Two Lenses on Bodily Autonomy

Reproductive freedom, redux? Not so fast. Although never truly out of sight, the conversation on abortion in the United States was once again brought to the forefront with the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Today, access (or lack thereof) to reproductive health services looks decidedly more like the European sphere, where citizens can travel between countries to receive the services they need if their home countries have outlawed them — and if they have the money. 2024 has brought about the co-occurrence of two documentaries cracking open the European discussion on abortion and bodily autonomy: Elina Psykou’s Stray Bodies, which made its premiere at Thessaloniki International Film Festival, and Karolina Domagalska’s Abortion Dream Team, which just made its premiere at Millennium Docs Against Gravity in Warsaw. These come on the heels of works like Claire Simon’s Our Body, which follows gynecological patients at a hospital in Paris’ 20th arrondissement and premiered at the 2023 Berlinale.

Together, the two work in tandem to craft an investigation — although by no means comprehensive — of the European debate that goes farther than a rehashing. Both are meant to provoke, rather than persuade; Stray Bodies forces viewers to think beyond a black-and-white framing, while Abortion Dream Team riles viewers up on both sides of the aisle. The former takes a broader, more theoretical approach on legal ironies across the continent, and the latter looks at the empirical side of the abortion debate in Poland. Most of all, the films stand to usher in more critical conversation than simply documentation of the state of conditions, however important.

Stray Bodies follows several protagonists on their quests to take — or perhaps reclaim — control of their bodily autonomy: a young Maltese woman who travels to Italy to get an abortion after a one night stand, a Greek woman with ALS who wishes to die “with dignity” by assisted suicide, and a single Italian woman who flies to Greece for IVF. Among other characters whose stories of procreative tourism in Greece and assisted suicide in Switzerland complement these three, the trio of women’s narratives make up what the film frames as a sort of holy trinity of bodily autonomy issues and, more specifically, the manipulation of living.

In a lesser-seen cinematic approach, Psykou frames the abortion debate amidst a larger landscape of discussions on bodily autonomy, biopolitical oversight, religious reason, and the human condition. For instance, the director makes a direct connection between the Immaculate Conception and the contemporary ability to conceive through “non-traditional” means while pointing to the religious denunciation of abortion, enforced by legal measures. She thus implores the viewer to think about abortion in the context of consent and control, not merely the static states of life and death. In a country such as Italy, abortion is legal, while rights to artificial insemination as a single woman are severely restricted. The duality continues with Greece, where IVF is legal, but assisted suicide is not. So-called “life-giving” and “life-taking” are considered through different metrics in each country. In the end, the question remains: who must consent to intervention?

This Pandora’s box is flipped on its head with Abortion Dream Team, which does not shy away from confronting the debate head-on with its brazen storytelling about the eponymous organization. Domagalska’s documentary follows four dramatically overworked staff members who run a hotline for abortion support, arrange abortion kits and day-after pills to be mailed in from the Netherlands, and promote abortion reform in the streets and in the courts. Domagalska’s approach is deeply empirical, examining the life-saving impact of illegal abortion in a country such as Poland, where news is rattled frequently by young mothers who die during childbirth, forced to carry out an ultimately fatal pregnancy. One of its central protagonists and the organization’s cofounder, Justyna, is also charged with and on trial for mailing abortion pills to a woman in an abusive relationship. Thus continues the complex relationship between what the legal system can capture and what ultimately happens outside of the law.

Domagalska adds another dimension to Psykou’s carefully crafted triangle of by looking at the phenomenological angle to such acts, building a complex dichotomy around abortion that becomes most understandable when experienced. In Abortion Dream Team, even young anti-abortion women come to realize its potency when they turn to terminating their pregnancy, turning a life-ending situation (for either mother or child, depending on one’s view) into a life-saving one. The central case study of Poland’s abortion laws and the state’s control of bodies is thus inverted. The Polish legal system asks: How many lives can we save by eliminating abortion? The dream team asks: How many lives can we save by granting abortion?

There are no easy answers. Rather, the two films show just how complex the abortion debate really is, theoretically and in real life, and how it is rooted firmly in larger schema of both historical and contemporary definition, all the way into the entanglements between the overwhelmingly Catholic countries of Italy, Malta, and Poland. Skirting around the law is the thread that connects both works in a world where access and autonomy is defined by mobility rather than a state granting its citizens these rights; restrictions simply mean that people will go elsewhere or complete what they want by other means, if they can. The case study of abortion itself can act as a starting point to examine larger trends in access and autonomy: reasons for migration and the privilege to do so. Similar debates crop up here, too, on life-saving, life-giving, and life-ending. Peeling back the layers, the legal paradoxes unfold, where one act is seemingly life-saving from one perspective, but life-ending for another. Who gets to really decide what is right?

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