A photo of the actress Sidney Flanigan from a still of the film "Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always"

Angal Field/Focus Features

Skirting The Issue

Angal Field/Focus Features

Normalizing Abortion In Entertainment Is Long Overdue

Abortion has been legal for 47 years, but films and TV habitually skirt the issue. Two new projects propose a new subgenre: the abortion road trip.

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A girl walks into an abortion clinic…

Okay, that’s never going to be the start of a joke. But the subject is not often depicted realistically in popular entertainment, either. Often, the girl or woman intent on terminating her pregnancy will have a sudden change of heart (Juno, Sex and the City, Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place). Or there will be a convenient miscarriage (Party of Five, Citizen Ruth) or an ectopic pregnancy (Grey’s Anatomy). Or maybe she’ll belatedly get her period, because the pregnancy was a false alarm (Girls). She might not even make it to the clinic at all (getting kidnapped on the way, as in Sons of Anarchy). Or upon leaving the clinic, she could be killed by a psychopath (Black Christmas, Sacrifice) or die in a car crash (Jack & Bobby). Even if she escapes all these unhappy things, she’s likely to be traumatized. In fact, her doctor may be traumatized, too (Everwood).

“There is a moment in our book where a character thinks she’s miscarried and she’s excited about it,” says Unpregnant co-author and screenwriter Ted Caplan. “She hasn’t miscarried, though – and that is purposely a reference to this trope. We’re subverting that trope.”

The best stories in the unwanted-pregnancy tradition have always been period pieces set in times when and places where abortion was illegal: Dirty Dancing, Cider House Rules, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (which takes place in Romania during Nicolae Ceausescu’s reign). It has always been easier to demonstrate the need for safe and legal abortion in period narratives, in which characters might die without one, and in supernatural stories where the fetus is obviously alien or evil (Prometheus, The Magicians). But in post-Roe v. Wade present-day, when abortion is legal, TV and film characters play it safe. They often have a hard time choosing abortion—they don’t want a child until suddenly they do.

Of the exceptions to the usual rules, Caplan says, “I give Fast Times at Ridgemont High a gold star for presenting abortion as an option. But not that many movies dealt with it directly. And if they did, it was, ‘Will she? Won’t she?’ That’s always the focus.”

“It was always a fraught decision that opened the doors to people proposing waiting laws,” says Caplan’s Unpregnant co-author and -screenwriter Jenni Hendriks. “They’d be like, ‘See? This is a big decision. Wait three days.’”

As more legal barriers come into play, we’re seeing a culture shift — characters spend less time waffling about an abortion, unable to even say the word (“schmaschmortion” was the term used in Knocked Up) and more time making a clear and unequivocal choice to go to the nearest clinic. (“Let’s go get the abobo,” as they said on You’re the Worst.) The Unpregnant authors joke that they belong to a new genre – the abortion road trip. “Abortion Road Trip” also happens to be the title of a recent play. And a new movie along those lines is now available as a digital release (after being forced out of theaters by the coronavirus pandemic): the Sundance hit Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quiet art film, while Unpregnant is a darkly comedic YA novel (now on its way to HBO Max). However, the two projects share some narrative DNA. Both focus on female friendship — specifically, the ride-or-die pal who becomes your abortion buddy, since someone needs to accompany you. And both stories are quite timely, exploring the effects of shifting state-by-state abortion laws. (As more and more states use coronavirus as an excuse to restrict access to abortion — Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Ohio, Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, West Virginia, the list keeps growing — the journey itself becomes ever more of a hurdle.)

“It was really my hope to put the audience in the shoes of a young woman who is encountering these structural obstacles that are preventing her from getting her basic reproductive rights,” says Never Rarely writer/director Eliza Hittman. “Women are now taking these long, expensive, distressing journeys to access reproductive care, and in some ways, they’re secret journeys.”

“At first, we wanted to shine a light on something that people weren’t talking about,” Caplan says. “Now it feels like a scream, an expression of frustration, a cathartic expression.”

For creators, these new narratives are rooted in the news.

Eight years ago, indie filmmaker Eliza Hittman read an article about Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist living in Ireland who was denied a lifesaving abortion. Halappanavar died from septic miscarriage, and her death led to the 2018 repeal of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment prohibiting abortion. Intrigued by this story, Hittman started learning more about the journeys that Irish women had to take to seek abortions in England (“Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora,” an oral history by Ann Rossiter, was particularly instructive). But deciding it would be easier to make a film stateside, she also began thinking about the rural American women who had to travel to urban areas for abortion access. However, she struggled to pitch a movie on this subject during the Obama years, and then became pregnant herself and shelved the idea. But then Donald Trump became president, and Hittman found herself reinvigorated by the Women’s March. Circling back to her subject, she completed the screenplay in late 2018.

Around the same time Hittman was learning about Savita Halappanavar, Jenni Hendriks heard a disturbing NPR report while stuck in L.A. traffic one day. The news was that a new restriction was being passed in South Dakota, where surgical abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother and only one clinic provided the service. Now, a 72-hour waiting period was being added. (Planned Parenthood reps argued that this was too much, given that women were already driving great distances to the clinic, and the restriction posed logistical and financial hardships). “It got me thinking,” Hendriks says. “First of all, ‘That’s terrible.’ And then, ‘Who would you take on that journey?’” When she got home, she texted Caplan, her writing partner. “I know what our next project is,” she said. “An abortion road trip movie.”

Hendriks and Caplan worked on their film script at a Panera Bread outlet, where they possibly bandied around the word “fetus” a little too loudly for the comfort of nearby patrons. (One day, they realized that someone sitting next to them was pitching a pro-life movie, a take on It’s a Wonderful Life, except that this film would be about a baby’s life if a woman didn’t abort.) Hendriks was pregnant at the time, and she and Caplan finished their first draft just in time for Hendriks to give birth. They initially found no takers for it, but Trump’s election made the project viable again. So the partners started turning the story into a YA book for HarperTEEN, which they finished in mid-2018. Then they scored a film deal and turned out a script based on the book. The HBO Max adaptation is now in post-production.

“Our book is titled Unpregnant,” Caplan says, “and you would have thought that we’d get some pushback with that title. But what was seen in the past as a hindrance is now a selling point. This is what they were looking for, a way to tell the story that was entertaining, timely, and political.” Says Hendriks, “We’re still shocked that they let us do this and show it as an empowering choice.”

Before the current pandemic, there were 151 urban areas in the U.S. with no accessible abortion clinics within a one-hour round-trip drive, and four urban areas with no accessible clinics within an eight-hour round-trip drive. And not all clinics were full-service. Some required parental consent. Some only accepted patients who were 10 to 12 weeks pregnant or less. Others required two appointments (and/or a counseling session), spaced days apart – which necessitated multiple trips or multi-day stays out of state). For minors, and for those further along in their pregnancies, a longer journey was required to reach the nearest clinic. New Mexico, where Veronica and Bailey in Unpregnant travel from Missouri, and New York, the destination of Pennsylvania residents Autumn and Skylar in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, are among the few states that don’t require parental consent or parental notification. (The reason Hittman chose New York for Autumn’s destination? New York Magazine once declared the city the “abortion capital” of America.)

“You look at Fast Times, and you could just go to the clinic,” says Hendriks. “That is not the reality for a lot of people today — not with 37 states having parental consent laws. I think the average distance people have to drive now is 100 miles, to get the care they need.”

Travel during the COVID-19 crisis has made things even more problematic. If Autumn, the lead character in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, had to make her trip now, Hittman says, “she would be even more up a tree. I think what’s happening in Texas, Ohio, and all these other states is really cruel. Obviously people still have sex in the middle of a global pandemic, so they still need access to birth control and STI testing and safe and legal abortion. It’s unfortunate that people are using the global pandemic to play political games with people’s lives.”

In 2018, Hendriks and Ted took the Unpregnant road trip themselves, following the thousand-mile route Veronica and Bailey would travel from Columbia, Missouri, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to add more authenticity to the script. “There’s only so much you can get from Google maps,” Caplan says. The two writing partners knocked back Slurpees (half blue raspberry, half cherry, with a splash of Coke), dodged lightning storms, and argued over their driving soundtrack. (He wanted Elliott Smith, she wanted Hamilton.) And over the course of three days, they figured out the landscape and exact distances the characters would have to drive.

Hittman, who is based in New York, also made a research expedition, taking a Greyhound bus to and from towns like Shamokin in rural Pennsylvania, visiting pregnancy centers and clinics run by Planned Parenthood and Choices to talk to social workers and actually take pregnancy tests. She ended up filming at Planned Parenthood branches in New York City, upstate New York, and Pennsylvania, and one of the social workers she met became both a consultant on the film and an actor in it (she played an abortion counselor). Some crisis pregnancy centers, she learned, had an anti-choice agenda, steering pregnant women towards adoption or parenthood. Accordingly, in Hittman’s film, we see Autumn being shown the 1991 pro-life video Hard Truth (featuring Gregg Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform) in the faith-based pregnancy center.

“That’s a real video!” Hittman says with a laugh. “It’s funny, I was talking to somebody at one of our screenings and they said they were shown that film at their Catholic high school. So it’s a sad truth that Hard Truth is still in use across the country as an attempt to scare women from considering abortion.”

As Never Rarely Sometimes Always demonstrates, one of the dangers at crisis pregnancy clinics is that they are often run by laymen, not licensed or medically-trained staff, and they can’t be said to offer quality medical care and testing. In the movie, when Autumn goes to the crisis clinic, she’s told that her pregnancy is at the 10-week point. But she soon discovers that the sonogram reading was inaccurate, and that she’s actually at 12-weeks — which limited her options even further. “They are known to mislead people about the terms of their pregnancies,” Hittman says. “I leave what happens to Autumn intentionally ambiguous, but it’s something that happens at those places all the time.”

Of course, not all Catholics or Christians are anti-choice. Hendriks, who came from a religious family, began to lean toward a pro-choice point of view when she was in high school. Sitting in a church parking lot after attending mass with her mother and father one day, she listened to them discussing parental consent laws in California and acknowledging how dangerous they could be for girls with abusive parents. Hendriks’ mother then said that she hoped that her daughter would be able to come to them if she needed an abortion. “That was probably the point where I started thinking more critically about what the church was telling me,” Hendriks says. “So, thanks, Mom!” In Unpregnant, the teen protagonist Veronica also belongs to a religious family – but in this case, it complicates her ability to get parental consent for an abortion.

Unpregnant and Never Rarely Sometimes Always aren’t only about abortion. By changing the dynamics of the usual narrative, these stories transcend the usual abortion tropes to become stories about strength and solidarity.

“It’s universal,” Hendriks says. “Not everybody is going to have an abortion, but this is a journey that many people are going to take.”

“Being open about your experiences,” Caplan says, “is the best way to make better decisions. If girls never hear anyone talk about it, they might not feel it’s an option for them.”

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