In last season’s Black Mirror episode, “Arkangel,” a helicopter mother who implants tracking software in her child (because this is the future, after all) appears to give her own teenage daughter an abortion without her consent.
After Marie is alerted via her iPad that her daughter Sara is pregnant, she grounds up a pill into her morning smoothie, which makes Sara vomit later in school. “It was the EC pill that made you sick,” a school nurse tells Sara. “Emergency contraception, for terminating your pregnancy.” She explains that it will work even though she vomited. “You’re not pregnant anymore,” the nurse assures her.
Critics noticed the mistake immediately. Emergency contraception, also known as the morning-after pill, does not induce abortion. You take the EC pill to prevent pregnancy in the days (it works best when take in 72 hours) after you’ve had unprotected sex. Given the plot of “Arkangel” and the nurse’s comments, we’re to understand that Sara was already pregnant by the time she was drugged. So if Sara were to take any medication to end her pregnancy, it would be the abortion pill, a two-step process of Mifepristone and Misoprostol drugs, which terminates a pregnancy up to 10 weeks.
Black Mirror’s mix-up with the abortion pill and emergency contraception unfortunately isn’t unique. In a 2011 episode of The Walking Dead, a character, upon finding out that she’s pregnant, downs a handful of morning-after pills, as if they would induce an abortion (they did not and she threw them up out of fear).
The 2007 Veronica Mars episode, “There’s Got to Be a Morning After Pill” (again, it’s not the freakin’ morning-after pill!!!), played with a similar, surprise abortion angle that Arkangel did, in which a character is unknowingly slipped a Mifepristone pill. And the confusion exists far beyond writer’s rooms, as Republican lawmakers sometimes even don’t know the difference. But the fact that a mistake like this could happen in a show, in 2017, highlights a persistent problem when it comes to the ways in which abortion is portrayed on screen. Not only are so many depictions of the abortion pill on-screen simply incorrect—they rarely even exist in the first place.
Even as abortion stories are starting to take up more space in pop culture over the past few decades, from romantic comedies like 2014’s Obvious Child to harrowing political dramas like 2007's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, rarely do we see characters terminating pregnancies via the abortion pill. While laws regarding medical abortions and access to them vary from state to state, Reuters found that 43 percent of pregnancy terminations at Planned Parenthood clinics in 2014 happened through medication abortions, compared to 35 percent in 2010, and that was a few years before the FDA allowed women to use the drug up for to 10 weeks of a pregnancy instead of seven.
Instead, depictions of abortion are largely relegated to intense, high-stakes situations. There are scenes, like in Sex and the City, Blue Valentine, and Juno, in which a character intends to go through with an abortion but dramatically decides not to at the last moment (to the delight of pro-life activists, I can only assume). Then there are historical portrayals, like Vera Drake, Revolutionary Road, and the recent series Alias Grace, in which women with no access to legal abortion in the 1950s and the 1840s, respectively, must perform DIY surgeries with bloody, fatal consequences. And while there are a few examples of medical abortions in pop culture, they exist few and far between. In a 2015 episode of Jessica Jones, Jones smuggles an imprisoned character the abortion pill, and in a 2016 Jane the Virgin storyline, Xiomara has an abortion that viewers are told was a medical one, though it happens off screen.
The fact that movies often show surgical abortions, whether those found in gruesome period pieces or performed in a sterile doctor’s office, may be because they’re simply more dramatic. Even though Obvious Child’s Donna is only about three weeks along when she discovers her pregnancy, she opts for an abortion in the clinic, and we see all the steps of her antsy preparation for the moment. But the implications of an on-screen abortion canon that’s largely tear-stained, blood-stained, or filled with procedures opted out of at the last minute, feel particularly disturbing. Perhaps the idea of the safer medical abortion, sometimes done in the comfort of one’s home, the contents of which can be emptied into a maxi pad, makes people uncomfortable.
One of the best depictions of abortion—and specifically the abortion pill—that I’ve ever seen occurred on the highly underrated, now off-air Australian TV show Please Like Me. The 2015 episode, “Pancakes with Faces,” follows the character Claire through the process of having a medical abortion, with the show’s creator and lead character Josh Thomas at her side. It’s a funny episode without making Claire’s situation into a joke, but more importantly it depicts her abortion with a rarely seen casualness. It’s certainly not an easy decision for her; she wavers and admits to feeling like a “fuck-up.” The scenes of her, sitting in pain on the toilet, staring into it after her abortion is done, may not be the cinematic story many writers and directors are looking for, but its existence within the canon of abortions on screen is undeniably important. If we only depict abortion as this terrifying, often fatal medical procedure, diminishing the complexity of women’s experiences for the sake of riveting entertainment, then we simply aren’t depicting the full reality of what abortion looks like.