"Obvious Child" is 84 minutes long, and I was either laughing or nodding along in agreement for about 82 of them.
My rapture with otherwise impeccable dialogue was broken only once -- for two minutes -- by one brief scene that made me lean over to my friend and whisper, “Why isn’t she taking the abortion pill if she’s that early along?” My friend shrugged. Days later, it’s still bothering me.
In the scene, our heroine Donna has her unwanted pregnancy confirmed by a friendly doctor at a Planned Parenthood clinic. “You’re about three weeks along,” the doctor says, before explaining that Donna is actually too early in her pregnancy to have an in-clinic procedure and needs to schedule her abortion for two weeks from then—Valentine’s Day. So begins the rising action of the movie, which culminates on the ironic day of the appointment with the abortion itself and the characters’ romantic resolution.
The movie gets the emotional part of Donna’s unwanted pregnancy so right -- nobody vilifies her for choosing it, and nobody is shamed for causing it. In one scene, Donna’s best friend Nellie reassures her by sharing her own abortion story: “I get really sad for my little teenage self. But I never regret it.” Exactly -- it’s just a crappy thing that she has to go through rather than the end of her life as she knows it.
Unfortunately, the factual representation of the experience is a lot more flawed.
In a recent Elle interview, Jenny Slate talks about why the Planned Parenthood scene stood out to her: “It’s her just being like, ‘I can’t have it right away? And it costs like, what?’ All of these things that are just sort of normal that you don’t think of and are so important.” That’s so true -- these questions are important and are rarely depicted in media. But the film doesn’t answer them.
After she hears the cost of the abortion, Donna breaks down crying and comments that it’s nearly a whole month’s rent. And then the $500 is never mentioned again. Poof, problem solved. The second big question, “I can’t have it right away?” is also left completely unexplained, which pretty seriously misrepresents the abortion experience. I have never been to an abortion clinic -- I’ve never even taken a pregnancy test -- but I know that this is not the full conversation.
There are two ways to have an abortion: an in-clinic abortion procedure, and a medication abortion, in which you take mifepristone -- “the abortion pill.”
According to Planned Parenthood’s website, the abortion pill is used up to 63 days, or 9 weeks, into a woman’s pregnancy. And it’s often preferable to in-clinic procedures because “it can be done early -- women can begin treatment as soon as they know they are pregnant.” While not every Planned Parenthood clinic offers medication abortions, all three of New York City’s centers started providing medication abortions in 2000, when the FDA approved mifepristone.
It’s really tough to believe that Donna, a 28-year-old liberal, educated, born-and-raised New Yorker, wouldn’t know that abortions aren’t limited to invasive procedures anymore. I went to a public high school in Texas where our health teacher wasn’t allowed to say "contraception" (much less abortion), and I eventually learned about the abortion pill through hearing about friends’ experiences and self-education -- definitely not through what I saw in movies.
According to other major recent movies featuring an unwanted pregnancy, abortion clinics are horrible and will deter you from having one ("Juno") and “shmasmortion” is such a non-option that you can’t even say the real word ("Knocked Up"). For the first time ever, our generation has a movie where a woman decides to have an abortion, goes through with it, and suffers no adverse physical or emotional consequences. This is a big deal and represents a huge step towards de-stigmatizing something one in every three women experience in their lifetime.
And it’s a lot of responsibility.
Jenny Slate has often emphasized in interviews that the movie isn’t an “abortion comedy.” The abortion is just a means to an end, the end being a relatable depiction of when you’re 28 years old and you don’t have your life even slightly together… and then problems really hit the fan. I know that Donna having to come back in for an in-clinic procedure is clearly just a plot device. Had she terminated the pregnancy then and there, the movie would be a third as long. I understand why the filmmakers did it; I just wish they had made it make more sense.
There are plenty of reasons Donna could have chosen to have an in-clinic abortion versus a medication abortion. Maybe she wanted the two weeks to come up with the $500 (See? Two plot problems solved.) Maybe she felt more comfortable with doing it at the clinic instead of at home with her parents. But the explanation presented in the film of “You’re too early along and you need to wait” isn’t a real reason, and it presents a dangerous misconception of what the abortion experience is like.
Sure, "Obvious Child" isn’t a documentary, but it’s a huge opportunity for honesty and clarity about every aspect about abortion, not just the emotional one. And I’m disappointed that it didn’t try harder.