The Long Road to Access
TWO FILMS LOOK AT THE CONTINUING STRUGGLE TO OBTAIN ABORTION CARE IN THE US
Those of us who worked on abortion rights in the 1980s and ’90s are nearing retirement age, filled with despair that we are closer to seeing Roe v Wade overturned than at any time in our careers. And yet there is a glimmer of hope to be found on HBO Max in a pair of vastly different films whose story lines include abortion.
The first, Unpregnant, is essentially a Thelma and Louise. It’s a buddy film with a road trip, but without Brad Pitt or a “cliff-hanger” ending. Two high school seniors, Veronica and her former best friend Bailey, are taking the road trip because Veronica has just discovered she is pregnant. She is one of the beautiful girls in high school, dressed just so, and holding an acceptance to Brown. She is firmly Missouri middle class and appears to be on a preordained path to success. Then a condom breaks, and she is testing positive on a pregnancy test in the school bathroom.
Her abortion is merely an excuse for her and the school loner, Bailey (stereotypically overweight, low income and gay—COME ON!!!!), to come together for a road trip. Sure, abortion is mentioned now and again, most importantly when Veronica learns that she must travel 996 miles from Missouri to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to obtain one without parental consent. This long journey provides a vehicle for the two dissimilar girls to bond over Kelly Clarkson’s 2004 hit “Since You’ve Been Gone,” mixed-flavor Slurpees, childhood memories of learning Klingon together and the beautiful Trans Am that Bailey “appropriates” from her stepfather. There are adventures along the way, mostly improbable and involving Veronica’s boyfriend and a staunchly anti-abortion couple. After all, it’s a road trip movie.
When the abortion is mentioned, viewers are reminded that there is a destination in mind. The best lines in the film come from Veronica, such as in Texas after what seems like days of travel, when she expresses her frustration with having to leave Missouri for an abortion: “I should be able to walk down the street, open the clinic door, say my boyfriend is an asshole and here is my $500. Why do I need parental consent to have an abortion, but not to give birth to a child? Fuck you, Missouri legislature.” The abortion itself is straightforward, and we are walked through the steps involved.
The men in the film are either not very smart—the boyfriend—or politically incorrect—a man whose attic is filled with anti-abortion posters and who drives a crisis pregnancy RV with the slogan “The right choice for women” on it. A few, such as Bailey’s birth father, are totally irresponsible. It is sad, however, that neither girl seems able or willing to call her mother when she is in trouble.
The second film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, is more disturbing and is less a road trip than a trip to hell and back. Seventeen-year-old named Autumn and her 20-year-old cousin Skyler travel from their gritty and decaying coal town in Pennsylvania to New York City for an abortion. There is no money here, no college acceptance, no briefly interrupted life of joy. We never learn what Autumn wants, other than to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy. This road trip involves buses and the mean streets of New York and hours with no safe place to go. Autumn’s inner life remains private; by the end, we still know very little about her beyond the fact that, at age 17 and 20 weeks pregnant, her options are limited.
The men in this film are almost universally menacing or unkind, which the title reflects. Autumn’s determination to obtain an abortion is almost Herculean, but her cousin is the real hero of this film. She sticks by Autumn beyond the point where most friends or relatives would throw in the towel. And when their journey hits bottom, Skyler attempts to fix it by applying makeup to them both in a Port Authority bathroom.
Planned Parenthood clinics figure prominently in the film, and the actresses playing counselors, doctors and even receptionists are universally kind. But there is a weariness in their demeanor, and the waiting rooms are merely utilitarian. The reality of needing a two-day abortion when neither young woman has the means to pay for lodging is gut-wrenching for this mother.
While Autumn doesn’t talk much about her motivation for seeking an abortion, her face speaks volumes. She is stoic, especially when Skyler asks her what the abortion was like. “It was kind of … whatever,” Autumn replies. But her expressions tell so much of the story, and you ache for the life she will return to: cashier at a grocery store, living with parents who mostly drink and smoke.
Autumn is the opposite of Veronica, and yet their stories are parallel. Most important, those of us who remember Robert Bork and 1989’s Webster v. Reproductive Services would never have imagined a time when a film would include a story line about abortion in which there is no angst or guilt or breast-beating. In the 1980s, we didn’t even use the word “abortion.” Now to see two films released within months of each other on HBO in which abortion is woven into the story is nothing short of amazing. Of the two, I recommend Never Rarely Sometimes Always, if only to learn what the title means. It will break your heart. And hopefully, it will remind those of us who believe in a woman’s right to choose that there is no time like today to work toward guaranteeing that right for all women everywhere. Even in buddy movies.