‘We Won’t Be Bullied’: Abortion Pill Website Fights Texas Censorship
Tracy Droz Tragos’ documentary Plan C, now screening at SXSW, follows the ongoing fight to expand access to abortion medication.
This is part of our coverage of South by South West (SXSW) 2023.
Before the opening shot in Tracy Droz Tragos’ documentary Plan C comes this brief explanation: “Voices, faces, names, and locations of some participants in this film are obscured to protect them from the risk of prosecution and violence.” The film follows the activists behind the website Plan C, an online resource that provides information on how to access abortion medication in all 50 states (yes, even Texas).
The film features Francine Coeytaux, co-founder and co-director of Plan C, who declares: “All we do is share information.” But that information is so powerful that the site is being targeted by Texas legislators, who recently filed a bill attempting to restrict access to the site.
In her film, Droz Tragos captures many moments of incredible upheaval within the reproductive rights movement pre and post-Roe v. Wade. Although she’s covering recent events, it’s still devastating to see swift backslides. She takes us through the pandemic, when COVID-19 emboldened conservative state executives like Governor Greg Abbott to restrict “nonessential” surgeries including abortion, and covers brief moments of traction, like when the FDA set new guidelines allowing abortion pills to be delivered by mail in July 2020.
There are times in the film that feel optimistic—we see the mobile clinic, Just the Pill, open up shop and begin distributing abortion pills to grateful patients on the borders of abortion-restricted states. But as a viewer, it’s hard not to feel dread as events catch up to the present: Ruth Bader Ginsberg dies, Amy Coney Barrett is sworn in. Texas passes SB 8. And finally, the fall of Roe. The future of access to abortion medication remains contested. This week, a federal judge in Texas is considering a lawsuit put forward by anti-abortion groups challenging the FDA approval of one abortion medication, mifepristone.
The Texas Observer spoke to director Tracy Droz Tragos and Plan C co-founder Amy Merrill about the film and the ongoing fight for abortion access.
Tracy, why was it important for you to cover this side of the movement, to focus on abortion providers and their families?
Droz Tragos: I certainly felt an urgency to look at what was happening around abortion access. When [Justice Brett] Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2018, I felt like Roe really may be overturned someday. I wanted to know what folks were doing. Then I met Francine and Amy and the folks behind Plan C, the organization, and heard about their efforts to get abortion medication into the hands of folks through online provisioning and through the mail. Before COVID, it seemed incredibly disruptive, but made a lot of sense. Then when COVID hit, I got to meet the doctors, providers, midwives, and nurses who were doing this work, who were saying “Okay, this is a public health emergency and we need to care for our patients. We need to provide this life saving medication for people. And we’re going to do it.”
I wanted to honor the providers as people. They’re not anti-family. They’re about taking care of people and meeting people where they need to be met. I think it’s very, very important to show that these providers are brave, but very much regular people living their lives with families and loved ones and dogs. I’m a big dog person. So I enjoyed getting the dogs in there, too.
Amy, give us a status update on what’s happening at Plan C. As I’m sure you know, Texas Representative Steve Toth recently filed a bill specifically targeting your website in an effort to prevent Texans from accessing the information you provide. How are you navigating these targeted attacks?
Merrill: We’re an information campaign, so we share information about abortion, pill access, and risks for self-managed abortion across the country. The most recent bill in Texas not only names Plan C, but also a handful of other telehealth providers and trusted informational websites. A law that would prevent people from sharing information about abortion access is a clear violation of First Amendment rights. We won’t be bullied by legislators who are trying to pass these illegitimate and frankly unconstitutional laws. We will watch it closely, but we will continue to provide this evidence-based information on our website. It’s essential, especially in a place like Texas where people have so few other options.
People here in Texas are concerned about digital security when accessing a site like yours. What can you say about those concerns?
Merrill: These days, it’s absolutely part of the equation for someone to understand not only what resources are out there for their medical questions, for their legal concerns, but also for their digital privacy concerns. On our website, we include a few recommendations at the top on how to stay safe. And we don’t collect identifiable information. We take many steps to be sure that our site is secure, and then we also try to point folks toward resources that will help inform them and guide them toward being safe online, recommendations from organizations like Digital Defense Fund and EFF.
There is a line in the film: “What’s legal and what’s not has to be tested.” It made me think about where we are here in Texas. Although “elective abortion” is banned, there is a vague carve out that allows doctors to provide medically necessary abortions, but the penalties for providers are high enough—up to life in prison—that even though providers want to provide care, they are very resistant to test those boundaries. Doctors know that if they don’t do anything, they’ll be safe from prosecution. What are your thoughts about this dynamic?
Droz Tragos: There is this chilling effect and people are scared, rightly so. Everyone must do that risk calculation about what they can do to meet this emergency right now. And it’s not to judge folks who say, “I can’t do this.” There are some protections—not very many yet—for folks outside of Texas who are prescribing to Texas. And so even though you don’t want to seem like an outsider swooping in to save the day, people can do more with less risk outside of Texas to bring aid and medication to Texas. There are workarounds that people can take within the scope of that risk, things like mail forwarding. It’s calculated and we should use all the lanes we can. In one lane, there’s the Plan C organization, publicly sharing information on the website, while in another, people might have to be more discreet within Texas.
But, you know, it’s a time for civil disobedience. And some of the doctors in the film are practicing what they call conscientious provisioning and prescribing these pills, knowing that there is some risk, although certainly not as much risk as doctors within Texas.
I would also make the point that the medication is safe and effective and has been approved by the FDA for 20 years. The World Health Organization lists it as an essential medication. It’s used around the world. So it’s medically safe and effective, but legally risky depending on where you live and what your zip code is. It boggles my mind that you can be on one side of the state border or the other side and have completely different health care.
The reproductive rights movement is a big movement. There are many actors involved. And obviously, not everyone always agrees on strategy, sometimes there’s conflict and disagreement. What did you learn just from observing the movement and these moments of conflict?
Droz Tragos: I think in times of stress, in times of scarcity, in times of real oppression, and as things were getting worse and worse and worse, it felt like people’s stress was rising, people were getting tired, people were not agreeing. There was fighting and there was upset and there was hurt. It’s understandable and it happens, but it’s still hard to see. But I hope during these times that folks can continue on, because it’s going to take everybody, it’s going to take all the people in all the lanes to reach everyone.
The movement must be intergenerational. It takes all kinds: all the older folks who have been doing this for years and years, their work and their knowledge base is important. And the young ones coming up now, their knowledge base is important. People who are within Texas who are most vulnerable, and folks outside.
I would also say that the stakes couldn’t be higher. So, to spend time on things that are divisive is a bit scary. So I hope at the end of the day, there is a coming together instead of a siloing because I think we are stronger together.
Amy, talk us through what advanced provision is, and how it might be useful to folks.
Merrill: The idea of advanced provision is getting abortion pills in advance, to keep on hand just in case. This is something that providers started to do in the last couple of years. It’s my understanding that it’s a common medical practice to prescribe meds before needing them, but they have become more proactive in response to the crisis of abortion access. So even if you’re not in need, you can go online and get pills in advance. If in Texas, you might be getting them through Aid Access or through one of these websites that sells abortion pills and/or through mail forwarding, which is another way that people are accessing these pills from a restricted state. So those are the access points. The idea is to keep pills on hand in case of future need.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.