Trapped Again

Trapped, a documentary exposing the reality behind TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws, gives viewers a glimpse into how anti-abortion policies that place extraneous requirements on clinics and providers play a role in shutting down women’s health organizations and chip away at safe, legal abortion access.

As part of the post-Roe v. Wade generation, I have always lived in a country where access to an abortion was a constitutionally protected right, but that can change. And it is changing. Legislators in many states have put TRAP laws in place, and later this month the Supreme Court will issue a ruling in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt that could uphold their constitutionality. Whole Women’s Health, a Texas abortion provider, is challenging two abortion restrictions that were enacted as part of House Bill 2 (HB2). The impact of HB2 in Texas was dramatic: Before the passage of HB2, Texas had 40 clinics providing abortion services; today, there are only 19, and if the Supreme Court upholds HB2 that number could shrink to 10. Women in some parts of Texas are beginning to discover what life was like before Roe v. Wade, and TRAP laws in other states are having the same impact.

Trapped reveals in grim detail how TRAP laws in Texas and Alabama are restricting the reproductive rights of women in those two states. Both states have laws in place currently that require clinics, including those that only provide medication abortion, to be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers and require that doctors providing abortion services have admitting privileges at a local hospital. The documentary, which shadows abortion providers working to keep their clinics open, sheds light on the true human impact of TRAP laws—and the ways in which they’re rolling back progress in the fight for reproductive rights.

To be clear, these restrictions are not medically needed. They were enacted for the sole purpose of restricting a woman’s access to abortion services. Requiring clinics to be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers means they will need to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their current facility or build a new clinic. In Texas, the ambulatory surgical center requirements are spelled out in minute detail: 10 pages of state law and 117 pages of administrative requirements. They specify, for example, that the hallways must be eight feet wide. Trapped highlights some of the other upgrades that Whole Women’s Health was required to undertake, including: constructing staff lockers, stocking a pharmacy with drugs they don’t use and which must be replaced when they expire and equipping every bed in pre- and post-op with oxygen and suction equipment that is not medically required. These requirements add up, both in cost and energy expended to keep a clinic operating.

TRAP laws requiring admitting privileges force providers to form formal relationships with a local hospital, which can often be complex and is also medically unnecessary. Many hospitals will refuse to grant privileges to abortion providers because they don’t want to be picketed by anti-abortion protesters, and some, as a condition of granting admitting privileges, will require doctors to refer a minimum number of patients to the hospital every year—a requirement that many doctors providing abortion services would not be able to meet. “Given that abortion at all stages is an extremely safe procedure,”Dr. Willie Parker explains in Trapped, “even if I were able to secure hospital admitting privileges I would not be able to admit enough people to keep the privileges that I was able to secure.”

Trapped gives the viewer ‘front row’ insights on how TRAP laws operate to deny women their reproductive rights by forcing many clinics to close. The Supreme Court will soon decide if these TRAP regulations present an undue burden on the abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade. If the Texas restrictions are upheld by the Supreme Court, copycat TRAP laws in other states will be constitutionally protected and many state legislatures will seek to enact even tougher restrictions. And depending on what happens with future Supreme Court nominations, an adverse Supreme Court decision on TRAP laws could be the beginning of the end for Roe v. Wade protections. Women could be “trapped” again by a new wave of anti-abortion laws.

“The other clinics in Alabama are just a heartbeat away from the position I’m in today,”Gloria Gray, owner of the West Alabama Women’s Center, warns in Trapped. “Closing the clinics is not going to stop abortions. Women are going to have abortions; it’s just that they are not going to be safe and legal.”

Trapped is airing tonight at 10 PM EST on PBS.



Jennie Wetter is the Director of Public Policy at the Population Institute.