By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Dawn Porter started filming abortion clinic workers in the U.S. South three years ago, she was drawn by their dedicated struggles to stay standing amid an onslaught of laws aimed at restricting abortion access.
Little could she have imagined her documentary film "Trapped" would open in major cities next week, the same week the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on those laws.
The highly anticipated arguments mark the first time the nation's highest court has tackled the controversial issue of abortion in nearly a decade.
"It's like I scheduled it, right?" the director joked from her home in San Francisco.
"Trapped" tells the story of abortion providers in the states of Texas, Mississippi and Alabama, as they wrestle with state regulations, particularly the Texas law known as HB2.
Among other things, HB2 requires abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, and abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
Critics say it is unnecessary, superfluous and expensive, and obstructs access to abortion services.
More than half the clinics in Texas have been forced to close under HB2, leaving less than 20, advocates say, to serve the state of 27 million people, roughly the population of Saudi Arabia.
Regulations in Mississippi have shuttered all but one clinic, advocates say.
Hardest hit have been rural, low-income women for whom the distance, lost wages and expenses for travel, lodging and childcare can makes abortion virtually unattainable, they say.
Deciding if, in fact, HB2 imposes an undue burden is the question before the Supreme Court on March 2.
Abortion has been legal in the United States since 1973. In 1992, the court said an abortion regulation can be legal as long as it does not impose an undue burden on women seeking the procedure.
The last time the Supreme Court took up abortion was 2007, when it upheld a law banning a late-term abortion procedure.
"Trapped," which opens in theaters in New York, Washington and Los Angeles on March 4, takes its name from TRAP laws, an acronym for the many "Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers" introduced by state legislatures across the United States.
Seen as a backdoor way of restricting abortion access, some TRAP laws require women to wait extended lengths of time, make repeat clinic visits or look at ultrasounds and listen to fetal heartbeats.
Some TRAP laws go so far as to govern the size of janitorial closets and the height of the grass outside, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.
"I was fascinated and horrified that something that is a constitutionally protected right could be so intentionally targeted by state legislators," the 49-year-old film director said.
Abortion clinic owners and doctors told Porter that they saw TRAP laws as the greatest threat to their existence.
"This is the most effective strategy for closing abortion clinics," she said.
"Trapped" follows an array of people in the abortion field going about their jobs, such as Marva Sadler, a clinic director who tearfully recounts the story of a 13-year-old pregnant rape victim who missed a cutoff for an abortion due to regulations and their fallout.
Dr. Willie Parker describes in the film his irritation at having, under Mississippi law, to tell patients about a link between abortion and breast cancer. Parker, along with the National Cancer Institute, say there is no such link.
And, with a mischievous smile, Alabama clinic owner June Ayers displays a remote control she uses to aim a lawn sprinkler at a loud protester who regularly inhabits her sidewalk.
Porter was finishing the documentary last fall as she waited to learn whether the Supreme Court would look at the Texas law. She finally had her film's conclusion in November, when the court announced it would hear the case.
"Trapped," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is set to open in about 20 theaters nationwide this spring, the film's publicist said.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)