How abortion storylines in film and TV have evolved in recent years

During the making of “Obvious Child,” director/screenwriter Gillian Robespierre had a few balls in the air.

Would Jenny Slate’s Donna, a fledgling stand-up comedian with a penchant for potty humor, end up with Jake Lacy’s buttoned-up Max? And would Robespierre find investors who’d trust her to make the movie she wanted as a first-time filmmaker?
Over the several years it took to get “Obvious Child” to theaters, though, one pivotal point was never in doubt: The film’s protagonist was going to have an abortion, free of shame and regret.
    “Obvious Child” was one of the first films — and a comedy, at that — to depict an abortion in a way that wasn’t traumatic or life-upending. Slate’s protagonist gets pregnant, decides to have an abortion and emerges a stronger comedian, fart jokes intact. The procedure doesn’t destroy her life, and it isn’t meaningless either. It just is.
      “The challenge wasn’t to make a funny movie about abortion, but it was to make a movie that was romantic and funny and dealt with an unplanned pregnancy with an abortion without shame,” Robespierre told CNN.
        Since “Obvious Child” premiered in 2014, abortion storylines have grown more numerous and nuanced, reflective of the breadth of patients’ experiences. The decision to have an abortion sets the plot in motion in celebrated films like Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” Characters choose to end pregnancies in pivotal episodes of streaming series like “Sex Education,” “Bojack Horseman” and “Dear White People” and network TV staples like “Station 19” and “Jane the Virgin.”
        All of those series and films depict abortion differently. They vary in tone; characters’ motivations are unique. There is no one “right” way to tell an abortion story. But seeing them onscreen can humanize the issue that’s become wildly divisive, said Steph Herold, a research analyst at Abortion Onscreen, a project at the University of California San Francisco that tracks and studies abortion storylines in media.
          In a pivotal episode of Netflix's "Dear White People," college student Coco (center, played by Antoinette Robertson) decides to end her pregnancy, a choice her friends support.

          “Seeing characters have abortions on television [or in film] may be the first time someone sees abortion as a personal issue, not just a political issue,” Herold said.
          As the future of Roe v. Wade dominates the news, Robespierre and Hittman have seen renewed interest in their films. They spoke with CNN about how they crafted the abortion plotlines in their films with care and respect — and what their films mean to viewers now.

          Robespierre made a comedy about abortion with heart

          When “Obvious Child” was released eight years ago, it felt quietly revolutionary to depict a single woman in her late 20s deciding, without trepidation, to end a pregnancy. But it’s “not that unique,” Robespierre noted. About 18% of pregnancies in the US end in induced abortion, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2021. In 2019, the CDC recorded nearly 630,000 abortions.
          What became a relatable, groundbreaking rom-com started out as a personal story, Robespierre said.
          “The blueprint was my life,” she told CNN.
          Like “Obvious Child’s” Donna, Robespierre had an abortion around Valentine’s Day. Her mother, like Donna’s parent, also told Robespierre about an abortion she’d had in the 1960s, before the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal nationwide. Both of their stories shaped what would become Robespierre’s feature debut.
          Jenny Slate (center, holding a bouquet) anchors "Obvious Child," a rom-com in which her protagonist has an abortion and makes a romantic connection.

          The women in Robespierre’s family made her feel comfortable to discuss abortion and supported her when she decided to have one. It’s why she made the film, she said — “to continue the history of what an abortion could look like with that support and love.”
          Even with support, though, abortion isn’t always easy to access, and “Obvious Child” spotlights those barriers, too. In one scene, Donna is discussing the procedure in a Planned Parenthood office in New York. After cracking a disarming joke to settle her nerves, she finally breaks down when she learns the procedure will cost her $ 500.
          “That’s, like, my whole rent, almost,” Donna tells a physician through tears.
          “She held it together, and she’s being strong and stoic, but then the price of the abortion is what kind of put her over the edge, and that’s the take we used,” Robespierre said. “It just felt really authentic.”

          How ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ portrays obstacles to abortion access

          Like “Obvious Child,” much of Eliza Hittman’s heartbreakingly realistic film, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” takes place at Planned Parenthood offices in New York. But the protagonist of the 2020 film is almost entirely on her own.
          The award-winning Sundance stunner follows Autumn, played by first-time actor Sidney Flanagan, a small-town Pennsylvania teen who learns she’s pregnant and heads to Manhattan on a days-long odyssey to access an abortion.
          “I knew I wanted it to be about somebody traveling from out of state into New York City and all of the obstacles they encounter while trying to access safe reproductive care,” Hittman said.
          Ever-committed to realism, Hittman said she spent years researching the processes her protagonist would eventually go through on camera. Hittman visited abortion clinics in New York as well as pregnancy care centers, which are often affiliated with anti-abortion groups, both of which make appearances in the film. Hittman took pregnancy tests and sat for counseling sessions with a social worker she ended up casting in the film, then filtered what she learned through the perspective of Autumn.
          The emotional centerpiece of the film comes before Autumn’s procedure, which Hittman doesn’t show in the film. In a particularly wrenching scene, during which a Planned Parenthood staffer is interviewing Autumn about her relationship history, we learn that our lead has been in unhealthy, even abusive relationships before she’s turned 18.
          Kelly Chapman, the real-life social worker who plays a Planned Parenthood counselor in the film, told Hittman that the “crisis is never the abortion,” but what’s happening in a patient’s life. That pivotal interview scene fills in important blanks about Autumn’s personal life — and may echo the experiences of many viewers.
          Hittman’s film, like Robespierre’s debut, also plainly depicts what an appointment at Planned Parenthood looks like. And while Autumn’s nerves are palpable during those scenes, the office feels safer than most other settings in the film, including Autumn’s workplace and home. It’s the scenes in which Autumn and the cousin who accompanies her are sexually harassed, or when we notice the teens put their guard up around potentially predatory men, that feel terrifying rather than the scenes at the abortion clinic. Those “small, transformational” moments that the characters brush off to make it through their days, Hittman said, form a composite of the misogynistic society in which the story takes place.

          How abortion storylines are changing

          Herold, the UCSF research analyst, said the number of onscreen abortions has surged over the last several years from 13 storylines in 2016 to 47 in 2021. She noted that these newer storylines have mostly abandoned the “will-they, won’t-they” element — characters are often resolute in their decision to go through with the procedure.
          “We’re not only seeing more depictions [of abortion] than we have in previous years,” she said, “but there is much less focus on the emotional decision-making” before the abortion takes place.
          Instead, Herold said, more recent storylines explore how characters will move forward with terminating a pregnancy. The Shondaland drama “Station 19” earlier this year depicted a character who chose to have a medication abortion, a method by which someone ends their pregnancy by taking two pills, which Herold said is rarely depicted in media. A woman firefighter spends much of the episode on the toilet — a reality of medication abortions, she said — and a friend offers to be her abortion doula in an example of the “kind of emotional support model we want to see onscreen,” Herold said.
          On "Station 19," Vic (Barrett Doss) ends her pregnancy with a medication abortion.

          Most TV storylines about abortion focus on young White women, often still in their teens, without children, Herold said — but that’s not representative of most abortion patients in the US. Per the Guttmacher Institute, a research center that supports access to reproductive health care, 75% of US abortion patients are poor or low-income, 60% are in their 20s and 59% already have a child.
          But some series are increasingly spotlighting under-discussed elements of abortion. The soapy TNT series “Claws” got real about racism in the foster care system and the financial constraints of accessing reproductive health care, Herold said. Nail tech Virginia (played by Karreuche Tran) also shares her abortion with her coworkers, which leads them to open up about their experiences with abortion, pregnancy and sexual assault. Herold said this can happen in real life, too, as one person’s disclosure allows others to open up about their experiences. (TNT and CNN share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)
          “It’s a game-changer to see multiple people sharing their abortion experiences on TV, so that audiences don’t get stuck thinking that only a certain type of person or certain type of character has an abortion,” she said.
          Though these storylines may educate viewers, they may not change their stances on abortion. In 2019, Herold and UCSF researchers studied the impact of a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode in which a patient gets a medication abortion after attempting to induce one on her own. Herold said viewers’ understanding of medication abortions “significantly increased” after watching the episode, but increased knowledge “did NOT translate to increased support of abortion in general.”

          With access at risk, audiences are seeking out abortion stories

          Hittman and Robespierre, who are both mothers, said they’ve heard from countless viewers who saw themselves in the films and felt moved to share their abortion experiences.
          Hittman said she recently ran into an acquaintance she hadn’t seen in years who told her about traveling across states to receive an abortion as a minor. Watching “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was like watching her story, the acquaintance told her.
          “People don’t want to carry these stories” in silence, Hittman said.
          Both films are subtly radical in the way they tell abortion stories, even if the fictional portrayals takes cues from the very real experiences of abortion patients. And so audiences are revisiting them — both films screened last month at New York’s Metrograph as part of its “It Happens to Us: Abortion in American Film” series
            “Obvious Child” was often described upon its release as an “abortion rom-com,” a descriptor Robespierre initially resisted. But then she realized that, in every interview, review and discussion about her film, people would have to use the word “abortion.” And eight years later, it still gets people talking.
            “I’m not in the business of changing anyone’s mind,” Robespierre said. “I’m trying to be honest and authentic [in her filmmaking]. And by being honest, it kind of becomes punk rock and different and political.”

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