Obvious Child, a new movie about a twentysomething stand-up comedian who confronts an unintended pregnancy after being dumped by her boyfriend and losing her job, has taken the reproductive rights community by storm. Since it involves a rare on-screen portrayal of a woman who goes through with an abortion without facing dire consequences — a sharp departure from TV shows’ and movies’ typical approach to the issue — it’s garnered widespread praise for being somewhat revolutionary.
The so-called “abortion comedy” continues to be promoted within the reproductive rights movement, too. Both Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America hosted advance screenings of the film for their supporters. The director, Gillian Robespierre, is currently making the interview rounds answering every question imaginable related to abortion.
In that context, it’s worth examining what exactly Obvious Child has to say about abortion policy in the United States. Is the movie a realistic portrayal of what it’s actually like for American women to end a pregnancy?
For some women, certainly. Robespierre wanted to be accurate in the scene where Jenny Slate’s character, Donna, goes to a clinic to schedule an abortion appointment — she actually partnered with Planned Parenthood to film that portion of the movie at a real reproductive health facility in New York. During that appointment, Donna meets with a friendly Planned Parenthood employee and learns that the procedure will cost hundreds of dollars out of pocket, which is true for real abortions. Nonetheless, Donna doesn’t have any doubts that the decision is the right one for her, which is also true for many real women.
But, aside from the initial sticker shock about the cost of the abortion, Donna doesn’t face many barriers to making her choice. She’s a disproportionately fortunate patient. She has a support network of family and friends who don’t try to talk her out of her decision. She doesn’t have to travel hundreds of miles to get to the nearest clinic. She doesn’t have a kid to arrange childcare for while she’s at her appointment. She doesn’t struggle to take time off work. She doesn’t encounter anti-choice protesters in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic holding up signs about why she’ll regret killing her baby. She doesn’t have to undergo a mandatory ultrasound, or hear biased information about the potential health risks of having an abortion. No one makes her listen to her fetus’ heartbeat. She’s presumably able to come up with the money she needs without skipping out on her other bills.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Robespierre set out to make a movie, not to accurately portray every aspect of women’s ability to exercise their reproductive rights. “We really are telling just one young woman’s story here — a story that happens to exist in a privileged environment with regard to race and class,” Robespierre wrote, back when the short film that formed the basis of her new feature-length movie was first released. “We weren’t going to try to tell about everybody’s experience with abortion; instead we thought we’d start a conversation with the hope that others would decide to share their own (very different) experiences through the medium of film too.”
Nonetheless, as Robespierre points out, it can be helpful to use Donna’s story as a jumping off point to consider the stories of the many other women across the United States who have abortions. Many of those women may want to end a pregnancy for many of the same reasons as Jenny Slate’s character does, but may face a much greater struggle getting there.
“What’s next? Well, what would Donna’s journey have been like if she were a woman of color who faced added layers of stigma when she decided to end her pregnancy? What if Donna were poor, and her abortion wasn’t covered by federal assistance programs when other medical procedures are? What if she lived in Mississippi and had to drive hundreds of miles to get an abortion because her elected representatives had all but banned it?” Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president, Dawn Laguens, pointed out in a recent op-ed. “Those may not sound like ideal movie pitches. But they are the reality for many, many women in America.”
Indeed, in the states that are incredibly hostile to reproductive rights — like Texas, which infamously enacted an extremely harsh abortion law last fall that’s already forced dozens of clinics to close — the landscape doesn’t lend itself well to a romantic comedy. In those places, ending a pregnancy is more analogous to navigating a state-imposed obstacle course. There’s no “abortion comedy” set in the Lone Star State yet, but the harsh laws there did inspire a different piece of pop culture: a video game that challenges users to try to overcome the multiple barriers and figure out how to obtain a legal abortion.