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Review: HBO’s Abortion Stories Documentary

This recently released HBO Documentary, Abortion: Stories Women Tell sets out to examine abortion as an “issue” from the perspectives of various women across a broad spectrum of experiences. Interviews range from female abortionists and their patients to pro-life speakers and sidewalk counselors, touching on everyone in-between. While all viewpoints other than that of an abolitionist are represented, and some effort is made to humanize every woman interviewed, the bias is predictably skewed in favor of the beliefs most appealing to the network’s demographic. Abortive women and those representing the abortion industry are given significantly more screen time and are presented more sympathetically than their pro-life counterparts who largely come off as well intentioned but clueless buffoons with poor arguments and no real understanding of the realities involved. How much of this can be attributed to the cutting room and how much is representative of the truth is hard to determine but while the sincere emotions of many of the pro-life women were evident, any well-reasoned or articulate expressions of their positions which may have been made, did not make it to the screen.

What proponents of both sides all seemed to agree on was that accessibility to abortion has been significantly reduced. Women representing both sides of the debate universally either bemoaned or celebrated what the film claims is increasingly limited access to abortion, supposedly evidenced by the many patients of the featured clinics who had traveled across city or state lines to procure services or who had waited a week or two longer than they desired to do so. While the inconvenience of a long drive and the accompanying cost of gas, time off work, etc. was heavily emphasized, no reduction in actual abortion numbers was mentioned and the women in the film who were compelled to navigate red tape in order to access an abortion, still did so. The victory/defeat (depending on participant viewpoint) seemed to lie solely in the more involved and demanding process they were subjected to.

Where this film was the weakest was in portraying any actual need for abortion or what good to women, children, or society it has to offer. It attempted to so by trotting out all the usual scenarios, and while the women suffering (in most cases) from truly life altering circumstances were, with a few exceptions, extremely sympathetic and their stories largely moving, the justifications, explanations, or arguments they expressed to support their alleged need for abortions were not particularly convincing. They represented the usual, but ironically very un-feminist, narrative of abortion-minded women as helpless victims with no agency and no inner resources with which to rise to challenges and overcome obstacles. As a woman, a single (and one-time teen) mother, and domestic abuse survivor, this narrative grieved me. My heart did go out to these women, not because they were burdened with children that they found it difficult to dispose of, but because in the midst of crisis they chose to cling to a council of despair that turned them away from the very sources of empowerment and love that could elevate them above their circumstances and against their own bodies, natures, and children.

Where the film was strongest was in its tender humanization of women representing both viewpoints. From an abolitionist perspective, a reminder to feel for the tortured souls of the lost and the deceived is not always out of place amidst the right and necessary pain, grief, and outrage we feel in the face of brutal injustice. If only the film could have done as much to humanize the voiceless victims of abortion who were largely brushed aside or glossed over throughout. The film also unintentionally shone in its exposure of the inadequacy and moral inconsistency of legislation designed to regulate a practice that it’s advocates claim to want abolished, and equally unintentional acknowledgement of the devastating nature of abortion.  Looking at the faces of these women there is certainly no way to believe that any of them are discussing the removal of an appendix or any other benign medical procedure.

If you are looking for a comprehensive set of reasoned arguments in favor of, or against, the practice of aborting living human children prior to birth, you will be disappointed in this documentary which focuses on the more emotionally oriented narratives of women. If, however, you are interested in examining the issue from a more anthropological perspective and immersing yourself in the narratives of many women whose lives have been in some way affected by crisis pregnancies, you may find this film illuminating, or at least provoking, though heavily biased.

Contributed by an abolitionist mother who requested to remain unnamed.