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Tribeca Film Festival: 'Abortion: Stories Women Tell' gets personal — on each side of the debate

Tribeca Film Festival: 'Abortion: Stories Women Tell' gets personal — on each side of the debate
"Abortion: Stories Women Tell"directorTracy Droz Tragos. (HBO)

Te'Aundra was 19, working two waitressing jobs and attending community college when she got the news: She had received a basketball scholarship to Kentucky State University. Her life was about to change.

So she quit her jobs, gave 30-day notice on her apartment in the Missouri Bootheel, one of the more impoverished areas of the state, and was packing to leave. "I was on my way away from here," she recalled.

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Then came more news: She was pregnant. Again, her life was about to change.

Te'Aundra is one of 32 women featured in the new documentary "Abortion: Stories Women Tell" by award-winning filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos. The film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival on Monday. Produced by HBO Films, the documentary, though clearly in favor of abortion rights, examines all sides of the debate through the voices of patients, doctors, clinic workers, antiabortion activists and protesters in Missouri, a state with one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

"We wanted to look at abortion from a personal place that was different from the way it was approached before," Droz Tragos said in an interview before the premiere. "Women's voices were not a part of the debate. I felt like advocates and politicians primarily had the floor and the loudest voices. So we thought, let's go talk to women."

In Missouri, women are required to seek counseling on abortion options, then wait 72 hours before moving ahead with the procedure, regardless of whether the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. Four other states — Utah, South Dakota, Oklahoma and North Carolina — have similar waiting periods. In Missouri, only one clinic — located in St. Louis — offers elective abortion services.

A scenefrom HBO's "Abortion: Stories Women Tell."
A scenefrom HBO's "Abortion: Stories Women Tell." (HBO)

For Te'Aundra, abortion was out of reach because of financial issues and access to health services, so she opted to have the baby and give it up for adoption. But the adoption was called off because the father of the baby objected. Today Te'Aundra remains in Missouri, now in public housing, with her baby girl, having given up her dream of a basketball scholarship.

"I hate to say it, but if I could have went back, I wouldn't have contacted him," she said of the father, who has never been part of the baby's life. "I would have just had an abortion and been on my way."

HBO's Sheila Nevins, president of documentary films, and Sara Bernstein, senior vice president of documentary films, began discussing the movie in the summer of 2014. HBO had previously aired two other films about abortion — "Abortion: Desperate Choices" and "12th & Delaware" — but the idea this time was to come at the issue from a more personal place. They had seen Droz Tragos' film "Rich Hill," which follows the lives of three teens and the challenges they face growing up in rural Missouri, at Sundance and knew they wanted to work with her.

"We wanted to present a case for personal decision-making and a women's right to her own body," Nevins said. "It's her body, and she can choose to take the next step all by herself. She doesn't need laws; she doesn't need help. She needs laws protecting her from other people making decisions about her body."

In all, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 women, including politicians, abortion advocates and abortion opponents. "As a filmmaker, I knew that this film couldn't be an advocacy piece," she said. "There are things that we have in common, even if we have very different views about abortion. I think that ultimately is how to start a conversation."

The documentary features women of all ages and races sharing their personal experiences. One of the biggest challenges was persuading people — on both sides of the issue — to talk. "It's a very private thing — especially in Missouri where I think there's an extra dose of stigma and shame," says Droz Tragos, 47, who is married and has two daughters. "It's incredibly courageous that these women came forward at all.''

Droz Tragos says she hopes the 93-minute-film, which will air on HBO at a yet-to-be-determined date, will reach people on all sides of the abortion debate. She said a theatrical release is planned as well, but no date has been given.

"I hope it will be an invitation to empathy on both sides," she says. "Maybe we won't change anyone's deep-seated views, but maybe we can bring a little more compassion to the conversation and there can be a little more understanding of how each woman comes to this private, personal decision."

The film opens with Amie, a 30-year-old single mother of two with two jobs who is preparing to drive several hours from her home to an abortion clinic on the Illinois-Missouri border. "There's no way I can physically carry a baby and work," she says. "And there's no way I can cut my hours because I need my hours to raise my kids that I have right now." Her story is interspersed throughout the film.

Along the way, Droz Tragos introduces us to Sarah, who was 12 weeks into her pregnancy and seeking an abortion after she found out the baby had a birth defect and would not survive if born; Reagan, 24, the Midwest regional coordinator for Students for Life, an antiabortion group for high school college students; Barb, who got an abortion so she could continue her schooling and now has been a nurse for 40 years; and 17-year-old Alexis, herself born to a teenage mother, who decided to keep her baby despite taunts and harassment from classmates.

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Nevins said the filmmakers picked Missouri because they wanted to show how women survive in an environment where terminating a pregnancy is a minority decision. Droz Tragos grew up in Missouri, the setting of her two previous documentaries, "Be Good, Smile Pretty," which won an Emmy Award, and "Rich Hill," which picked up the grand jury prize at Sundance.

"I connected deeply with all of the women in the film," says Droz Tragos, who lives in Los Angeles. "The women who talked often had a very clear intention. They felt bullied. They felt like their voices were not being heard. And they wanted to make it easier somehow for other women who would follow — it was for other women not to feel so alone."

At Monday night's premiere, Droz Tragos was joined onstage by six women who appeared in her film — three from each side of the abortion debate — all seeing the documentary for the first time. Though the women said they had not changed positions on abortion, nearly all of them said they appreciated hearing what the other side had to say.

"It's actually nice to see other people talking about the other side of the debate," said Dr. Erin King, a gynecologist at the Hope Clinic, "but it probably made me feel more strongly that choice is really important and being able to choose — whether you're going to have an abortion or not have an abortion — that choice has got to be there."

"I'm still pro-life, and I will always advocate for pro-life," Reagan said. "It was refreshing to see the pro-life side in the film because a lot of times they aren't shown."

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