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photo:Alicia Solsman

Speak Out
By Shawn Stone

When Penny Lane asked women to talk about their experiences for her film The Abortion Diaries, their responses challenged her preconceptions—and they just might change yours, too

Filmmaker Penny Lane was an undergraduate when she found herself pregnant in 2001.

“I didn’t have an image of what happens next. . . . How a ‘normal’ person could have an abortion,” Lane says. “I didn’t know how common it was . . . . I thought, ‘This happens, but it doesn’t happen to me.’ ”

Doing some research, Lane was surprised to discover that only around 4 percent of abortions resulted from a “desperate situation,” namely, instances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. The other 96 percent, she discovered to her surprise, were “elective,” chosen for a myriad of reasons. This didn’t jibe with the way she had grown up thinking about abortion; Lane had always thought, “If you weren’t in a desperate situation, you would have the baby.”

But she did have an abortion. Thinking back on that time, Lane doesn’t remember ever having a conversation about abortion with her peers; she didn’t know anyone who had even had the procedure. And it’s not like she came from a restrictive background: Lane is a Vassar graduate with a feminist mom, and she grew up in a liberal environment. Of course, it turned out that she did know women who had abortions. It’s just that the silence was deafening.

Lane wanted to break that silence, and let women tell their own stories. She first got the idea to make what became The Abortion Diaries—which features 12 women from various classes, races and ages talking about their abortions—during her own experience. It took a few years to happen because, one, she had a fear of failure, and, two, Lane was concerned it would “hurt the cause.”

Hurt the cause?

Some pro-choice supporters warned her that “you’re really opening up a can of worms” by talking about the whys and wherefores of real women and real abortions. This fear complements a not-uncommon pro-choice argument that Lane summarizes as “abortion is bad, but illegal abortion is really bad.” (Think of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s oft-repeated mantra that abortion should be “legal and rare.”)

Lane has a good point: Allowing, upfront, that “abortion is bad” does seem an odd way to make a case for it. And she came to believe that speaking out would be a positive experience. She’d been working on some indie film shoots—of “really terrible” films—when she decided that she had to try.

“The day I made the decision,” she says, “I sent out the call for interviews by e-mail.”

While she doesn’t have a copy of her original message, she remembers that it was about a paragraph long: “I wrote that I had an abortion, and was really pissed off” that she had never encountered positive or, at least nonjudgmental stories of how women had “come to terms with their abortions.”

The response was immediate. Lane says she received over 100 e-mails right away: “Most [of the women] didn’t want to be in the movie, but they wanted to share their stories.”

The Abortion Diaries was made, like most completely independent projects, under severe budget restraints. It was shot in seven days in locations from New York to Virginia and back, with a Sony PD-150 digital video camera. Lane did 20 interviews; a dozen ended up in the 30-minute film.

“I edited it for over a year.”

The result is impressive. The 12 women in the film share 12 different experiences of abortion. Some stories have elements of comedy, like the woman confronted by her punk partner with his dream of Jesus touching her belly and a daughter springing out (she was not persuaded by his vision). Some are tragic. Some of the women have had only had one abortion; some have had multiple procedures. The interesting thing is, all of them prove compelling and sympathetic.

The filmmaker was surprised by her own prejudices. Her immediate reaction to the thought of a woman having three abortions was negative; when she interviewed just such a woman for the film, her attitude was completely turned around. (Everyone, as Jean Renoir famously said, has their reasons.)

“You’re a whore and you de - serve to die.”

While Lane has received overwhelmingly positive feedback through her Web site (www.theabortiondiaries.com)—mostly in the form of positive e-mails—there have been a few very nasty messages: “All [have] been from men, and all use the word ‘whore.’ ”

There have been a couple of similar “critiques” of the women in The Abortion Diaries floating around the blogosphere. The vehemence and sexual nature of the attacks are shocking but, Lane acknowledges, telling: “I had sex. That is the problem.”

It’s not hard to connect the dots between a certain wing of the anti-choice movement and a certain wing of the anti-sex-education crowd. The problem for them is sex itself. If you’re not married, you shouldn’t be having sex. There is nothing to be done, Lane observes, to please this particular stripe of pro-lifer; whether a woman has a baby (and becomes a single mom), or has the baby and gives it up for adoption, or has an abortion, the verdict is the same. She’s a “whore.”

As noted, however, this isn’t the common reaction. The positive responses to The Abortion Diaries have been, Lane smiles, like “wind in my sails.”

“I get a ‘Holy shit, thank you for doing this’ message every day,” she adds. “I’m not the only one who sees this as worthwhile. I see this as a movement that’s gaining momentum.”

Indeed. As one writer pointed out online, The Abortion Diaries is “thematically linked with the recent ‘I’m Not Sorry’ movement among pro-choice feminists—young women who don’t feel ashamed or remorseful about their abortions.”

And the film is getting more and more attention. She’s sold “hundreds of copies” of the DVD, admitting that “I can’t really keep up with it.”

Lane, who graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s iEar program in December, is now working with a producer (she can’t name names, yet) on raising the money to “extend” the film. She wants to increase the geographic diversity of the women interviewed, to get a more representative picture of abortion in America.

“When I was 23, I had no idea how lucky I was to live in New York state—Poughkeepsie in particular,” she says. There was a clinic within walking distance of where she lived; for many American women, an abortion provider is hundreds of miles away. Lane’s heard “hundreds of stories” about the difficult logistics of actually getting an abortion.

“The reality of abortion in America today,” she notes, “is that, for most people, it’s completely unavailable.”

As of this writing, 35 showings of The Abortion Diaries are scheduled for the two-week period coinciding with the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade (Jan. 22, 1973). Lane will be traveling to the Pacific Northwest to make personal appearances at screenings in Washington (Tacoma, Bellingham, Seattle, Olympia) and Oregon (Portland); other screenings will be held from Utica and Glens Falls to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to Santa Barbara, Calif. and Oakland. (A detailed schedule is available on her Web site.) The film debuted at Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media in October 2005, and had a recent screening at Albany’s Free School; the next screenings in New York state are in Greenwich (Feb. 7), Poughkeepsie (Feb. 21) and Kingston (March 5). (Check out the aforementioned Web site for locations and times.)

Lane decided to “waive the screening fee for this two-week period,” adding: “I just want people to see it.”

sstone@metroland.net


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