13 Hollywood Storytellers on Bringing Abortion to the Screen, Then and Now
Following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade reversal, filmmakers and TV writers — from ‘Veep’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘Obvious Child’ — discuss their onscreen portrayals and the urgency of telling more stories around reproductive rights with The Hollywood Reporter.
July 11, 2022
In 1972, a two-part episode of the groundbreaking Norman Lear comedy Maude saw its main character unexpectedly pregnant and 47. Over two episodes of primetime television, Bea Arthur’s Maude weighed the decision of having an abortion. A year later, in 1973, a constitutional right to abortion was established by the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade. “Forty years later, it’s a more sensitive subject than it was then,” Lear told The Hollywood Reporter in a 2020 interview.
Since Maude, abortion, reproduction rights and contraception have increasingly appeared onscreen. After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that overturned Roe on June 24, THR spoke with showrunners and filmmakers behind some of the recent series and movies that have included abortions in storylines and shown characters realistically receiving abortion and reproductive care. Creators like Vida’s Tanya Saracho and Unpregnant director Rachel Lee Goldberg reveal what personally drew them to telling these stories and the process of getting them to the screen.
They also discuss what they think entertainment’s role could be in a post-Roe country.
“Every single woman that I have spoken to since this happened is completely enraged,” says Aline Brosh McKenna, whose musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend saw a character get an abortion. In wake of Roe being overturned, the showrunner says there will be content that deals with new realities of seeking abortion care, and her thoughts are echoed by many below: “I think it’s forcing a lot of women to think differently about their role in the world, and that will inevitably be reflected in the writing and the art.”
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Writer Jacey Heldrich
Season four episode “Milk” (May 2021) of Hulu’s dystopian series flashed back to pre-Gilead times to show Janine (Madeline Brewer), already a mother of one, seeking an abortion and being at first misled to go to a crisis pregnancy center.
So much of what we do with our flashbacks on The Handmaid’s Tale is this invention of: What do our American institutions look like at the cusp of something like a Gilead? How does health care look? How does education look? How does the workplace look? We’ve done a lot of those stories, and it was always really important to us to look at reproductive health care through that lens. But for the abortion flashback, specifically, none of that was invented. Even before Roe was overturned, what Janine [Madeline Brewer] goes through is the experience young women in this country had trying to secure the termination of their pregnancy. We rooted it in this very real thing of the crisis pregnancy center, which is not anything that’s specific to any part of the country or area of the country. It’s all over the place. They outnumber real reproductive health centers by an extraordinary amount and even the most thoughtful woman with the most access can get duped by these places.
They work much like a fast-food chain, where they’ll put themselves next to real reproductive health care centers. They are as insidious as every other part of the anti-choice movement. They are staffed by young women who are trained to think that what they are doing is correct. What they were doing up until now, which they don’t have to do in a lot of states anymore, was gaslight women into thinking they don’t need abortions, like in the scene we saw with Janine, where they will tell you a lot of lies about what happens to your body and the fetus within you when you terminate the pregnancy — and it’s absolutely terrifying. They also run out the clock. In the states that had abortion bans up until 15 or 12 weeks, they would effectively convince the pregnant woman they have plenty of time to make this decision, and they don’t. They run out their clock, and the girls can no longer secure the health care they need. It’s only going to get worse. These places are incredibly well-funded through churches and government, because they masquerade as “health care facilities” by offering things like ultrasounds. One thing that came up again and again, both in my research and in talks about this episode, is just how misinformed people are about what abortion is. These [crisis centers] exist as little misinformation factories where these kind of lies about pregnancy termination are just going to continue to spill out into the culture. That’s going to be our really big fight — combating the enormous tsunami of misinformation that continues to abound around abortion, now that people are going to turn a blind eye a little bit more because it’s so inflammatory.
The scene that we weren’t able to get into the episode [because of COVID-19 production limitations] that I would have liked to have shown is that when you seek abortion care at a legitimate place, they’re not going to make you have an ultrasound. If you go to a crisis pregnancy center, they will. The scene we had written is that they forced Janine to have an ultrasound, gave her a picture of the ultrasound and called it her baby, they call her “the mommy”; they do these things to convince you that a gestating embryo is a real baby, which it’s not. It’s psychological warfare on women. Effectively, the whole show is about a woman’s right to choose. And I really believe that the choice to terminate a pregnancy is one of the strongest choices a woman and a mother can make. For Janine, the choice to terminate a pregnancy to benefit the son she already has and the life she already has is a choice of love and strength and thoughtfulness.
I keep telling people that I spent seven years kind of shrugging my shoulders when people would make Handmaid’s Tale analogies, thinking it’s silly and reductive to say, “This is where we’re heading.” But in the last week I’ve caught myself thinking, “Well, this scene happened, and this scene happened.” My one viral tweet I’ve ever had was on Jan. 6 where I said, “OK, but this is how The Handmaid’s Tale starts.” It’s been a real shift from thinking the story is just an imaginary version. We’re dealing with the rise of religious extremism, and that is the most dangerous thing in the world. — As told to Jackie Strause
‘Plan B’ Director Natalie Morales
The Hulu film Plan B (May 2021) follows two best friends (Victoria Moroles and Kuhoo Verma) trying to hunt down the morning-after pill in South Dakota within 24 hours.
Contraception and emergency contraception are so important to talk about — especially if you are against abortion. What I knew, and what was proven to me when I was promoting the movie, is that there’s an extreme lack of sexual education. In the movie, the school is not teaching the students anything they need to know, which is a huge problem in America and could prevent so many abortions from happening. If that is your agenda, that is what you should be investing in. Because, as we know, you will never ban abortions. You will only ban safe abortions. In all of the interviews I did afterwards, I can’t tell you how many people thought Plan B was an abortion pill. Grown adults thought it was an abortion pill. I am not here to judge you. Someone should have taught you that in school.
A lot of the stuff I make is slyly educational, while also making fart jokes and showing full-frontal male nudity. I made a point in Plan B that every single time we talked about [Plan B, the pill], we said, “If you don’t take this, you may get pregnant.” Not: “This will stop a pregnancy.” If people aren’t getting this in schools and they aren’t getting this in homes, maybe they can get it on their TV. Plan B is not an abortion pill. It is an emergency contraception pill.
People in movies and TV shows don’t even talk about periods much. We have somehow been ingrained to think these are women’s issues and no one wants to hear about them. There have been movies and TV shows that have talked about reproductive rights and contraception, of course. But I think it was important to have teenagers talk about it frankly — like the fact that Plan B is $50. A thing they come up against in Plan B is the Conscience Clause, which is real in many states, where a pharmacist can deny you contraception based on their own beliefs. The only way to connect with people is not to heighten it, is not to preach to the choir. I’m not talking to the coastal elite left, I’m talking to everybody in this nation that needs it. I don’t need to exaggerate the way things are for teenage girls in this country.
What I would like to see [from Hollywood] is something that speaks to people outside of our own bubble in an earnest and clear way. Plan B is set in South Dakota, not in L.A. and not in New York. It is set there for a reason, because I hadn’t seen a lot of teen movies that are set in places where people aren’t rich and don’t have unlimited means. I am very hopeful, because I have to be. And the role I hope that Hollywood will start to play, and this is on me as much as it is on anyone else, is to talk to these people and to connect with these people. If we feel like we aren’t speaking to everybody, then we are doing a disservice. I grew up indoctrinated into the anti-abortion way of thinking. I was not taught why abortion is needed. All I was taught when I was a child was that abortion was murder. I was not educated on socioeconomic elements, the history of it or the medical aspect of it. Thankfully, I learned at a pretty early age and it changed my mind. But that education is something [Hollywood] can also do and the only way to do that is to not judge people who really don’t know. — As told to Mia Galuppo