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Dayna Dion/MEDILL

Reproductive rights advocates gathered at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center Wednesday night for the screening of two new documentary films, highlighting the stigma and fear women face as they seek reproductive health care.

Films show stigma surrounding women and abortion

by Dayna Dion
April 22, 2010

Two new documentary films illustrating the fear, stigma and harassment women face as they seek to exercise their reproductive rights premiered Wednesday night at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center.

In association with Planned Parenthood of Illinois, Kartemquin Films’ Peter Gilbert produced a documentary focused on the security measures Planned Parenthood of Illinois must take to protect women seeking care at its clinics in Chicago and Aurora.

One of those measures includes bringing volunteer clinic escorts on board to protect women from protesters as they approach Planned Parenthood clinics.

“It’s amazing to me that in the United States, where we have so many liberties, or supposed liberties, how careful you have to be, even just about going into a Planned Parenthood clinic, because of the stigma,” said Gilbert, who also produced "Hoop Dreams."

Protests in front of Planned Parenthood clinics in Chicago and Aurora are so prevalent that the number of volunteer clinic escorts has nearly tripled in the past seven years, from 10 in 2003 to 37 today, Planned Parenthood’s Beth Kanter said.

A minimum of three escorts guard Chicago’s Planned Parenthood clinics every Saturday, she said. 

Protesters do everything from shout, “baby killer,” to impersonate medical professionals.  But what many protesters don’t realize, Kanter said, is that Planned Parenthood isn’t just about abortion.

“Women come to us for life saving cancer screenings, breast health care, STD treatment and testing, contraceptive services, pregnancy testing and much more,” she said.  “So, they could be coming in to pick up birth control pills and still have to face a line of protesters.”

Protesters also don’t consider how much angst women must deal with as they decide whether to end an unwanted pregnancy, said Kirsten Sherk of Ipas, a non-profit focused on advancing women’s reproductive rights.

“If people really understood the choices that women went through and the number of factors that enter into a woman’s decision to end a pregnancy, they wouldn’t judge,” she said.

Chicago-based clinic escort Benjamin West, featured in the film, said one of the most difficult aspects of his job is seeing how protesters affect women’s emotional well-being.

“The emotional well-being of a woman is being impacted by someone that has nothing to do with her life,” he said.

Ultimately, protesters prevent women from coming forward and sharing their stories, Gilbert said.

“The protests aren’t massive,” he said, “but they’re enough to make women feel that they can’t tell their stories and, by not telling those stories, you lose the fight in a way.”

Gilbert said he and Planned Parenthood ultimately hope the film they produced will spark healthy dialogue about the challenges Illinois women still face when they seek reproductive care.

The film is “very much in its early stages and we are hoping to develop it further,” Kanter said.

Also, “Not Yet Rain,” a documentary film produced by Emmy winning filmmaker Lisa Russell in association with Ipas, was shown Wednesday night. It highlights the challenges women in Ethiopia face in finding safe abortion care.

Abortion has been legal in Ethiopia since 2006, but changing the law is the first step. Much more needs to be done, Russell said.

West, the clinic escort, agreed it will take more than changing laws to change attitudes about abortion.  He acknowledged the bubble zone ordinance that was passed in Chicago last October, which prevents protestors from coming within eight feet of women outside clinics without permission, has helped.   But he doesn’t think it’s the ultimate answer.

“It’s not a law, it’s not a public ordinance, it’s not something that’s going to be passed by a council of anyone," he said. "What needs to be happening is just a feeling of understanding that a woman’s body is her business.”

Collectively, the films illustrate that the stigma surrounding abortion and the question of how to deal with it is a global issue, said Judith Helzner of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.