The key to understanding why “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is a quietly powerful documentary is not the first word in the title but the final three.
“Stories Women Tell,” an HBO documentary, allows us to experience what often gets lost in the anger and self-righteousness of the abortion debate: the hearts and minds and stories of the individual people involved, real women with real problems who are facing the most wrenching decision of their lives.
Producer-director Tracy Droz Tragos, whose previous “Rich Hill” won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is an empathetic interviewer, enabling people on both sides of the issue to have their say, from those who say “it’s not OK to kill a baby” to those who believe “no one should have a child they don’t want.”
Tragos is a native of Missouri, and she decided to return to her home state to see what effects its increasingly severe anti-abortion regulations, including a newly mandated 72-hour waiting period, were having on women there.
The most immediate impact was to drive large numbers of women across the state line to Illinois, where restrictions are fewer. The facility that is “Stories Women Tell’s” focus, the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Ill., is only 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.
The Hope Clinic’s location does not save it from the least sympathetic of the film’s characters, the zealous anti-abortion protesters who call the clinics parking lot escorts “deathscorts” and scream to the staff, “You have blood on your hands, you will answer to almighty God.”
Taking it in stride (“You can’t walk about angry and do your job,” says one woman) are the clinic’s staff, doctors, nurses and security guards, who very much believe in the need for the work they’re doing.
On the other side are individuals like Kathy (the film uses few last names), a soft-spoken woman who views stopping abortion as a calling, and her colleague Susan Jaramillo, an anti-abortion author who movingly says of the abortions she had as a younger woman, “I was filled with shame and guilt.”
Most moving of all, however, are the women who are considering what to do about their pregnancies or reliving a decision already made. The people spoken to on camera reveal how heartbreaking this question is, and how there simply is no one-size-fits-all answer.
There is the high school student who says, “I’m 17, I’m not supposed to be here until I’m 30,” the woman who wonders if an abortion would have been easier than adoption turned out to be, and the former star high school basketball player whose life has never recovered from her decision to have her baby.
Even harder to take are the stories of women like Sarah, who is beyond distraught about carrying a baby with such severe defects it will die at birth. Or Chelsea, who says of she and her husband, “We’re both Christians, we go to church, we believe in God,” but whose baby also had such terrible birth defects their minister prayed over them and supported their decision to abort.
If there is a through line that unites all the women in “Abortion: Stories Women Tell,” it’s that they take the potential responsibilities of parenthood very seriously. And no matter how tough and self-reliant they are, this decision is always an impossible one, and one that the outside world’s unbending attitudes do not make any easier.
“They think we don’t care about God,” says one of Hope Clinic’s veteran staffers, shaking her head. “But we’re no different than anyone else.”
‘Abortion: Stories Women Tell’
Running time: 1 hour, 93 minutes.
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood.