“From 2012 until today, with every passing month, we’ve felt the need for a story like Unpregnant become more and more urgent.”
At a turning point in the new film Unpregnant, 17-year-old Victoria declares “I’m not the type of person …. to go and get an abortion!” to which her friend Bailey replies, “You are exactly the kind of person who gets an abortion and then doesn’t tell anyone.”
In 2020, abortion in the U.S. remains controversial and stigmatizing. Despite the fact that abortion is a legal and fairly routine procedure that approximately one in four women choose during their lives, we rarely share our personal experiences for fear of judgement.
The result of this silence is that people tend to mistake abortion for an atypical experience that affects other people instead of it being seen for what it is—a choice that many of us, our friends, lovers, colleagues and family members make.
This secrecy perpetuates misunderstandings about who has abortions, why and how. For example, it is seldom acknowledged that the majority of abortions are chosen by women who already have at least one child; over a third of abortions are non-surgical; and teens account for 12 percent of abortions.
Abortion has been a taboo subject in film for far too long, and little has changed in over a century. It has been depicted as the “wrong” choice in movies from Lois Weber’s Where Are My Children? (1916) to Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007) and many in between. Although scenes of girls having abortions occurred with some frequency in 1980s teen films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Last American Virgin (1982), and Racing with the Moon (1984), in the last several decades, it started to feel as if opting out of teen pregnancy was no longer a feasible plot in teen films.
Nearly half a century after Roe v. Wade, are we finally ready to shed some cinematic light on teen abortion? Rachel Lee Goldberg’s film Unpregnant, released on HBO Max on Sept. 10, certainly feels like a radical shift simply by being an abortion teen comedy, which itself feels like an oxymoron.
Until the film Grandma (2015), one might have thought we were still operating under the defunct 1956 Production Code which banned depictions of abortion “treated lightly or made the subject of comedy.”
Now, Unpregnant has taken it a step further—bringing the subject to the foreground of a teen-centered PG-13 comedy. Of course, abortion itself in Unpregnant is not the laughing matter; rather, it’s the absurdity of the journey the girls must make to obtain one that brings humor to the film.
Based on the book by Jenni Hendriks, Unpregnant tells the story of Ivy League-bound Veronica who realizes she’s pregnant and wants an abortion. However, she happens to live in Missouri, where she needs parental consent. So, Veronica and her former best friend Bailey embark on a road trip to the closest clinic where she can consent to her own abortion—over 1,000 miles away in Albuquerque, N.M.
Like Eliza Hittman’s film Never Rarely Sometimes Always released earlier this year, the plot of Unpregnant presents an indictment of the anti-abortion laws that have swept the U.S. over the last decade.
In one climactic moment, Veronica shouts, “Why the hell do you need to get parental consent to have an abortion but not to actually birth a human child? Fuck you Missouri State Legislature!”
“A lot has changed since we first started writing Unpregnant
way back in 2012,” Hendriks told Ms., “and the laws haven’t stopped. If anything, they’ve accelerated.”
The initial idea for the story came when Hendriks heard a report on NPR about South Dakota introducing a mandatory waiting period before getting an abortion.
“I began to think about the immense cost in both time and money that this would impose and, being a writer, the best way I felt I could point out the wrongness of the proposed law was to create a wild, insane, absurdist road trip story about it,” Hendriks said.
Like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Unpregnant depicts a teen girl who chooses abortion without regret. But Unpregnant leaves behind the somber tone and instead conjures up a Thelma and Louise-style (complete with the retro car and desert road stops) fight against the injustices of a stalker boyfriend and overeager pro-life kidnappers.
Of course, Unpregnant presents a more hopeful vision for these girls. As they outrace the pro-life bus of their kidnappers, they come to a cliff. Bailey quips, “Let’s keep going,” following it up quickly with, “I’m kidding….we’re not driving off a cliff!”
Ultimately, it’s the film’s treatment of the actual abortion procedure that feels most groundbreaking. Here, an employee guides Veronica through the plan, explaining that you change into a surgical gown; have a vaginal ultrasound which is “not fun but doesn’t hurt” and that “you don’t have to look at the monitor if you don’t want to”; get hooked up to an IV; wait your turn; then go to the surgical suite where you have a mask placed on to put you to sleep “in seconds” so they can remove the fetus which takes “under ten minutes”; and finally you wake up in recovery “safe and sound.”
The soft focus and calming music alongside the employee’s soothing voice make this a remarkably unique scene of abortion. It is not a terrifying or even stark experience. Rather, it is, as Veronica declares later, a relief.
“From 2012 until today, with every passing month, we’ve felt the need for a story like Unpregnant become more and more urgent,” Hendriks told Ms.
Certainly, more could be done (or undone) regarding ideas about abortion in these films. It’s hard not to notice, for example, that both Unpregnant and Never Rarely Sometimes Always portray the girls in abusive relationships. Such a fact begs the question—is this a necessary plot device to make their choices more sympathetic? Both of these films also make abortion seem like a fairly big deal, which perhaps could be seen as a step backwards from 1980s depictions (such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Last American Virgin) which show it as a small moment in a larger story.
Still, Unpregnant’s contribution is also in tackling the difficulty of speaking about one’s own abortion—even in 2020. Initially, Veronica cannot even say the word “abortion,” despite the fact that she never doubts her decision. Ultimately her journey is not just about arriving at the clinic on time with her friendship intact, but also overcoming her fear of social stigma. When she comes to the conclusion that she doesn’t need to keep it a secret after all, it feels like yet another relief. Shouldn’t this be the way it has always been?