Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign
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Abortion in The Media

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August 14

On Friday Abortion Rights hosted a special screening of the new US film Obvious Child dubbed the ‘abortion rom com’ at the Genesis Cinema in east London. We were joined by the Writers and Director as well as the lead actress Jenny Slate who answered questions about getting funding for the film, why they made directorial and acting choices and about the reaction they received at showings across America. We were also joined by film graduate and NUS Women’s Officer, Susuana Antubam to talk about how film and culture affect women in society.

I wanted to use this opportunity to review the film – which is out on general release from August 29 and to talk about how abortion is discussed in the media.

The University of California in San Francisco did a study this year to investigate abortion storylines in American TV and cinema over the last 100 years and found that plot lines involving abortions weren’t as hidden as we may think, but disproportionately portrayed as dangerous for the woman terminating her pregnancy – 9% of women died after having a termination, but in reality the figure is negligible and in actual fact, medical opinion dictates it’s safer to abort than carry the pregnancy to term. Also, in real life only 1% of women choose to have the baby and have it adopted, but on screen it was 9%.

We are used to seeing a few portrayals of abortion in American films, but they take place in the past. For example Revolutionary Road, and frankly, the woman often dies, or endures other serious societal consequences.

Or they suffer terrible moral anguish: In Blue Valentine, Michelle Williams’ character actually changes her mind about her abortion while she is on the doctor’s table with her feet in stirrups. And in Juno, Ellen Page’s character couldn’t go through with it when she is frightened off by anti-choice protestors outside the clinic. Gillian Orr writes more about this in her review of Obvious Child in The Independent.

In modern film settings, women don’t see abortion as a real option – Knocked Up for example, or use excruciating language to talk about the ‘A word’. It’s extremely refreshing to see Jenny Slate’s character Donna ask outright for an abortion in the Planned Parenthood scene (this is not a spoiler) of Obvious Child.

This study is skewed a bit by the overwhelming American content, and American study. But it’s too easy to point to the more dramatic situation of the American anti-choice and sit back and not worry about our own situation. Even the British film Vera Drake took place in the past. The American 2004 remake of Alfie omitted the abortion that becomes a turning point for Michael Caine’s character in the 1966 film.

It’s interesting in itself that Gillian Robespierre went to Kickstarter to get funding for this movie to be made, and she talked about fundraising for the film on Friday evening, saying that once the script was written, with actors cast and they had success for the short they made before at the Sundance film festival she was able to get funding for the film fairly easily. But this was a low budget independent film, I can’t see Hollywood clambering to repeat this, and the study shows there is little stomach for mainstream normalisation of abortion in cinema.

We understand that cinema is art and we don’t expect 100% reality, but abortion is something that by the age of 45, one in three women will experience, so why isn’t it more a part of our mainstream art and culture?

Abortion Rights is concerned that in a society that refuses to talk about abortion, we are projecting a stigma on the women who have them. History tells us that a stigma leaves a vacuum for all kinds of misinformation and we want not just individuals, but educators, health care professionals, policy makers and politicians to understand accurately why women have abortions and what it actually involves. Art and culture play a large part in shaping that debate.

However, despite this eerie silence or taboo, people are still majority pro-choice. In Britain, a 2013 YouGov poll found that anti-abortion feeling was diminishing, with the percentage of the population wanting a ban on abortion decreasing from 12% in 2005 to 7% last year.

Earlier this year we held a film showing of the cult classic Dirty Dancing, a film where the screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein has spoken about being asked by the advertisers to remove the abortion plotline – which of course she couldn’t because it’s the main driver for the storyline.

Abortion Rights exists to campaign, to defend and extend a women’s right to choose a safe, free and legal abortion. We recognise that there are many spheres that we have to campaign around – from anti-choice activists outside clinics, giving solidarity to women in other countries, fighting NHS cuts and to pointing out inaccuracies in the media.

I’m going to finish with two points. We’re a small campaign, so we don’t get the funding from large churches or fancy charitable funds and advertisers don’t find us that appealing either, so we run this campaign on members’ donations and affiliations. But we consistently punch above our weight and get things done, so, please consider being part of this and joining Abortion Rights today, women’s abortion rights are consistently under threat and we campaign behind the scenes throughout the years to defend them.

And secondly, it would be really great if more events like this were replicated in student unions and community spaces – to break down the taboos and stigma and discuss abortion in a realistic way – if you want some help doing this, then let us know.

Kerry Abel

Abortion Rights Executive