. What is it about the South that festers and fosters this type of legislation?

Dawn Porter: I felt exactly the way you felt. I felt outdone. I was in Mississippi working on my film, “Spies of Mississippi” and I was filming an interview with a reporter from the Jackson-Clarion Ledger, Jerry Mitchell.  I was reading the paper and I read that there was one abortion clinic in the entire state of Mississippi, and my jaw dropped. I thought, “How could this be?” So I called them up and asked if I could come over, and this Black man comes out. I think he was curious about me. There had been some news coverage about it being the last clinic, but the Black press was not there. However, when you look at who is accessing abortions, the first overriding number is that forty-nine percent of people getting abortions are living below the poverty level. So what that means is that even though most of the women who are getting abortions are white women, the second largest group is Black women; something like twenty-nine percent.  However, we over-represent in terms of poverty, and I think there is an overlay with poverty.

AT: Oh without question.

DP: So, I think this is a Black health and economic community crisis. That is why I felt like Dr. [Willie] Parker was such a gift. Being a Black man who is sensitive to those issues, he had no problem going there. He understood every issue that intertwines in the Black community; religion, poverty, women’s rights, women’s positions and how women are treated. So, I was as stunned as you were, and I just wanted to understand how this happened. But, the second piece to this is that this is not just a Southern phenomenon. I think there are twenty-seven states with very similar TRAP laws. This is all tied back to politics and to racial politics. None of us could have predicted the Trump political era, and I hope that we are going to stay it for a long time; the forces that came to create this. Hopefully he will not become President, because I don’t think he is qualified to be President.

AT: Not at all!

DP: Most importantly, I hope that people do learn something from his appeal. What I learned is that in 2008, President Obama is elected. In 2010 there is an enormous backlash in conservative states who cannot believe that this man has been elected. The state governments go completely red. So, at the state and local level you have this, and then you have Tea Party folks in, and that’s when you start to see these laws targeting women. From 2013 until today, abortion becomes social issue number one. In Alabama, the citizens are at the bottom in terms of education, their Medicaid system is bankrupt and they have no budget…

AT: Widespread unemployment.

DP: …unemployment. Abortion is taking up the time of the legislature, and that is a political crisis. I think that it is no accident that these laws came into place in response to the Obama Administration, and a backlash against a feeling of more liberal and progressive policies taking root. All of that disproportionately impacts women of color.

AT: Going back to when you were talking about Dr. Parker, he’s such a compelling figure in the film. I know you started this journey thinking you would do a character piece on him. Would you go back to that story, or is “TRAPPED” the overarching piece that you wanted to share?

DP: It’s really hard when you make a film, and a film grows. I have a real deep love and affection for [Dr. Parker], but the other gift he gives is a window into the broader world. Along the way of filming there was a lot being said and written about him, as a person. So, I felt like what I could add to the conversation was sort of this broader story. There is so much footage that we have of him. We have him with his family, and he had not asked his family how they felt about his work.

AT: Really?! So all of this time he just worked?

DP: He just worked. So on Mother’s Day, I was with his family and they were celebrating all together, and I did interviews with his nieces and they expressed how proud they were of him. He didn’t know that. He said to me later, “I think I deprived myself of knowing that my family supported me, because I was afraid to ask.”

AT: Wow.

DP: So yes, there is a lot more stories to tell. My friend Dawn Davis who is African American and works at Simon and Schuster is publishing [Dr. Parker’s] memoir. So, I feel like he will be with me forever. He’s such a generous person.

AT: You can definitely feel that in the film, especially when he’s trying to calm his patients, or simply talking about his work. What really stood out to me was the shaking hands and the restlessness of the patients that you filmed in the waiting areas at the clinics. These women were so hurt and afraid, and I think TRAP laws are really fueling that sort of pain for women.

DP: Dr. Parker does a lot of counseling to women in his work. He talks to women who are literally on the table and will ask him “Am I going to hell?” I’m working on a piece that is going to be in ESSENCE magazine online and TIME magazine online, and it’s Black women’s abortion stories. I think there is a lot of suffering. The idea that someone who is one the table; she is getting an abortion, to think that she believes she has made a pact with the devil.

AT: Where does that come from??

DP: Where does that come from? And what responsibility do we have for that as a community?  I love the line in the film when Dr. Parker asks, “Where is the ministry to these women?”

AT: Wow, and going off of that, I believe we are still awaiting the decision from the Supreme Court regarding HB2* in Texas. But, I felt like women are not just being trapped out of having abortions, they are in turn being trapped into motherhood. What are you thoughts about that?

DP: You know what I think about? I think about Marva Sadler. People often ask me “Are you despondent?” And I’m like, “No, I’m hopeful! There are people like Marva.”

AT: Exactly, she leaves her six children in another state just to continue her work.

DP: The impact of these laws is really quite intense. Since forty-nine percent of the people seeking abortions live below the poverty level, I don’t think people really understand. To not be able to feed your children, first consider the suffering of the children, but then the suffering of the parents who realize they can’t do their basic human job. One of the things that we see is there has been the report of the decrease in the number of abortions. However, I don’t think that’s because there are more wanted children. We have less sex education, we have less access to contraception, I don’t think people have just stopped having sex altogether. I don’t think “Chi-Raq” is just happening across the country. I think people are having unwanted children.  The societal impact of that is something that we will see. I have two boys, so I know motherhood is a gift. However, giving the people the dignity and the respect to be able to do it when they can take care of folks and to choose, is essential.  In the ESSENCE piece that I mentioned, we had a number of interviews that were not in the film. I went back, and when you put them altogether, there is this really interesting narrative that comes out. You just see all of these different stories, including a woman who is anti-choice, and we put her voice in there as well.

AT: What about the continual shamming of women? This morning there was a video on my news-feed of this poor woman who was being berated by this man because she was breastfeeding her child in a Target. The employees literally had to come stand in front of her to block him. The man was all red in the face and hollering obscenities at her. And this is at the basic human level of just feeding your child.

DP: You know what? I think that these actions are related. I feel like part of the impact of the Trump political candidacy is that a lot of people with very small views feel emboldened to say and act on those views. For example, Black people are told all the time that racism in our heads. Women are told that they “just see” sexism and discrimination at every corner. But, is this really in my head? So, I think the painful process that a lot of liberal folks need to go through, particularly if you are white and male and liberal, is acknowledging that this is our reality as women. But I also think that as women, we shouldn’t be complicit and enable the shaming. We shouldn’t hide from breastfeeding.

AT: No we shouldn’t!

DP: We should breastfeed our children, if we choose to. We should talk about abortions.

AT: And sex.

DP: Yes, we should talk about sex, and we should talk to our children about the fact that a normal, healthy, non-shameful part of life is that you will hopefully have a fulfilling sex-life, that may or may not result in children. And, if it does result in children, it should do so in a respectful way.

AT: Yes.

DP: It’s hard on us though.

AT: Yes, especially as Black women coming from our particular space in society. I’m in my mid-twenties, and that dialogue is really just now opening up between me and my close girlfriends.

DP: I think for Black women in particular, and that’s why I wanted to do the ESSENCE piece, Dr. Parker and I talk about this a lot. I do think there is something particular for Black women, many of whom come from a religious background. White women don’t usually feel like they’re letting down their whole race if they decide to have an abortion. For Black women, there is this sense that because we don’t talk about abortion, we don’t know that our mothers and our grandmothers also had abortions. So, we feel much more alone than we should. Then there is this matter of the church. It’s like “The Color Purple”, you’re at the juke joint on Saturday and you’re at church on Sunday. We need to integrate our lives more fully. So, there are some people in the church who minster to folks, Callie who is the recovery room nurse in the film ministers to folks. And I don’t agree with everything she says, but starting that conversation is so important. She prays with folks in the recovery room, and Callie is able to calm her patients down. I think it’s a way of saying, “This is OK. You are OK. I love you, God loves you, and you need to love you.” So, that is something that is happening on an individual level. We can all do that in some way. You can tell people your story. There is the “Ask Your Mother, Ask Your Sister” campaign.

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A frame of Dr. Willie Parker from Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED. Photo courtesy of Derek Wiesehahn.
A frame of Dr. Willie Parker from Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED. Photo courtesy of Derek Wiesehahn.

AT: In saying that, I wanted to talk more about Trump and the current political climate. If he is somehow elected, what is the danger in having him in office for women, for women of color and for people in general?

DP: I think the problem with being a racist is that you operate from a presumption that folks aren’t as good as you are, and are therefore not deserving of the same respect, protection or assistance. Therefore, you literally cannot understand the plight of others and what your responsibility is. I think one of the things President Obama has been so incredibly successful at is his empathy and his willingness to change. He was not the strongest proponent for LGBTQ rights; he was opposed to gay marriage. However, he has evolved in office because he listens to people.

AT: And reads.

DP: And reads! He is also mature enough and secure enough to say, “I change my mind.” (Laughing) So I think there is Trump himself, and goodness only knows what he’s going to do because I think a narcissistic egomaniac is not somebody that you want to have lead you.

AT: My friend’s mom is convinced he has dementia.

DP (Laughing) There is also the representation of the country. You should aspire to be the President. I don’t want my children to aspire to be a mean-spirited, sexist, racist person. So, I think the damage, not just the policy damage, but the damage to our collective psyche; the depression I felt about his popularity… My twelve-year old asked me, “What’s going to happen to us if Trump is elected?”

AT: It’s a very serious question.

DP: I realized he thought we were going to be deported. When you have an American child fearing that he will be deported, what have we come to? The other thing I think about is that there are Trump supporters who are proud, and then there are the folks who are holding their nose and supporting him.

AT: What’s the House Speaker’s name?

DP: Yep, Paul Ryan. I have the most anger for those folks. It’s like do you think I’m going to forget that you said this man was OK? You have endorsed his message and all of us Black and brown people are not going to forget that you think that’s OK. Hitler is NOT OK! It’s another example of how people think it’s OK to throw people of color and women under the bus. That’s a lot of consistencies that you are taking for granted. So, my hope is that he will not be elected but that down-ballot racism will reflect opposition. Maybe we’ll take back the Senate, maybe we will get some stuff done.

AT: What was it about your work as a lawyer that inspired you to become a filmmaker?

DP: I think that the law can really be a tool for change. But citizens don’t understand how laws work together to impact our lives. I felt like my training as a lawyer could help translate to people who are not lawyers. With “Gideon’s Army”, I wanted to say, “This is what it feels like to be a public defender. These are the few resources that we have.” Our Constitution says that we all deserve a fair trial, but how can you have a fair trial if all of this is happening? For TRAP laws and this film, I wanted to focus on personal stories, but this is also a Constitutional right, and states are making laws directly in opposition to what the Constitution of the United States says. How can that happen?! So I really wanted to focus on the politics, but then the question I think is, “Who has the power? Who is putting these folks in office?” This is why voting matters. It’s the midterm elections that put all of these folks in office. That’s when you have the lowest voter turn out.

AT: That’s because no one is paying attention.

DP: That’s right, one is paying attention. If a fraction of the coalitions that are opposing Trump showed up at the midterm elections, there would not be a Tea Party majority in the Congress. We wouldn’t have a blocked Supreme Court nominee, we wouldn’t have no gun legislation, and we wouldn’t have TRAP laws. There was that study that said between 100,000 and 240,000 women in Texas have tried to self-abort and are coming into hospitals and hemorrhaging. A lot of those women are Latina, and all of this wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have all of these small-minded folks in office. So, I think we need to go back to the days of Thurgood Marshall when the law was used for good. I do think we have that ability, but we need to pay attention to it first. Maybe just a little less Kardashians, and a little more knowing your rights.

AT: Are the three abortion clinics in Alabama still open today?

DP: They are all still open, but just recently Alabama did pass a law that said no clinics within 2000 feet of a school. So what will happen is that when these clinics go up to be re-licensed, they will have to challenge that law or else they will have to close. If that law does stand, two out of the three clinics that do surgical abortions in Alabama will close; Huntsville and Tuscaloosa. There will only be Montgomery left, which is a very small clinic with two doctors.

AT: And all three of the clinics are already seeing an astronomical number of women on a daily bases.

DP: Correct. So right now they are open, but they are continuing to fight legal battles. Interestingly and importantly, this has nothing to do with the Supreme Court’s decision. It’s a whole separate attack. This is why the Supreme Court has to make clear you can’t do any kind of sham law.

AT: Exactly, just because you don’t like abortion…I don’t like a lot of things.

DP: I don’t like a lot of things either, but I don’t get to legislate for other people in a way that will literally risk lives.  The other thing that people aren’t considering is the fact that some of these clinics like the surgical clinic that Marve shows in the film that do meet the standards of the law, are too expensive to run. She’s throwing away medicine; she has an anesthesiologist on payroll who is not used because they don’t put people under. That’s twelve hundred dollars a day. As we discussed the women who are getting abortions are at poverty level, they’re already scraping together the five hundred dollars, so they can’t raise the price. Therefore that clinic is not economically viable even though it meets the law. So God-forbid there is a bad decision with the Supreme Court, but even if the clinic could stay open legally, it can’t afford to stay open economically. Especially when you have the Hyde Amendment in place where there is no federal funding for abortions. So, who is getting abortions? Poor people. How do poor people get medicine? Medicaid. Can Medicaid pay for an abortion? No. We need to understand this political circle and how these things are connected.

AT: It’s just so overwhelming; I never even dreamed that we would be at this point. But, thank you so much for “TRAPPED” everyone should see it, especially women even if you don’t agree with abortion or if you’re pro-life. Every person should have a choice over his or her own body. The government should have no say in that matter.

DP: And you know what? If you don’t believe in abortion, then you should not have one.

AT: That’s it! Thank you so much for chatting with me Dawn!

DP: Thank you. I love Shadow and Act. It’s so widely read and so influential.

AT: Aww Thank you! That’s so lovely to hear.  

* The HB2 law comes out of Texas and is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court. The law requires doctors performing abortions in clinics to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, as well as requiring that the clinics they perform them in meet the standards of Ambulatory Surgical Centers.

Watch a trailer for “Trapped” below, and then check out the film now streaming on Netflix:

Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami