According to the Guttmacher Institute, about one in three women will have an abortion by the age of 45. It’s one of the safest medical procedures available—less riskier, even, than a colonoscopy.
But toxic rhetoric—including from politicians like Donald Trump, who once claimed women should be punished for having abortions—leave many women reluctant to share their experiences. The shame surrounding abortion means that we most often hear about the issue through inflammatory politicians, pundits, and activists.
Tracy Droz Tragos’ new documentary, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, aims to change that. The film, which debuted at Tribeca Film Festival this year and opens in select theaters August 12 (and airs on HBO next year), highlights the stories of women and their abortions—including women who are against it. It’s a moving and heartbreaking film anchored in Tragos’ home state of Missouri, a state with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country: Access to abortion has become so limited there that there’s only one clinic left in the state offering the procedure; women from across the state have to travel to neighboring states like Illinois or Kansas for the procedure.
I spoke with Tragos about what it was like making the film and how she thinks the conversation around abortion needs to change.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Was it difficult getting the women to open up to you?
It was a big ask, especially for women on the day of their procedures. But there were many women who really want to be a part of it, who felt like they were being judged, didn't have a voice and wanted to speak about both how the restrictions in Missouri impacted them. But also [they wanted to speak] about who they are, [that] they aren’t bad people. They’re not monsters. Amie in particular, who is sort of a thread in the film, she was really angry by the judgement that she felt from others for her choice.
What drew you to the story? Do you have a personal connection to abortion?
I have not had an abortion, but my personal connection, honestly, is that I’m a woman. And I have two daughters. I’m very interested in reproductive rights and access to the health care that I need, that my daughters need, that my friends and family need and particularly in Missouri where that access is so restricted. You can see the impact of that and I certainly saw that in the making of [my other film] Rich Hill—how all these moms were teenagers when they became a parent and their life changed drastically. A lot of women are without any choice. The choice is made for them and that, for me, is something I care very deeply about.
This was a very emotional film. There were moments that made me cry and moments that made me really angry. How was it like making the film?
There were definitely good days and bad days. Days that were harder. And days that weren’t quite so hard. I think what ultimately gave me strength during some of the emotional moments is the community of women that I met particularly at Hope Clinic and this feeling of what a difference it makes when women are supportive of each other and when women are able, ultimately, to make choices for themselves.
What surprised you the most when making the film?
I was surprised so many women felt this shame and stigma no matter what their choice had been. It was just like there's a shame and stigma for getting pregnant and even a shame or stigma for having sex. For me, that really sunk in—how women are treated differently and, especially in a more conservative place like Missouri, like second class citizens. Of course, men and women are having sex, but women are the ones who will be faced with an unplanned pregnancy if they don't have access to birth control or don't have access to sex education, which, unfortunately, many women in Missouri don't. It wasn't like it was a total shock to me or totally surprising but it really was a deepening of understanding of how disenfranchised women are and how that shame needs to be lifted and is an undue burden. We should not be shamed for being sexual beings.
How do you feel abortion has been tackled this election season?
I don't agree with Trump, who apparently thinks women ought to be punished for having abortions. I don’t agree with that at all. I'm not even sure he agrees with it. But I’m really excited that there's a candidate that Planned Parenthood is endorsing and we have a woman candidate. I think, ultimately, women are where the conversation needs to be. It needs to be owned by women. Many politicians are men. I think they really need to defer to the women on this because it’s a private decision between a woman and her doctor. It’s not something you can easily legislate around. One size does not fit all.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the opening date of the film. Abortion: Stories Women Tell opened in select theaters August 12.