In 2019, when Tracy Droz Tragos started filming Plan C, her new documentary about a network of activists and medical providers helping Americans access abortion pills—which are approved by the FDA but restricted in some states—she knew some people might see it as a touchy subject. But she didn’t expect she’d have to fight to find a home for the film—or that she’d come up against the same barriers as some of the activists she followed.
“It was not easy to get this out,” Droz Tragos said of the film on a Zoom call this week.
She made the documentary independently, racking up $250,000 worth of debt to do so, she said. And once it was done, some of the largest streamers—Netflix, Hulu, and Max—declined to pick it up, Droz Tragos told me. “Most pushback was, ‘It’s too political,'” she added. (Spokespeople for Netflix, Hulu, and Max didn’t respond to Mother Jones’ requests for comment about why they passed on picking up the documentary—though one of Droz Tragos’s prior documentaries, “Abortion: Stories Women Tell,” is available on Max.)
Plan C tells the story of an organization by the same name, that connects pregnant people to providers who can give them abortion pills. Medication abortion accounts for more than half of all abortions nationwide, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and typically consists of two pills: mifepristone, which blocks the pregnancy hormone progesterone, and misoprostol, which causes the cervix to contract, expelling the pregnancy.
During the pandemic, a federal judge temporarily paused rules that required people go to pharmacies or doctors’ offices to obtain abortion pills, allowing them instead to be shipped by mail and, therefore, much easier to access. Even before that decision arrived, Plan C—which was founded in 2015 by a trio of women, including Francine Coeytaux, who features prominently in the film—had begun mobilizing healthcare providers and activists to mail the pills to people across the country as a recourse to the mounting legal restrictions on abortion. After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that overruled Roe v. Wade last year, Plan C’s work became even more urgent. (The FDA has since made abortion pills permanently available by mail—though a lawsuit challenging the agency’s approval of mifepristone, brought by anti-abortion activists, is currently pending before the Supreme Court.)
Droz Tragos has managed to bring the film to screenings at festivals across the country, including Sundance. And on Tuesday, Plan C became available on demand and on some streaming platforms—including Apple TV, Amazon Prime, and YouTube Movies. Still, Coeytaux said she “absolutely” sees the challenges Droz Tragos faced in making and distributing the film as a microcosm of the Right’s burgeoning bid to limit even the sharing of information about abortion access—especially online.
The Right, Coeytaux said, has become increasingly focused on trying to block “this new model of care—the option of being able to take matters into your own hands by getting access to pills and information” instead of their older approach of trying to shut down clinics.
I sat down with Droz Tragos and Coeytaux this week to discuss how they saw this war on information at work in trying to make and promote the film—and how they see it impacting the future of medication abortion.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
When you were making the film, did you anticipate that it might be difficult to get it out?
Droz Tragos: I knew that it might be tricky, but Francine was someone who kind of bucked me up at times when I thought, “I can’t do it, I can’t go on.” But when the leak of the draft Dobbs decision happened, I felt like, “I’ve got to finish this, even though I’m in debt, and even though to hustle to the finish line is going to be crazy.” I did think when the film got into Sundance, “Ok, we’ll find a home, I’ll at least be able to recoup my debt.” But that didn’t happen.
On the note of these attempts to limit information about medication abortion, is this something that you think we should be anticipating as one of the next fronts in the fight for abortion rights?
Coeytaux: It’s not something that we anticipate—we’re dealing with it. A lot of the Plan C resources are going into digital defense, making sure that we don’t get canceled, that we can continue to have Google ads, that our website isn’t shut down, that all the resources don’t get canceled. The providers who are trying to provide are finding themselves getting their payment platforms canceled.
Droz Tragos: Even for us as the filmmaking team who tried to let folks know that the film was happening, our ads were rejected by Meta because we used the word “abortion,” and so we had to work around there and get a political disclaimer. The time and money and effort to do that sort of thing, it can wear you down, and it does. It gets to be very, very hard for the people doing this work to continue to do this work—and they are, but it’s not easy.
Francine, I know you’ve been working to correct misinformation for a long time. What do you think is the most persistent myth about medication abortion?
Coeytaux: It’s not so much a myth as much as a failure to embrace medication abortion. Finally, the word is getting out that you can safely get mailed pills, and that it is safe to do so, but it’s still shocking to me how few of the reproductive justice groups and the abortion funds will even let clients know that one of the things you can do is go to the Plan C website and find out that you can get your pills mailed to you, that there is this model of care existing. They do not even share that amount of information. Some of them don’t even know to share it, whereas some of them know and have been told, “Don’t share it, you’ll be liable for aiding and abetting if you share that information.”
You said in the film, of Covid, “We really, really believe that if we can take advantage of this time, it will be something that won’t be able to be put back in the bottle.” Looking back now, did Covid bring about the longer-term impacts you’d hoped for?
Coeytaux: For medication abortion in particular, one of the reasons it won’t ever be back in the bottle is that anybody who has heard of somebody who got an abortion this way, or who have had it themselves, that is experience that gets shared.
That number is increasing so fast and exponentially that these providers who are the ones shipping to all states—including to states where that’s the only option now—they are doubling the number of people they’re seeing by the month and literally about to crash financially. It’s not sustainable if we don’t do something to make it easier for them.
Some of the activists and providers featured in the film discuss mailing the pills to patients as a form of civil disobedience. We heard a bit of similar discussion after the Dobbs decision, when dozens of elected prosecutors said they would refuse to prosecute abortion cases—what do we know about how much this is, or isn’t, being used as a tool in the fight for abortion access?
Coeytaux: We’ve been trying to coin the phrase “conscientious provision,” taking back the word conscientious from the Right, who tried to use “conscientious objection” as the reason why pharmacists won’t give you access to emergency contraception. Conscientious provision is what these providers are saying they feel they’re doing. And I want to add to that that they say the position they find themselves in is one in which they’re being torn between wanting to be lawful, adhering to the rules, and obedient, and at the same time being called by their oath as a doctor to serve. So when they get a request from someone who needs their help, and they are being told, “You’re going to break the law if you help this patient,” they’re torn between, “Do I follow the law, or do I follow my oath to help?” It’s a very bad place to be, a very difficult place to be.
Francine, I know you were involved with some of the advocacy that led to the FDA to approve emergency contraception and ultimately make it available over-the-counter. How does the fight to expand medication abortion access now compare to that fight?
Coeytaux: Very similar, unfortunately, and the similarity has to also do with how long the fight is. It took us decades to do something that now we never even think about. The other similarity is how we have to fight it on every single level—on the political, on the economic, on the equity, on the pharmaceutical, on the FDA—every single level has to be fought in order to get to where we want.
The other big, big, big similarity, is the demedicalization. It’s changing the perception that the autonomy of decision-making is not in the hands of either the pharmacist, or the doctor, or the clerk behind the counter—it really needs to be the person who needs it making the decision to use it and getting access to it without having to jump through hoops.
The Supreme Court could soon rule on whether mifepristone remains widely available. What do you see as the role of Plan C in this moment—and in the future, if the court were to revoke access?
Coeytaux: The worst thing that the Supreme Court could do is to say, “Okay, we agree with you, the FDA misstepped when they approved mifepristone. FDA, go back and redo it.” It would be bad for that to happen, no doubt about it, because it’s going to re-stigmatize and sow confusion. That said, it cannot be stopped: These pills, doctors can prescribe them, and they will just have to be off-label if the Supreme Court rules against them. So what’s going to happen? They’ll just push everybody to buy the pills online instead of getting them through the two manufacturers that have been approved by the FDA. It will not stop access.
Editor’s note: One of Plan C’s employees is also a member of the Mother Jones board.