Fresh on the heels of Rep. Suzan DelBene’s support of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would protect access to abortion in Washington state, a new documentary about reproductive justice screens this week at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). With multiple ties to the Pacific Northwest, “Our Bodies Our Doctors” is a timely response to the national conversation about legal and accessible abortion, and the potential Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
Shot primarily in Oregon, Washington and Oklahoma, the film shows precisely what happens in the procedure room in this little-seen niche of healthcare, with one twist— “Our Bodies Our Doctors” follows the doctors who provide abortions, not the women who have them. Though viewers see actual abortions, the footage is not graphic and patients are not identified. Rather, the documentary focuses on the feminist convictions behind abortion practice by contemporary medical providers who care deeply about the lives and rights of their patients and who practice compassionate, patient-centered care.
“Washington and Oregon are among the least restrictive states in terms of laws regulating abortion. So these two states became interesting as case studies for me in making this film in terms of how to think about barriers to access even in progressive areas of the country. It’s not just a problem of the South,” said film director Jan Haaken, professor emerita of psychology at Portland State University, in a phone interview. “Our Bodies Our Doctors” is her tenth film.
According to 2014 abortion rates tracked by The Guttmacher Institute — when rates were at a historic low — one in four U.S. women has had an abortion by the age of 45. Though anti-choice activists have other words for it, family planning is healthcare.
“Anti-abortion imagery has for decades dominated visual culture. So the aim was to reclaim some of this cultural space,” said Haaken. “Most of my films focus on jobs carried out behind high walls or fences—socially important work that becomes the focus of public anxieties because they are hidden from view or carried out on the social margins.”
A University of Washington graduate whose first jobs were at UW Medical Center as a registered nurse and then as a staff member in child psychiatry, Haaken reached out to over 40 abortion providers across the country, inviting their participation in the film. “Many physicians are reluctant to publicly identify as abortion providers, even those who do provide this service to patients in their practices, because they are fearful of anti-abortionist campaigns to demonize providers and to criminalize abortion,” she said. Because of this, she only heard back from a handful.
The brave cohort includes Dr. Sarah Prager, a UW School of Medicine professor who heads up the Division of Family Planning in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Dr. Rebecca Taub, a Family Planning fellow, also appears on screen performing an abortion.
“When Jan approached me to do this film, I really liked that one of the main foci was on training abortion providers,” said Prager. “I had such amazing mentors and I take a lot of pleasure in taking on that responsibility for others now — students, residents and fellows. I think this film highlights how we are really supportive of one another in the abortion community and also how passing on what we know is so important. We have to make sure that not just now, but women in the future, will have access to abortion care.”
Prager added, “Our department is very committed to training OB/GYNs to provide full-spectrum reproductive healthcare, including abortion. And that’s why we offer a two-year fellowship every year in Family Planning.”
The film also includes footage from a UW Medical Students for Choice event. In one scene, a student is cautioned against stereotyping rural areas as more conservative and volatile toward abortion practice. Haaken said, “It was important for me to include the point in that scene about protesting as a constitutionally protected activity and not scary in itself. The doctors featured in the film are protective of their patients who face these disturbing signs as they enter the clinics. But I also came to see in the responses of these providers a broader lesson in resistance to this kind of fear-based intimidation. By focusing on people who do this work, rather than women who access abortion, I was interested in telling a story of how people walk the gauntlet on a daily basis and continue to do their jobs.”
In another scene at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), Dr. Leo Han honestly shares with medical trainees his first experiences of performing abortions in later stages of fetal development. It’s a disclosure that is frank, raw and real.
The film positions our region as a leader in the movement for abortion rights. However, Haaken cautions even widely pro-choice areas in the film.
“While there are a lot of abortion providers in the Seattle area, dynamics within institutional medicine, like the affiliation of Swedish and Providence, have made access to hospital care for termination of pregnancy much more difficult,” Haaken said. “Many people don’t realize that 45 percent of the hospital beds in Washington state are under the control of the Catholic Bishops’ directives — which disallow termination of even non-viable pregnancies.”
This is why Haaken believes large public institutions like UW Medicine have a certain security in numbers, and thus a freedom to lead in questions of healthcare. “Faculty, staff and students can provide a form of sanctuary as defenders of vulnerable groups and vulnerable practices,” she said. “I found Dr. Sarah Prager, an academic and practicing physician, because she was part of a national movement within medicine arguing for conscientious provision of abortion care.”
For her part, Haaken aims to offer “a scholarly tone to the work — not a cheap shot, but something that shows the complexity of the issues.”
Abortion is indeed complex, agrees Judith Arcana, a Portland writer who appears in the film as part of the Jane Collective, a pre-Roe abortion underground in Chicago. In the early 1970s, abortion was illegal across the U.S. but still sought after. “Examining and understanding that complexity is part of what allows us to make the decisions we need to make in our lives. Whatever the decision is, we have to have the full amount of information and this film will give a lot of that.”
“Access to abortion care depends on a larger network of health care services and ethical commitments on the part of the medical community—and on the part of the larger community. While we may no longer have the back-alley abortions of the past, this area of healthcare remains very much in the ‘back halls’ of the culture,” said Haaken. “Through the film, I wanted to bring some visual power to this idea of abortion as part of everyday life and part of everyday healthcare.”
For her success in this effort, I give the film an A rating.
“Our Bodies Our Doctors” won the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary at its global premiere in Portland. SIFF will screen the film on May 30 (SIFF Cinema Uptown) with an encore screening June 1 (AMC Pacific Place).
Documentary website: www.ourbodiesourdoctors.com
Annie Kuo joined UW Medicine as director of public relations in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in March 2019.