Documentary filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos has been bracing for the worst since 2018.
That’s the year that Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court, a decision that she feared would have reverberating effects on abortion access. “The writing was on the wall that Roe v. Wade may fall,” she remembers.
So, when the landmark case was overturned in 2022, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion, Tragos was already far into filming her latest documentary “Plan C,” a look at the grassroots organization that’s fighting to expand access to at-home abortion pills across the United States. The group wants people who are pregnant to know there’s a safe way to get an abortion without leaving the house.
Plan C’s mission proved even timelier after the pandemic forced people to stay at home, posing yet another threat to the safe termination of unwanted pregnancies. The quest to not only distribute, but also spread the word about the medication-by-mail as restrictions and bans went into effect is chronicled in “Plan C,” which premieres at Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23, around the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
“People should have access to abortion medication outside of a clinic setting. To medication that’s safer than Tylenol,” says Tragos, whose prior documentaries include HBO’s “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” and “Rich Hill.” “And it’s the 21st century… why not over the internet? When COVID happened, it was kind of like, ‘OK, the time is now.'”
Tragos, who spoke to Variety before trekking to the mountains, doesn’t plan to visit the Sundance Film Festival quietly. She, along with doctors, activists and volunteers, are bringing a mobile advertising van around Park City and other parts of Utah to educate the masses about access to medication abortion — no visit to Plan Parenthood needed.
“This is the time to be brave,” she says. “To say, ‘This is bullshit. You have options.'”
How did you first come across the organization Plan C?
It started four years ago. Back in 2018, when [Brett] Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court. the writing was on the wall that Roe v. Wade may fall. Access was incredibly difficult, even before Roe fell. But knowing that Roe falling would make it even worse, I started my research. What are people doing to prepare for Roe falling? What are the workarounds? I knew about abortion medication, but I hadn’t seen it outside of a clinic setting. I’d seen it where folks had to come in and the doctor would hand them a pill and they take it in the doctor’s office. I met [Plan C co-founder] Francine Coeytaux in Los Angeles, and she had a vision, along with several others in this network, that people should have access to abortion medication outside of a clinic setting. To medication that’s safer than Tylenol. And it’s the 21st century… why not over the internet? It seemed wild and insane in 2018. I was like, “That’s a great idea. But when will that ever come to pass?” When COVID happened, it was kind of like, “OK, the time is now.”
How did the pandemic and stay-at-home orders impact people’s access to safe abortions?
COVID changed everything. It made things more dire and more accessible at the same time. People were quarantined at home and being told, “Don’t take public transportation. Stay out of hospitals and health care centers. Only for the most essential.” When you need an abortion, it’s a timely, essential matter. And yet, in some states like Texas, it was deemed non-essential. So, Francine and many others said, “We’re going to put out this call to arms and see if folks in the United States will finally step forward and mail pills to their patients.” That’s when things really took off.
Was it difficult to find people to interview, given the sensitivity of the topic?
Because I had made a previous film about abortion access, there was a bit of a trust built in. So, I’m glad to say it wasn’t as hard as if I was coming at it from scratch. Francine made a lot of introductions. There’s a lot of trust-building, and that has to happen. I did spend four years making the film, so there were times I didn’t get access right away. People took risks to talk to me, but also to do the work they were doing. These are brave people who were thinking less about their personal safety and convenience and more about stepping out and doing something that needed to be done. In large part, they saw this as civil disobedience. These are folks that believed in the bigger “why.” And, frankly, the public health emergency that was unfolding so rapidly. They opened their doors because of that “why.”
Do you remember when you found out about the draft leak that the Supreme Court was voting to overturn Roe v. Wade?
The draft leak is a bit of a blur. We were gutted. Once the leak happened, that certainly accelerated the need to get out there. Within days, I traveled to Oklahoma, the first state that took advantage of the fact that Roe was certainly going to fall and became the first state to outlaw abortion. Stepping in that clinic was devastating. Of all the things I’ve filmed and all the stories I’ve heard, just sitting in that beautiful clinic that could provide care but simply had to shut their doors… They were getting calls from people who said “Where can I go? What can I do?” And they couldn’t help them. Experiencing that was devastating, and also motivating to say, “I gotta finish this film.” Because those people calling and saying, “What am I going to do?” There’s a workaround. There are people who are going to help you, and they’re trustworthy. I felt a real urgency to get this film out there.
As a filmmaker, what’s the biggest challenge in telling a story that’s rapidly changing?
It continues to happen. Alabama just passed some [law] that says it’s a felony to provide abortion medication. So I was like, “Let’s get that in the end of the film.” I’m not CNN. I’m not the late-breaking news with day-to-day developments. It became important to tell this longer impact of this chipping away of rights and access. I hope the long-form approach can go alongside folks giving us the daily scoop on what’s happening. But, I will say that it’s nuts. I don’t think we’ve hit rock bottom, unfortunately, with what will happen. But I hope that the film itself is hopeful, and demonstrates that despite the restrictions, people have options, no matter where you live.
In the documentary, there’s a clip of a newscaster in 2000 saying that abortion is more heavily debated in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. Why do you think that’s the case?
It’s hard to say. This answer will be a little bit of a detour, but in the making of this film, I was at Planned Parenthood in May of 2019. It’s not in the film, but the clinic was about to close its doors because Missouri’s director of health was going to revoke Planned Parenthood’s license. Missouri, my home state, was going to be the first state to not have a dedicated abortion provider. I was in a room with a lot of news reporters. I’m next to someone who was like, “I hate it. My editors are always trying to get me to do both sides.” She was like, “It’s not sides. Every time you talk to zealots, they’re the conspiracy theorists. They’re the folks who think the Earth is flat. It’s a minority in this country, and yet, we constantly give equal weight to the minority fringe because we think that’s fair.” That really stuck with me.
With this film, I was sure not to do that. It’s there, because protestors are constantly outside of clinics. But we have a problem in this country of giving those folks such a platform constantly. I don’t think they deserve it. What will fix it? I don’t know. But part of what contributes to it is not looking at the hard, cold facts. You’ve got a bunch of religious zealots, and they’re entitled to not have abortions. But we, as a country, as people in the media, don’t constantly have to ask “What do you think about it? Do you think science is real?” Enough already. We’re going to be left behind, as a country, if we do that.
What’s changed about the abortion conversation since your documentary “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” premiered in 2016?
A lot. The clinic-based model was seen as the mainstream and the gold-standard, and anything outside of that was kind of sketch. There’s more of an understanding that telemedicine is legit. There are legitimate doctors behind it. It’s safe. It’s effective. You can have support and consultation all along the way. Medically, this is a solid option, and increasingly, there’s more of an understanding of that. The unfortunate part is that in some red states, it’s legally still risky.
You are bringing a mobile advertising van around Park City. Do you have any concerns about being in a state like Utah, where abortion rights are being contested?
Yes, that’s the simple answer. There are always fears and concerns. But following alongside the brave folks who are doing this work, it is surprising when you stand up to a bully. Sometimes the bully backs away. You don’t know if there’s going to be protesters or violence. This is the time to be brave, not to back down and be quiet. This is the time to say, “This is bullshit. And by the way, you have options. Order advanced provision and have it in your medicine cabinet.” If you flood the zone and make it inevitable, it’s going to be something that can’t be stopped. We’re dealing with getting a permit. The good thing is the truck is coming, whether we have or don’t have the permit. It’s going to be there and, well, they can kick us out.
Is there more of a necessity to force these conversations in places where abortion rights are being challenged?
It’s needed everywhere. But yes, in places where access is restricted, clinics are closing and information is censored, how do you get information to people who most need it? We need to shift the narrative to say, “You have an option beyond having to raise money, find childcare and find somebody to fill in for you at work [so you can] take a week off to travel to New York or California [where abortion is legal].” That narrative is not being shared enough. You can do something discreetly, safely and privately, at home. Just don’t tell anybody about it.