When Abortion Becomes Ordinary

At age 14, inspired by a recent viewing of HBO’s 1996 original movie If These Walls Could Talk, I wrote an impassioned pro-choice speech for my English class about the fundamental necessity of reproductive rights. The film, which features three interconnected stories of women contemplating abortion in 1952, 1974 and 1996, is earnest and thoughtful, but also sensational—perfect fodder for a teenager poised to hoist her first of many revolutionary banners.

At the time, Walls was groundbreaking for its clear political message: Restricting women’s choices can have devastating consequences for the individual, her family and her community. However, its message about abortion as a procedure was less clear. None of the characters had a safe abortion experience, even though 99 percent of real-life, legal abortions do not result in medical complications.

Flash forward to 2019. Representations of abortion are still making waves—not for being sensational, offensive or outrageous, but for their ordinariness. Television comedies, in particular, allow us to find humor and humanity in a procedure so often overshadowed by political, religious and cultural turmoil.

Netflix’s “Sex Education” took on abortion in a recent episode.

Since its inception, television has showcased abortion story lines primarily in dramas, so it’s no wonder many of these narratives diverge from the truth of most actual abortions, explains Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist and principal investigator of Abortion Onscreen. “The presumption is that onscreen abortion stories have always been—and perhaps should be— unfunny,” Sisson writes in a recent study. “Abortion is a topic of such controversy that it must be portrayed in a fraught and dramatic way.”

So it’s remarkable that TV comedies seem to be tackling abortion story lines more openly, accurately and—yes—humorously than ever before.

Take, for example, the abortion story line for 17-year-old Maeve (Emma Mackey) in the hilarious British Netflix Original series Sex Education. Smart and no-nonsense, Maeve is uncompromising about her need for an abortion and enlists series protagonist Otis (Asa Butterfield) to pick her up from the clinic without initially explaining why. Most of the humor centers around Otis’ interactions with two young protesters outside the clinic, whom he counsels on their own relationship issues. Maeve’s abortion does not define her, nor does she suffer any ill effects, physical or emotional, joking with the awkward Otis when he tries to give her flowers: “Nothing says ‘Happy Abortion’ like a bouquet.”

Similarly, in Hulu’s Shrill, an adaptation of a memoir by Lindy West, 20-something Annie (Aidy Bryant) has an abortion in the pilot. Featuring this moment in the very first episode as just another aspect of Annie’s life was deliberate. “People are having abortions all the time,” explains West. “We just wanted to tell the truth, for the most part, of what that experience is like for people.”

Even the HBO series Veep, a political comedy in which little is sacred, handles the abortion of campaign staffer Amy (Anna Chlumsky) with both irreverent wit and understanding. In an oddly charming coda, Dan (Reid Scott), who told the clinic nurses he was the “proud father not-to-be,” brings Amy frozen sanitary pads to help her recovery.

Unfortunately, while abortion story lines on TV become more forthright and sympathetic, the political climate for reproductive rights is becoming more fraught and precarious. In an interview with Bust, West explains that when “it became clear that [Shrill] was going to come out in a world where Roe v. Wade was in peril,” she felt even more strongly that Annie’s abortion needed to be shown as a moment of empowerment.

An important contrast to political drama of all sorts, real and imagined, TV comedies like these portray abortion as a simple procedure that isn’t traumatic or shrouded in mystery. Instead of politicizing abortion as an abstract component of reproductive rights, these shows remind us that normalizing women’s experiences can be the most revolutionary act of all. 


This piece is excerpted from the Summer 2019 issue of Ms.

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To read more from the issue, check out the excerpt archive.


Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.