Moderator: Kathryn Kolbert, co-founder of Athena Film Festival (and of the Center for Reproductive Rights)
Q&A with Jess Jacobs, co-executive producer, Doctor April Lockley, family medicine physician in New York, Doctor Jane Doe, founder of Nightingale Medical, Farah Diaz-Tello, the senior counsel and legal director of If/When/How – Lawyering For Reproductive Justice Dr Linda Prine, founder of the Reproductive Health Access Project, Tracy Droz Tragos, director and producer, Francine Coeytaux, Co-founder and Co-director of Plan C Pills.
Q: Tracy, you had so many voices in this film: the voices of the doctors, the voices of the women. How did this get started and why did you choose that approach?
TDT: Ultimately, it got started by having a coffee with Francine in Los Angeles in 2018. I had made a film that actually screened here at Barnard with Sheila Nevins, who’s a Barnard graduate. and is on HBO with “Abortion: Stories Women Tell”. When Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court, it was like, okay, okay. It looked like the writing was on the wall, that maybe, sortof, like, Roe could be overturned. But a lot of people were like, ah, that’s crazy, that’s crazy. But I wanted to start to see, what would be the answer back to that? What are folks doing to plan for that eventuality, potentially?
And I met Francine. We met at Cora’s beach cafe [Cora’s Coffee Shoppe, Santa Monica, CA], not far from where we live in L.A. She talked about abortion medication, online provisioning, the fact that it was safe and effective, and you could take it at home. I was like, wow, yeah, I’ve seen people getting the pills in the clinic. But the fact that you could take it at home in privacy and not have to pass this gantlet of protesters, and not spend all this time in a clinic. Seeing the impact and the hurt caused by folks having to pass [through] that gantlet of protesters, my mind was blown. It was a total paradigm shift. So that’s where it started.
Q: Francine, what we see here is an amazing organizational scale that boggles the mind. But give us a sense of where we are today?
FC: Yeah, I have to say that this film is here because Tracy had the vision in 2018 — pre-Roe [overturn], pre-Covid, pre any of this. She called me up and said “I’m interested. Could I do a documentary with you?” and I truly, honestly, had no idea what I was getting into when I said yes. I had no idea at all.
But I have to say, this is only a small part of what “Plan C” does, and I am only a very small part. She chose to make the movie and use me as the narrator, but there are two co-directors, co‑founders of Plan C [Pills, the organization]. It’s very, very important — and I bring this up to answer your question — because the future is in communication. My co-director [of Plan C] Amy Merrill is an amazing whiz, knowledgeable about how to do communication in the world of social media — which I don’t even understand and I don’t even have a Twitter account. I don’t know how to do that.
This is the future, where we are now with the future. Of course you saw Elisa Wells, she’s my other co-founder and co-director, and her ability — it takes a village. I think we have two huge challenges and opportunities that have been given to us by the shit show where I am legally right now today in this country, as we wait to hear what’s going to happen with whatever this judge in Texas decides.
Really, the real courageous, the real people, you only see a few here: Linda, Maggie, April, Farah who’s doing the legal. The fact that these are the people who made this be a real thing, the thing is there are options. There are options that are very real today in Texas, in Oklahoma, in Kansas — you name me the state, you can get abortion pills and people now know they are safe.
The place we are at today that’s different from 20 years ago — or even pre-Roe v. Wade — is that because of these amazing providers, hundreds of thousands of people have now self-managed their abortions with pills that were mailed to them at home. Those people, the anger that they’re going to feel when they hear that these pills, that they know are safe, get taken away from them — there’s not going to be any stopping. There will be people in the streets because the experience now is, we know about these pills — we, meaning the public, know that they’re safe, they’re effective, they know someone who’s tried them. And good luck trying to take them away from [us]. So that’s where I think we are, thanks really to the bravery of the people, of the providers who stepped up and did this.
Q: I just want to thank the providers for the last 40 years. It’s the providers who have always been the heroes in this fight.
For each of you, why do you do this, and what have you learned about yourself in being the “rad” and outlier here in the world?
DrJD: Yeah, I think I told somebody recently, I only realized my true calling in my 50s as an activist. I was always a doctor, and I think it’s been interesting to realize that about yourself and realize that there was a calling and need for something that was bigger than who you are.
Q: Why do you do this?
DrLP: It’s part of medical care, and when you’re a physician and there’s something that people need that is totally within your purview, how can you not do that? I never understood not doing it. So as soon as I was able to provide abortion care as a physician, I did it. And I’ve done it all along.
DrAL: Like what Linda said, it’s something that’s important. I feel kindof awkward centering ourselves, in a way. Patients, people have been doing this forever, and we have a lot to learn from other countries where abortion has been banned and still is banned. They’ve been using Misoprostol to manage their abortions for a very long time. So looking at what other countries and other people have been doing, it’s pretty much a no-brainer to be able to help and center our patients and communities that have been taking care of themselves, in any way that I can be a small part of that. That is very important to me.
Q: Farah, there’s a lot of interest in the “miffy” [mifepristone] lawsuit that’s pending in Texas. Can you give us a sense of what’s going on there, and if we win or if we lose, what that means — mostly if we lose? Can you set the groundwork for that, because the details are not well known here?
FDT: I’m happy to do that. If/When/How-Lawyering For Reproductive Justice, and the work that we do centers around ensuring that people can make decisions about their reproductive lives with dignity and without the threat of state violence. I think the most important thing to convey about this decision is the fact that this should never have happened in the first place. It’s this very intensive act of forum shopping, creating an organization in a specific jurisdiction so it would have standing to try to essentially unwind decades of law, decades of science, and really try to roll back the fundamental truth that we know: that abortion pills are safe, abortion pills work, and that they should be accessible to everybody.
The thing I want to focus on, though, is the importance of how we communicate about what this means for people. Because what it means to say that the FDA approval for this medication has been rescinded makes it harder for providers to provide those medications to people. That doesn’t speak to the people who use the medications themselves. The work that I do on a day-to-day basis [is] we run a legal helpline, the Repro Legal Helpline, where people come to us every single day with questions about, “Can I get an abortion in my state? I have police outside my hospital room right now. What can I do? What should I tell them?”
The stakes are extremely high and I don’t want people to come away with the idea that quote-unquote “abortion pills” are illegal. Because even though that is expedient for us in terms of creating a movement to oppose whatever is going to be coming from this podunk court in Texas that then is going to appeal up to the Fifth Circuit — the worst of all the circuits — and straight up to the “belly of the beast”, the Supreme Court.
I don’t want people to come away with that message because we know from our helpline that when people think that quote-unquote “abortion pills” are illegal, they turn to more dangerous means. This is a life-and-death thing. I want us to come away understanding that regardless of what the FDA says or doesn’t say, regardless of what this court says or doesn’t say, it doesn’t change the legality for the end user.
And the legality itself is a little bit murky — I could expound for a very long time. But I want people to know that they still have an option regardless of what the law says. Because whatever the law has said or not said about abortion, people have sought ways to take control of their reproductive lives, and we hope they’ll continue to do so. My organization and all of our “homies” are going to be here to make sure that they’re safe when they do so.
Q: Francine, it seems this lawsuit is a way to nationalize this issue in a way that we haven’t had since Dobbs. Everybody has been focused on “safe states” and “unsafe states”, but basically state control. If miffy is found to be an illegal drug that affects every state, and doctors in every state, what’s your sense of the good side of that? If there is one.
FC: I think it’s following on what Farah said. It’s an opportunity to have to continue to do even better education. We have to communicate and educate even better what we’ve always known, which is that there are these very safe pills, they’re easy to take, they have been restricted in our country — politically restricted — in a way that they have not been in other countries. We need to understand how much it’s been the political restrictions that are what is putting people in harm’s way, as Farah said.
It’s easy for us to be here in New York, in a liberal state, or for me to be in California, in another liberal state, to talk openly about how, oh yeah, you just get these mailed to you. It’s a whole different situation when you’re living or working in a state in fear. The people in the hotline — both the Repro hotline and the medical hotline — are hearing the [fear]. Our job is to really reassure everyone — what Farah said. Our job is to continue to educate, and again, I think we’re in a place where there’s sufficient numbers now of experienced people who have actually used these pills. We can use that, take that with what we learned [from what] happened in Kansas — where people voted to say no, no, no, no, no, government get out of our way, we do have a right to abortion.
If you take those two things together, it’s an opportunity. I see it as an opportunity to finally get down to, we have to fight for basic human rights. Not these crazy laws — no longer constantly trying to defend against these crazy laws but really use the justice system to fight for real basic values that we have a right to, and that the public are behind us on.
Q: Linda, you said you had a line on communication.
DrLP: I have an action item for everyone. We’ve been working very hard to pass a law in New York State that would allow us to mail pills into the red states. Right now, people in the red states do order their pills from AidAccess [AidAccess.org] where Maggie and I both work, but the pills come from India as you saw in the movie, and it takes weeks and weeks. And on the hotline where Maggie and April and I work, we are hearing more and more calls from people who are getting the pills much later in pregnancy and having a much rougher experience. This is not necessary.
If we can pass laws in our blue states to say that we can mail pills into the red states — laws that would shield us from prosecution, laws that would shield us from having our licenses taken away, laws that would shield us from losing our malpractice insurance and so on. New York state has a law, it’s already been passed through the Senate; it’s stuck in the Codes Committee in the Assembly. So we have this petition that we’re asking everybody to sign.
Q: But don’t just sign the petition. Call your legislator on the phone.
TDT: The other thing I would say is, buy Advance Provision [a service of AidAccess]. Go online, buy Advance Provision, have these pills in your medicine cabinet for yourself and a friend in need. This is the time, for yourself, for your children, for your friends’ children, before God knows what happens with this Texas ruling. Buy these pills and have them.
DrJD: Yeah, and if you can pass those around, there’s a QR code and it will lead you to the Reproductive Health Access Project’s page. At that point you can enter your information, and it will automatically send it to your legislators. So if you can take a picture of that QR code, then you’ll get the website and then you can pass it to the person next to you.
I’d also like to add to what you’re [saying] about this lawsuit which I think some people have rightly said we should be talking about as the FDA case, not the Texas case — because it’s not a state thing. This is about the FDA, and this court is really ruling on the FDA and Denko only. It’s not ruling on the legality of mifepristone.
Too often in our reproductive health space, we see things coming and we get defensive, and we start going “Oh, we can’t do this, we can’t do that. How do we do these things?” instead of saying “No.” Francine says this in the movie at one point, too. We need to keep doing things, and we need to keep doing them until we’re specifically told we can’t, and at the same time coming up with new routes to do things.
There have been some really good articles — there’s one in “Slate” by David Cohen [co-author of Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle to Get an Abortion in America] and there are others, that talk about this case. There are people in New York and in Minnesota who have the right to abortion and think it’s been taken away from them because of the way that the media leads these narratives. So we all really need to change that narrative and not just play defense. We need to play offense.
Q: Tracy, what are your plans for the film?
TDT: I don’t know, to be honest. We premiered at Sundance, this is the sixth audience that has seen it. We’re going to SXSW next week in Austin, in Texas, which will be interesting. But this is an independent film and we do not have distribution. A lot of distributors are terrified of a film that is about abortion that is seen as partisan, so it’s very, very tricky.
So I will just ask all of you also, in your networks or whatever, to think about communicating about it, because as Plan C the organization has been censored and sometimes taken off social media. The film also may not get distribution. We may have to self-distribute.
FC: I’ve been telling Tracy this. We use the outrage of the fact that every review that’s been made of this amazing film says “this is a must-see film”. Right? Okay, so then we say to people, “These big corporations and these big CEOs do not want to touch this with a 10-foot pole because of the topic. So would you like to see this, and would you like to participate?” And we’re going to self-distribute and use it as a way of getting the word out. Because the word that needs to get out is that there are options.
I thank Tracy for giving this amazing, amazing tool of art that allows us to open conversations — to go into the community and have conversations. The way you did it with the emotions that cut across the communities and had these discussions that we probably couldn’t have had to begin with. So we need to take it out on the road and we need to use it to get the word out.
I’m going to add one last thing: we’ve got stickers. Kendall, who you saw in the movie, the young woman in Texas who was picking out stickers — she’s got thousands of stickers out here to students at Barnard. Be part of the sticker campaign. There are millions of those little stickers being put up all over the country.
You don’t know who it is that needs to know what their options are. We aren’t pushing this down anybody’s throat. We just need them to know that if they need to know where to go to get information, and from there, they decide if they use, whether they use, where they use, and how they use will be in the hands of the person who needs it. Not in the legislators’ hands or the doctors’ hands, or whoever else’s hands. It will be in the hands of the people who need it.
KK: I think one of the messages of this film which was so effective is how important it is for people to decide for themselves what it is that you can do. Certainly for all the people in this audience, I want to emphasize the fact that each and every one of you can do something. It may not be prescribing the abortion pill or it may not even be participating, but it’s something. You can participate politically, you can participate on the streets, you can participate in providing information. So if we have one goal, it is to come to the Athena film festival and leave as an activist in whatever form you choose.
Q: I worry about the people in the film who were not disguised. Neither were you. What could happen to you?
FC: That was the question that Tracy asked, and covered by a lot of us that were portrayed in the film. That is an individual decision. But I can tell you from my experience that from the beginning of having this idea to do Plan C [the organization] which was in 2014, we have been warned by everybody: the lawyers, the donors, the partners. Everybody kept saying “Don’t do this. Don’t do this so out loud.” But nothing has happened to me. I need to knock on wood when I say that, but so far nothing has happened.
But the same thing happened when we went into SB after [87(R)] SB 8 [Heartbeat Acts] in Texas. It was very clear, it was specifically said, aiding and abetting is not allowed. We did it and nothing happened. There have been two suits — maybe I should leave this to Farah about what happened after SB 8. But basically, even though they tried to tell people they get ten thousand dollars for trying to turn people in, they didn’t ever; none of those suits came out.
DrLP: There’s so much fear-mongering and we just have to move on and not pay attention to it, because we are looked to for an example. The day that Roe fell, people called me from New Mexico — I was providing in New Mexico — and they were in tears and a mess. We were like, “No, we can get you pills, and there are ways to get you pills”. And we continued to get people pills in Texas.
These were people from Texas calling us. The two clinics closest to our New Mexico clinic gave out our phone number from Texas and said “Call these people”. So they either came and got the pills from us, or we instructed them on how to do mail forwarding. And that’s what people are doing. Or they’re calling AidAccess and getting the pills from India. We’re making sure it happens as best we can, and we’re going to keep doing that. So far, it’s been minimal fallout in terms of anybody getting in trouble for it.
Usually what women are arrested for is if there are drugs in their systems when they go to the hospital to get treatment for what they’re saying is a miscarriage. That’s my experience in talking to the lawyers from Pregnancy Justice. You may have different numbers, but it doesn’t seem like there’s any massive prosecutions going on. People say to us things like, “Can I take these pills back in my suitcase on the airplane?” after they’ve flown to a blue state. The security people in the airports are not looking for pills, they’re looking for guns.
Nobody’s searching your suitcases for abortion pills. But that’s the kind of fear that’s being instilled in people. We really have to fight that because it just makes everyone feel like they live in a police state and are afraid of their shadows. We shouldn’t be living that way. So we have to be bold, and it makes other people feel less afraid.
FDT: Listen, a lot of people have gotten a lot of abortion care safely by ordering the pills online and ending their pregnancies, and the majority of them — the vast, unknowable percentage have no problem. But my job is to catch the ones who do. Dr. Prine mentioned that the vast majority of people who are arrested on the basis of an act or omission with respect to their pregnancy are people who tested positive for a controlled substance, an illegal drug, not because they took abortion pills.
At the same time, I want people to know and to take on the dignity of risk of making a decision for themselves. That’s important. The work that we do on the helpline and everywhere is about helping people understand what those risks are. I spend a lot of time challenging the sort of breathless “You have to throw away your phone, you can’t have a phone number, wear a tinfoil hat because they’re gong to come and surveil you.” That’s not really where the risks lie.
But at the same time, I know that we are working with people who ordered their pills from AidAccess and are facing prosecutions for felony offenses. I see the people whose faces are obscured and all we see is their dog, and they’re packing those pills. I know that in my home state of Texas, they face the possibility of prosecution for a felony. So I’m glad and I’m grateful for the activism. I’ve been a long, long-time fan, obviously.
But I don’t want to undersell the risk, and especially the risk that the people who are doing the work of getting pills to people are taking on. Because while the law in many ways may shield the individual who ends their pregnancy in the vast majority of states, that doesn’t mean that people haven’t been and aren’t being prosecuted. And it doesn’t mean that the people who make that critical care accessible to them aren’t facing enormous risks to themselves. So it’s a tough line to walk.
DrAL: Yeah, and there’s definitely two issues: being a provider versus being a patient in the community as well, and being a provider in New York versus being one in Texas. So there’s a lot of nuance to this. Especially if you’re a black person, you know that the law has never been on our side and it’s never protected us. That’s something that you have to think about if you’re in Texas and a black person or an immigrant.
You know what is going to happen to you, versus us “privileged” physicians who have money and time and expertise to be activists in this way. There are a lot of activists in Texas and other states that are doing this work, but it has to be done differently for them. It’s a very nuanced discussion and there’s a lot of discussion within the movement of how to go about these. We all are trying to work together in the best way possible, but it’s, again, centering communities and listening to what their needs are.
Q: The people I’ve known have the fear that after we week abortion that we need to fight against the currents that are pushing against access to abortion. The fight may be made easier if you shift cultural currents. A lot of it is not just a legal change. I was thinking about the fact that I have only seen an abortion film or television show only once. What advice do you have for filmmakers to create stories about abortions, spread information about abortions that’s truthful and just create those that [tell stories honestly]?
JJ: Literally, Tracy and I were just upstairs doing whiteboarding all of the different partners in the industry, and in the funding space and in the distribution space, who we know are our friends of the movement, because it does take a village. I appreciate this question in the utmost possible way.
I was actually seeing on Instagram today that “Gray’s Anatomy” showed for the first time in their episode this week the entirety of an abortion experience. If you’ve seen “Roma”, it’s like there are birthing and miscarriage and abortion stories that we do see in the media, how authentic they are to the actual lived experience. First of all, every abortion experience is unique; every birthing experience is unique. So it’s really representation by virtue of having a number of different experiences represented.
But I will also say that the way in which we understand the world is really through the content that we’re able to see, and through the stories that we tell of ourselves and of each other. It’s one of the reasons that I think this film is so powerful, is that we’re telling the stories of the whole ecosystem.
In terms of being a filmmaker, there re a number of different places that I would recommend to check out. There is pretty incredible research that’s done out of UCSF [University of California at San Francisco] around the representation of abortion in film and television, and then what the actual statistics are of abortion experience in the United States. For example, most representations of abortion on film and TV are of people that don’t have children. The majority of people who have abortions in this country are people that already are parents. So that is one example of some of the research that has been done at UCSF.
There is a woman at Planned Parenthood called Caren Spruch [Senior Director, Art & Entertainment Engagement], who is an amazing resource for a lot of people that are seeking to represent experiences of birth, abortion, miscarriage and otherwise, on film and TV. She is probably one of the busiest people I know in the world. But she always has really open arms for folks, for filmmakers and storytellers who are trying to get these kinds of words out there.
And then it’s also really about, frankly, building a network that doesn’t quite exist yet, in which those of us who are interested in telling these stories authentically and with passion and with bravery can come together and build a community. So I would also recommend please reaching out. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send me an email if you’re interested in doing this. Tracy and I are seeking to build something within Hollywood, and I think there are a lot of us.
TDT: In the media, I would say, you have to be somewhat surreptitious, because we’re a little bit falling flat, even though we went to Sundance and we’re going to South by SouthWest, and we’re here at Athena. The distributors, the gatekeepers, they don’t want this, to put it bluntly. So if you can be somewhat surreptitious in how you get this released, that’s kind where we are at this moment. I hope it will change, I hope we can figure it out. But it’s unfortunately just the hard, cold reality. There might be an audience for this, but there are still gatekeepers who are not wanting [this].
JJ: I would argue that it’s part of why we are where we are in this country with abortion access.
DrAL: I want to highlight another organization, talking about cultural shift. There’s an organization called We Testify, founded by a black woman [Renee Bracey Sherman], about abortion storytellers, so people who’ve had abortions themselves are comfortable with sharing their stories. So if anyone out there who’s had an abortion wants to check out the website and get media training about how to share your story, it’s a great organization.
TDT: Yeah, they were a support of this film. It’s an amazing organization.
Q: Thank you very much.
Meet the Artist 2023: Tracy Droz Tragos on “PLAN C”