This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls.
As abortion rights have rapidly deteriorated in recent years, reproductive health advocates and activist clinicians across the U.S. have been working hard to increase abortion pill access in all 50 states, even states banning abortion. These advocates are the focus of a new film Plan C that premiered on Jan. 23 at Sundance Film Festival.
“Once Roe fell, there was an urgency to get the film done and get it out there,” said director and producer of Plan C, award-winning filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos, who started working on the film in 2019. “The work of these intrepid activists must be known.”
The film focuses on the organization Plan C, which maintains a research-driven directory on their website on how find abortion pills online, with or without telehealth support, and obtain them by mail in all 50 states. Plan C orders abortion pills from online pharmacies based outside the country, tests the medication and lists pharmacies sending quality medication with cost and shipping time. The website also has information about how to use abortion pills and provides referrals to medical and legal hotlines for advice and support.
The discrepancy between what I knew was possible and what was happening here in the U.S. motivated me to found Plan C.Francine Coeytaux
Abortion pills include two FDA-approved medications: mifepristone, which blocks the pregnancy-sustaining hormone progesterone, and misoprostol, which causes contractions to expel the contents of the uterus. This combination of medications used in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is safe, effective and easy to self-administer. Millions of people around the world living in nations banning abortion safely self-manage their abortions using these pills each year.
Plan C’s co-founder Francine Coeytaux was inspired to create Plan C when she was in Ethiopia in 2014 conducting research on treating postnatal hemorrhage with misoprostol. While there, Coeytaux went into a pharmacy and saw they were selling combination packs of mifepristone and misoprostol over the counter for $5 a package. In the U.S. at the time, abortion pills were available only from certified doctors, who usually charged between $500 and $700 and required in-person appointments.
“The discrepancy between what I knew was possible and what was happening here in the U.S. motivated me to found Plan C,” said Coeytaux during a panel discussion at Sundance.
Before founding Plan C, Coeytaux and her co-founder Elisa Wells worked on making the emergency contraceptive Plan B available over the counter. Then they turned to abortion pills, which they called Plan C. Plan B prevents pregnancy, whereas Plan C ends a pregnancy.
In addition to sharing information about abortion pills, Plan C recruits healthcare providers to offer telemedicine abortion care with pills—several of whom are in the film. Some offer services from within the U.S., such as Dr. Julie Amaon of Just the Pill, Dr. Razel Ramen of Pills by Post and midwife Christie Pitney of Forward Midwifery. The film also features the work of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts based in Austria, who created Aid Access to provide telehealth abortion services to people in all 50 states.
“We have so much more access to abortion pills today than we did in 2014,” said Coeytaux, whose ultimate goal is over-the-counter access. “We can truly say to anybody no matter what state you live in, you can get abortion pills mailed to you. It’s still not over the counter. It’s still not in pharmacies. It’s still not $5. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’re a hell of a lot closer. Many people now know there are pills for abortion and that they are safe and effective. We’ve made a huge amount of progress so far.”
The film shows the harm that abortion restrictions are causing people and the possibility of a different solution that hasn’t been well known in the past—which is telehealth and abortion pills.Elisa Wells
In addition to Plan C advocates and clinicians, the film features advocates from several other organizations supporting people using abortion pills, including Dr. Linda Prine of the Miscarriage and Abortion Hotline, providing free and confidential consultations with medical professionals, and lawyer Farah Diaz-Tello of the Repro Legal Hotline, providing legal support to people seeking abortion pills who live in restrictive states.
The film also includes several interviews with people whose identities are protected, including two people who ordered pills in states with abortion bans and someone from a U.S.-based harm reduction organization that mails pills to people in states with bans.
“The film did a brilliant job of telling the stories of people who need abortions and the efforts of activists and providers trying to meet that need,” said Plan C co-director Elisa Wells. “The film shows the harm that abortion restrictions are causing people and the possibility of a different solution that hasn’t been well known in the past, which is telehealth and abortion pills.”
While the world has focused on the Supreme Court’s dismantling of constitutional abortion rights over the last several years, these activists were working hard behind the scenes to prepare for a post-Roe future by empowering people to access abortion pills no matter where they live or what they could pay.
“The film tells stories of new models of care, and new and alternate routes of access,” said Amy Merrill, Plan C co-founder and digital director. “We hope the film raises widespread awareness about this very real option and generates new hope, creativity and momentum.”
The film made clear the U.S. is increasingly divided between abortion haves and have-nots, where people in blue states have increasing options to obtain private, convenient and affordable telehealth abortion, while people in red states face increasing barriers and legal risks to obtaining this care. All the while, a tight network of committed reproductive health advocates and a growing network of organizations are fighting to create access for people no matter where they live.
“What we want people to know with this film is that abortion pills are available in all 50 states by mail,” said Elisa Wells, Plan C co-founder and co-director. “We know that part of the narrative is that you can travel to a different state to get care, but you don’t need to do that. You can get access to these safe and effective pills by mail in all 50 states. We now need to work on policy to ensure that there’s no risk of criminalization.”
At its Sundance premiere, Plan C elicited three standing ovations from audience members, with people laughing and cheering but also squirming uncomfortably in their seats as they contemplated the struggles people are encountering trying to access abortion pills post-Roe.
“We hope the film reminds people that they don’t have to accept reality as it is now,” said Merrill. “Together we can stand up to bullying, use the digital tools in our pockets to spread information, and build new systems that center the individual, their decisions and their rights.”
PLAN C was one of 12 films to receive a 2022 Critical Issues Fund grant from Chicken & Egg Pictures for projects exploring pressing issues of the moment that have a material impact on communities.
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