Representing Abortion

In the summer of 2004 I had an abortion. It wasn’t a difficult decision. I had just finished the first year of my doctoral program; my boyfriend and I were breaking up because he was leaving on a long trip to the southern hemisphere; and I didn’t even have health insurance, let alone the financial means to raise a child. I lived in Brooklyn at the time, a short bus ride away from a Planned Parenthood, and everything about the procedure was straightforward. While I felt a little sad after the procedure was over, that sadness—as my roommate wisely observed—was mixed in with my feelings about the break-up, the way hot summer days can make you feel lethargic and sometimes despondent, not to mention the hormonal drop after a pregnancy has ended. By the fall I was feeling a lot better. 

Over the last fifteen years since this abortion, I’ve sometimes had reason to walk past the Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn. It’s housed in a discreet building and feels like a hidden secret. So I was startled to see the same clinic featured when I recently watched Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the film released this past spring directed by Eliza Hittman. The film, along with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma—also released this past spring—is part of a recent trend that challenges how abortion is represented on screen. It doesn’t shy away from giving us details. There are no allusions and quick cutaway shots that tell you what’s happening only by implication. It takes ownership over the story of abortion and challenges viewers to accept the normalcy of the procedure in our reproductive lives. 

Never Rarely follows Autumn, a teenager in Pennsylvania who is accidentally pregnant. Seventeen-year-old Autumn doesn’t want a baby, and it’s obvious that as an angsty teenager in an already crowded working-class home, she’s not in any position to raise a child. However, she doesn’t want to tell her parents about her pregnancy, and in Pennsylvania, minors are not allowed to have abortions without parental consent. With the help of her cousin, and after stealing some cash from the supermarket that employs them, Autumn takes a long bus ride to New York City where minors don’t need a parent’s permission for an abortion. When Autumn rattles off the address of the clinic to the subway attendant who is giving her directions, I immediately recognized where she was headed. And once she stepped inside I recognized the front desk, the waiting rooms, and the small offices where counseling sessions take place, even though I haven’t been back in fifteen years. 

However, that’s where my shared experience with Autumn ends. It took me 20 minutes and a metro card to get to Planned Parenthood; it took Autumn the better part of a day and sixty-six dollars each way. Because an abortion clinic was so accessible to me, I was able to have an abortion when I was eight weeks pregnant. It was a simple procedure that lasted only a few minutes. By the time Autumn reaches the clinic, she is eighteen weeks pregnant. As a counselor explains to her, after the twelfth week of pregnancy an abortion is a two-day procedure. Autumn and her cousin spend the night on the streets and in the subway because they have nowhere else to go and can’t afford a hotel. She hides out in the bathroom of a bowling alley, bleeding and cramping after she undergoes the first part of the procedure, which softens the cervix in preparation for the abortion. She’s also too proud to admit this to the counselor who offers financial help. 

On June 29, 2020, the Supreme Court announced that the Louisiana law that would have shut down half the state’s abortion clinics was unconstitutional. The law would have mandated that all doctors performing abortions in clinics have hospital admitting privileges in order to ensure women’s safety. As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his opinion, this law was just meant to be an obstacle for obtaining abortions because already abortions are one of the safest medical procedures available. The anti-abortion movement likes to pretend otherwise. We can shout from all the rooftops that legal abortions do more for women’s safety than any plan to restrict them, but ultimately, films like Never Rarely have more emotional power when it comes to showing exactly why women—and girls—need access to abortion. The more restrictions that are placed on abortion, the longer women wait to obtain them, and the more complicated the procedure becomes. Since Roe v. Wade mandated access to abortion without placing an undue burden on women, anti-abortionists have chipped away at this right by passing laws like the parental consent restriction in Pennsylvania and others that mean that in order to obtain an abortion some women need to travel for hours—and even days—and that’s only if they can afford to do so.

In Never Rarely, Autumn is stoic and taciturn throughout most of the film. She’s at times, not a sympathetic character, in part because she says so little. But in the abortion clinic, when a social worker asks her a series of questions to ascertain whether she has been abused, harassed, or sexually assaulted a fuller picture of Autumn begins to emerge. The social worker tells her she doesn’t have to share much, but she can simply answer by saying, “never, rarely, sometimes, or always.” This is how we find out what we might have already suspected: that Autumn might have had very little say in the circumstances that caused her pregnancy. 

I’ve studied the history of abortion for a decade now, and I know all the statistics about how abortion is safer than safe when it’s legal. It’s certainly safer than giving birth, and both abortions I’ve had were less harrowing than my experiences in labor. Yet, when I see abortion represented on film I instinctively fear that something will go wrong because that is how abortion has so often been represented in the public imagination. (The first representation of abortion I ever saw on screen, Penny’s abortion in Dirty Dancing, will haunt me forever.) 

It’s probably why I worried the entire time I watched Portrait of a Lady of Fire that Sophie, the young maid whose main plotline in the film follows her attempts to have an abortion, would die. (Doesn’t the maid who attempts to self-abort always die in pre-twentieth-century stories?) Marianne, the protagonist and the painter, learns Sophie is pregnant in the dim light of their eighteenth-century kitchen after everyone has gone to bed, but Marianne comes down because her period has started and she is cramping. Sophie thoughtfully heats some cherrystones to help with the pain and admits that she has missed three menstrual cycles. She doesn’t want a baby, she tells Marianne. 

The women come up with a multi-step plan for her abortion. First, she runs back and forth across the beach, until she collapses in exhaustion in hope that it will induce miscarriage. Then they collect herbs along the seashore, and Sophie drinks a hot concoction made from them, which could have plausibly poisoned her. Many abortifacients before the twentieth century essentially worked by making women so ill that their stomach cramps and diarrhea caused abortions. At the same time, she hangs herself from the ceiling by her arms, in a position that looks most uncomfortable—and dangerous when she eventually crashes to the floor. Finally, when none of these attempts at a self-induced abortion work, she decides to go into the village to seek help.  

The evening after her abortion, Marianne tucks Sophie into her bed to watch over her. The abortion plot seems to end there so when Marianne pulls Sophie out of bed, I immediately thought that something must be wrong. Instead, what ensues is one of the most curious scenes in the film. Marianne is moved to sketch the moment of Sophie’s abortion, and her lover (and the subject of the film’s portrait) plays the abortionist. This moment is jolting: have you ever seen an abortion painted? We have portraits of men hunting, of marriage, of dinner parties, and of children playing. It’s rare, even in the twenty-first century, to see an abortion represented in ink and paint. Before this moment, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one sketched. Marianne paints the abortion on a small piece of wood. Watching her create this artifact, I mourned that this painting would have never been preserved in the archive. 

Portrait then implicitly asks: if abortion has so rarely been represented—if its material traces have mostly been disposed of, deemed inappropriate, or as not worthy relics of human history—then who is to say how it happened and how women felt about the experience? My imaginary re-telling is worth as much as yours. Ultimately, Portrait is a film that challenges memory—and whose memory is worth trusting. The film, after all, is explicitly framed through Marianne’s memories, triggered when one of her art students at the beginning of the film pulls out the titular painting of her lover on fire in a field. 

In Portrait, Sophie has her abortion in the most casual of settings. The scene is intimate: we see Sophie pulling off layers of garments. She then lies down on the only bed in the small one-room house of the herbalist performing the abortion. Playing next to her are two small children (because where else would they be if their mother’s hands are busy and there is only one bed). During the abortion, Marianne briefly looks away because Sophie’s face expresses such pain, but the camera doesn’t pan away, and Heloise, Marianne’s new lover, directs her to watch. We see the herbalist inserting some mixture between Sophie’s legs. She breathes heavily through the cramping and holds the baby’s fingers for support. And then it’s over.  The baby grabs her nose, and she smiles. 

Never Rarely similarly portrays an abortion scene in detail, but because this is the twenty-first century the detail feels like high realism, down to the questions Autumn is asked about past surgeries and allergies to latex. In a scene that eerily mirrors Sophie’s abortion, we’re shown as the medical practitioners remove the sticks that will be inserted into Autumn’s cervix from their protective paper. And the camera follows their placement between her legs and then pans to her face as she winces in pain. When she comes back for the second appointment, where the fetus will actually be extracted, the attention to all the minor details of the procedure are covered, from the IV in her arm to the pulling on of latex gloves to asking her to state her name and birth date. (One minor quibble: I don’t ever remember being asked what procedure I was having moments before my abortion.) 

Who is to say, however, that the realism of Never Rarely is realer than the realism of Portrait? That is Portrait’s feminist fuck you to the erasure of women’s reproductive histories. And it’s why both these films are ultimately stories about representation. 

Were you there? the films ask. If not, you don’t get to judge, to decide, to tell the history. Women have had abortions since before the seventeenth century, and all centuries that followed. They’ll continue to have them past the twenty-first century if we make it as a human race. If this central experience of humanity hasn’t been worth documenting, Portrait suggests, then any reimagining of abortion that treats its protagonists tenderly has weight.      

 

Karen Weingarten can’t seem to stop writing about abortion.  karen.weingarten@qc.cuny.edu