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Culture & Conversation Abortion

5 TV Shows and Movies That Realistically Depict Abortion—All Available to Stream Online

Esther Gim

Rewire.News shares some of our favorite storylines in recent years that have expanded representation of who gets an abortion and realistically depict the procedure.

While we’re staying at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Rewire.News wants to highlight some streamable movies and TV shows that have contributed to our national discourse on abortion—and might keep you entertained.

Hollywood is representing abortion more than ever onscreen, but not all the storylines and depictions are accurate representations. In 2019, abortion was mentioned on scripted TV more times than in any other year, with 43 discussions or disclosures, according to an annual report by University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), which maintains a database of abortion plots in film and television as part of its Abortion Onscreen project.

At the same time, the representation of characters obtaining an abortion continues to miss the mark.

“Unlike in 2018, a majority (65%) of this year’s characters who obtained abortions were white,” ANSIRH’s 2019 report says. “This is a notable misrepresentation given that the majority of real people who have abortions are people of color.” Also noticeably absent in Hollywood are portrayals of abortion featuring nonbinary and trans people as protagonists.

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With that in mind, Rewire.News wanted to share some of our favorite storylines in recent years that expand representation of who gets an abortion and realistically depict the procedure—all available to stream online.

Dear White People

Streaming on: Netflix

Based on the movie of the same name, Netflix’s Dear White People infuses humor, irony, self-deprecation, and—most importantly—honesty into the navigation of racial politics among Black students at a prestigious, predominantly white university.

In the fourth episode of season two, the show thoughtfully depicts Coco’s decision to get an abortion. ANSIRH hailed the 2018 episode as “unique in TV discussions about abortion” for its treatment of failed birth control, not regretting the sex that led to pregnancy, and living in a place without extreme abortion restrictions.

Little Woods

Streaming on: Hulu

Writer and director Nia DaCosta consulted with both Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota on the script for this 2019 indie drama, which stars Tessa Thompson and Lily James as Ollie and Deb, estranged sisters who come together after their mother’s death. When Deb, played by James, needs an abortion, the film poignantly shows the struggles that people living in poverty experience trying to access reproductive health care without insurance and with the additional barriers of distance from the clinic, traveling, and cost.

“To reduce the stigma and silencing that many people experience with abortion and increase access to safe and legal abortion, we need to see more honest and accurate depictions of people who decide to have an abortion,” Caren Spruch, Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s director of arts and entertainment engagement, said in a statement ahead of the movie’s release. “Planned Parenthood applauds the filmmakers behind Little Woods for recognizing this and telling such a story.”

Never Rarely Sometimes Always 

Available to rent on demand: YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime

Parental consent laws put the plot in motion in the critically acclaimed 2020 film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, released on-demand this month after the COVID-19 crisis shut down movie theaters. The movie takes a quiet and unflinching approach, showcasing the toll anti-abortion restrictions place on a Pennsylvania teen forced to travel across state lines for a procedure. (Pennsylvania is one of 37 states that requires parental involvement for minors seeking abortion.)

Some of the scenes, including one at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC), were based on writer and director Eliza Hittman’s undercover research in a small Pennsylvania town: “I went to those, I took the test, I had the counseling session. … I had remembered the phrase ‘abortion-minded’ from a conversation, as well as being told, ‘Even if it’s negative, it might still be positive.’ That was pulled from my conversation verbatim,” Hittman told the Atlantic. CPCs are unregulated anti-choice clinics that act in the guise of a health-care provider, providing incorrect and misleading information to discourage people from getting an abortion.

Orange Is the New Black

Streaming on: Netflix

In the seventh and final season of this groundbreaking show, OITNB illustrates how factors like language barriers, incarceration, immigration status, and discrimination can exacerbate existing challenges to accessing abortion care.

The season introduces us to Santos, an undocumented Guatemalan woman held in an ICE detention center, who is only able to end her pregnancy after being slipped an abortion pill. In the episodes before that, we see her try and fail to communicate with anyone around her about her pregnancy and urgent need for abortion care.

“We were all very clear on what the stakes were for both Fig and the OB-GYN who gives her the prescription,” Caroline Paiz, one of the show’s writers, told Bustle in 2019. “Though what these two women did was illegal, we ultimately felt that they would choose to follow their moral compass instead of the law.”

The Bold Type 

Streaming on: Hulu

The Bold Type, which recently wrapped its fourth season, explores sexuality, consent, health care, and more in a smart and realistic way, through the lens of three young women who work for a women’s magazine in New York City. “The Deep End,” a season three episode that aired in 2019, is the first time TV showed two young queer woman of color discuss their past abortions, according to ANSIRH. As the two Black women tell each other about their experiences with ending a pregnancy, one reveals that a CPC tried to dissuade her from getting an abortion.

Bonus pick: Dirty Dancing (1987)

Streaming on: YouTube on April 24 at 9 p.m.

Lionsgate will be livestreaming the “gold standard” of cinematic portrayals of abortion on YouTube, encouraging viewers to donate money to the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation for furloughed theater employees.

Dirty Dancing takes place in the early 1960s, and the film shows a level of compassion about the decision surrounding getting an abortion that was previously unseen on screen. “Most movies about abortion are about a woman making a pregnancy decision,” ANSIRH’s Gretchen Sisson told Rewire.News in 2017. “No character ever questions Penny’s decision to get an abortion. … This makes it unique among abortion movies to this day.”

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