How Pop Culture Can Change The Way We Talk About Abortion

How Pop Culture Can Change The Way We Talk About Abortion

Abortion is taboo -- in politics, in film, heck, even in private conversations. The stigma surrounding abortion is perhaps the most glaring evidence of how far we are from defeating the war on women's reproductive rights. If we treat it like the Voldemort of medical procedures, even on screen -- how can we expect any progress to be made?

The last two years haven't been great for reproductive rights. More than 70 anti-choice provisions were enacted in 2013. This was another year of setbacks (see: Texas), and with major Republican victories in the November elections, we can expect to see more restrictive measures passed in 2015. As a (somewhat terrifying) infographic from the Guttmacher Institute shows, "more abortion restrictions were enacted between 2011 and 2013 than in the entire previous decade."

There are plenty of horrifying things to read if you want to know more about the troubling state of the legislative fight for reproductive rights in the United States. But beyond legal battles and ballot measures, the reality is that abortion has become a subject we hardly know how to do discuss.

"A woman should never feel ashamed or judged when she makes a deeply personal decision."

Think about the way an abortion storyline usually ends in movies or on television. Often, if a woman even considers having an abortion, she backs out at the last minute ("Melrose Place," "Beverly Hills: 90210," "Felicity," "Dawson's Creek," "Mad Men") ... or has a "convenient" miscarriage ("Girls") ... or doesn't live to see her decision through ("Revolutionary Road") ... or does and is haunted by a nightmarish fetus ("Six Feet Under").

On screen, abortion is often treated as though it's a rare, awful and unspeakable thing. Except, it's far more common than the lack of discussion and media representation would have us believe. According to the Guttmacher Institute "half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion." Ignoring that reality is exactly what creates so much stigma -- and acknowledging it is one way to create change.

When indie film "Obvious Child" came out in June, it was praised for its radically normal abortion story line. "Obvious Child" is not a preachy political prescription for what all women should do with their wombs. It simply sets out to tell the story of one woman's unplanned pregnancy and the way she chooses to handle it.

"The goal wasn’t just to normalize it, because it’s different for every woman," director Gillian Robespierre told HuffPost over the phone. "I think it was just to humanize what choice looks like, what choice can look like."

Before it became one of the year's best films, "Obvious Child" was a short film inspired by a friend's project for a feminism course at The New School. "[My friend] Anna had a thesis that was about women in movies, unplanned pregnancies in film, how they always end in childbirth and you can never say the word 'abortion" Robespierre explained.

"The goal ... was just to humanize what choice looks like."

Yet "Obvious Child" doesn't feel like a master class in women's studies. The power of the film Robespierre went on to create lies in its unassuming nature. It is simultaneously funny and deeply sad. It is a nuanced story, featuring one of the most complex leading ladies we saw on film this year (Jenny Slate). At the same time, it's a rom-com that just happens to be about abortion.

"I think that what we’re doing with this movie is saying 'Of course, this is an issue,'" Slate said. "Of course we are feminists and we don’t want anybody to decide what is right for us and our bodies, but we also don’t want to deny ourselves the right to have a playful, slightly irreverent but very smart and very focused discussion about this."

"It feels revolutionary because it is," HuffPost Women's Senior Editor Emma Gray wrote about "Obvious Child" when it was released in June. Despite its lack of a pointed political agenda -- or perhaps precisely because of it -- "Obvious Child" is a game-changer. It is honest and funny and upsetting all at the same time, which allows it to be nothing more and nothing less than the authentic story of one woman.

"A woman should never feel ashamed or judged when she makes a deeply personal decision. And they always are," Robespierre said. "We are always judged for adoption or ending a pregnancy or raising a child and it’s all so exhausting." At it's core, the choice of how to deal with an unplanned pregnancy should belong solely to the woman making it.

"That's what reproductive justice really means," Robespierre continued. "It means we should be able to have birth control, and be able to have access to abortions that are affordable. We should be able to give our children up for adoption. We should be able to parent in a way that provides for everybody."

Slate echoed Robespierre's sentiments. "Certainly 'Obvious Child' is helping to create a new conversation where abortion is not depicted as one type of experience," she said. "It’s depicted as a complex situation that takes a lot of thought for the individual to do what’s best for them."

Despite the significant on-screen progress that has been made in recent years, it's still easy for television shows and movies to present reproductive choice as two diametrically opposed options, rather than a confusing gray area. The possibility of abortion has come up on both "Girls" and "Parenthood" in recent years, but the former went with the aforementioned "convenient" route (though it received praise, and for good reason) and the latter looks like it is headed for a happy birth scene (likely set to a cover of Bob Dylan).

The examples of honest abortion narratives have been few and far between since that episode of "Maude" aired in 1972. "Friday Night Lights" and "Degrassi: The Next Generation" presented nuanced portrayals of what abortion can look like for teens, with both considering options and ultimately choosing to terminate with the help of guidance from a parent or Connie Britton. In 2011, "Grey's Anatomy" handled the topic stunningly when Sandra Oh's character, Christina, discovered she was pregnant and decided she was too dedicated to her job to have the baby. Over at New York Magazine, Willa Paskin called the episode "pretty radical," considering "it's common TV wisdom that whatever your reservations, once you see your child, you'll not only love it, you'll never regret having it."

Perhaps the bravest pop culture moment of 2014 came from an unlikely source: ABC Family's drama "The Fosters." Twenty-week-pregnant Lena chooses to opt for a late-term abortion -- something virtually never seen on television -- after she learns her and her baby's lives are threatened by a serious condition known as pre-eclampsia. As Margaret Lyons wrote for Vulture, "Terminating a pregnancy is not inherently tragic -- women have a variety of abortion experiences -- but for Lena (and Stef), this was devastating." Though they avoided saying the word "abortion" in the episode, the way "The Fosters" portrayed the experience was honest on an emotional level.

The issue is not just how little we are willing to talk about abortion, but the way we talk about it when we do. That's why Robespierre's choice to tackle abortion through the (typically light-hearted) rom-com genre made "Obvious Child" so important. "I don’t think abortion is funny," Slate said. "I wouldn’t say that it is funny or that it’s dark. I wouldn’t say that it is any one thing. I would say that what a woman does with her body is complex."

She and Robespierre are not campaigning to convince every young woman who gets pregnant to have an abortion -- not at all. Their message is that abortion is a valid, yet deeply personal and complex choice. And that choice should be played out authentically on screen as well as in life.

"Unplanned pregnancy can end in many different ways, and it's all fine."

The abortions storylines of "Obvious Child," "The Fosters" and "Grey's Anatomy" aren't just great works of fiction -- they make a difference. Research has shown that pop culture representations impact cultural perceptions of abortion. As Gretchen Sisson, a research sociologist at the University of California, put it in a recent study, movies and films where a character considers the procedure and then dies creates "this social myth of abortion as more dangerous than it actually is." And that myth feeds into the shame that often surrounds women who opt for abortion in real life. Of course, no woman should feel obligated to share the story of her abortion. But she should be able to make that choice on her own terms, because there is power in telling stories.

That is precisely the message that journalist Meaghan Winter tried to spread when she compiled 25 women's abortion stories for New York magazine in November 2013. "Abortion is something we tend to be more comfortable discussing as an abstraction," she wrote. "The feelings it provokes are too complicated to face in all their particularities. Which is perhaps why, even in doggedly liberal parts of the country, very few people talk openly about the experience, leaving the reality of abortion, and the emotions that accompany it, a silent witness in our political discourse."

The Nation columnist Katha Politt is also fighting to take back the real-life conversation about reproductive choice. "Abortion ... is part of the fabric of American life," she said in an excerpt of her book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, republished on HuffPost in October, "And yet it is arguably more stigmatized than it was when Roe was decided."

So, how do we tackle that stigma? By sharing these narratives when and where we can. By refusing to stay silent. By continuing to demand to see seemingly un-special, un-traumatizing, "normal" abortion stories in the media or on screen.

"Obvious Child" was a bright spot in the relatively disappointing pop culture canon of 2014. And while Slate and Robespierre, as wonderfully badass as they are, can't transform our entire culture with one film, their message carries the seeds of change.

"You know, unplanned pregnancy can end in many different ways," Slate said, "And it’s all fine."

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