Conversations about abortion have been playing out on the big screen since decades before Roe V. Wade legalized them in the United States in 1973. One of the first known movies that deals with the topic is a 1916 film called Where Are My Children? Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the early year, it was a negative portrayal of abortion.
In recent years, however, depictions of abortion in movies have become more common and somewhat more realistic. In 2020 alone, there have been nine films that depict a character obtaining an abortion, double the number of 2019, according to Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH)’s Abortion Onscreen Database. Only two of these movies showed an adverse physical outcome as a result of an abortion, and none portray an adverse psychological outcome. Two are comedies.
And recently, a new theme has emerged in abortion movies based in the U.S.: the abortion road trip plot point.
In the last two years, three movies — Unpregnant, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and Little Woods — have depicted a character driving out of state in order to attain an abortion. In all three cases, the road trip is necessary due to legislation in the characters’ home states that block them from getting the medical care they need. This isn’t the first time the subject has been tackled: 2015’s comedy-drama Grandma also portrayed a grandmother-granddaughter duo hitting the road in an attempt to raise the funds for an abortion.
“It’s interesting that this has become a recurring theme that we’re seeing in movies that are otherwise very, very different,” Gretchen Sisson, PhD, a research sociologist at ANSIRH, tells Refinery29. “I think it’s interesting to see how different writers have interpreted that barrier to legal access in dramatically different ways.” She notes that movies can both reflect and shape the conversations that are happening in political culture. So while the abortion road trip trend may be a symptom Americans’ growing concern around limited abortion access, depicting it in a realistic and responsible way can help bring awareness to the issue too.
The 2020 films Unpregnant and Never Rarely Sometimes Always feature almost identical scenes in their first acts. In Unpregnant, 17-year-old Veronica Clarke (Haley Lu Richardson) Googles what the abortion laws for minors are in her home state of Missouri. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) Googles what the abortion laws for minors are in her home state of Pennsylvania. Veronica and Autumn don’t have a lot in common, but they do both live in two of the 37 states that require parental involvement in the decision for a minor to have an abortion.
Ultimately, both characters embark on their road trips across borders with a close companion: Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) travel to New York City by bus, and Veronica reconnects with her former best friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) to drive to Albuquerque. The movies diverge there; they’re nothing alike in their tone and the way they approach the issue of abortion. “In a way, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is much more of a traditional abortion movie. It deals with it within a dramatic context that focuses on the hardship and the challenge,” Sisson says, “whereas Unpregnant finds humor and connection without minimizing the hard work that they have to do to get the abortion.”
In Little Woods, DaCosta’s 2018 feature directorial debut, a character’s quest for abortion access isn’t the main narrative, but rather just one facet in a larger story about the everyday horrors of American healthcare. Ollie’s (Tessa Thompson) sister Deb Hale (Lily James) lives in an illegally parked trailer with her young son when she learns she’s pregnant. Though at first Deb considers carrying the pregnancy to term, the town clinic has a backlog of five to six weeks just for basic prenatal appointments, and it’ll cost her about $8,000 just to have the baby without insurance. The safest solution ends up being to cross the border into Canada alongside Ollie — risking arrest.
The women’s situations reflect reality: Abortion access in the U.S. varies vastly based on location. The mean travel distance to an abortion clinic in New Jersey is five miles; in North Dakota, it's 145 miles, according to a 2019 study in the journal Contraception. Restrictions complicate things further. In Florida, for instance, the average person lives 15 miles from an abortion clinic. But the state also requires most minors to get permission from their parents in order to have an abortion, which may force younger people to travel farther.
Although it’s the only comedy in the batch, Unpregnant is very real in its scrutiny of the way location impacts abortion access. Veronica’s carefully planned out road trip spirals out of control to both humorous effect — but also as a reflection of reality. Abortion is legal in the U.S. under Roe v. Wade, but that doesn’t mean it’s accessible. As Ollie says in Little Woods, “Your choices are only as good as your options.”
The financial barrier to abortion is also touched on in all three movies. It’s an especially prominent plot point in Little Woods, which portrays many compounding conflicts that all stem from the family’s lack of money. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Autumn has to travel the shortest distance, but she and Skylar steal money from the grocery store where they work just to afford the bus ticket, then spend two nights in New York City without housing and put themselves in danger to afford tickets back home. Expense is an all-too-common issue people face when trying to have an abortion. Legislation like the Hyde Amendment make it legal for states to refuse to use government funds to pay for abortion; as a result, folks may have to find a way to pay for their care out of pocket, costing them from $435 to $3,000 or more, in addition to travel costs.
The films recognize the impact of the zealous anti-choice movement in varying tones and degrees. In Little Woods, it’s only seen briefly in the presence of a handful of protesters outside the clinic, but that presence is still a palpable threat to Deb’s safety and comfort. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, there’s a quiet horror to the way the women at a crisis clinic manipulate Autumn. There are the more subtle manipulations like the children’s artwork hung up in the waiting room and the pamphlets on adoption sent home with her. And then there are the more explicit ones, like when a woman at the clinic asks if she’s “abortion-minded” and then shows her an old video spewing lies in attempt to scare Autumn into making a different decision.
Unpregnant doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of the anti-choice movement. In fact, the movie morphs into an over-the-top haunted horror flick at the introduction of a religious anti-choice couple. It’s funny and dark but also sharp in its rendering of the anti-choice movement as villainous. The couple start to manipulate Veronica in subtle ways but when those don’t work, they resort to literally shouting misinformation. As with Autumn, it doesn’t work, and Veronica escapes their grasps, but it’s yet another hellish obstacle she’s put through that attempts to undermine her agency. Veronica’s boyfriend, who becomes increasingly possessive over the course of the movie, also tries to manipulate her and take away her agency. But Veronica, Autumn, and Deb all remain steadfast in their right to choose.
But what makes these three movies uniquely modern is that they portray the real danger of the anti-choice movement, which is not confined to just the scary, screaming protesters outside clinics. Many of the insidious attempts to restrict abortion access happens behind the closed doors of legislators who influence policy in ways that inhibit access to abortions, especially for vulnerable communities, such as low-income people and people of color. Facing a crowd of protesters takes courage, to be sure. But being forced to travel huge distances and shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars in order to gain access to necessary care, due to racist, classist, and sexist abortion bans in your own state is unconscionable — and yet a reality for many people around the country.
Notably, none of the three films show their characters agonizing over whether to have an abortion. Five or more years ago, media tended to depict providers wrestling with a choice of whether to give a woman abortion care; or women grappling with whether they wanted an abortion, Sisson says. One example is 2007’s Juno. In it, the main character visits an abortion clinic, before changing her mind, partially due to a classmate protesting outside. While it’s important to show that journey, which is a reality for some women, Sisson also notes: “From what we know about women's pregnancy decision making around abortion, most of them are very confident in their decision.”
Though these recent movies have made significant strides in how we depict abortion, they also show that we have a long way to go. “Abortion restrictions are still under-portrayed in abortion stories in media. For most characters, their abortion is fairly easy to access. They don't encounter a lot of barriers. The ones that they do are pretty easily overcome,” says Sisson, which isn’t the reality for many people. What’s more, though abortion restrictions disproportionately harm people of color, and the majority of abortion patients are low-income people who are already raising children; all three characters who have one in these movies are white, and two are minors. Teen abortion stories are over-represented in media, Sisson says, possibly because they’re more palatable, since teen motherhood comes with its own stigma.
“The other issue is several of the films show the white characters having abortions depending on their friends of color for emotional support, rather than showing the characters of color having an abortion,” adds Renee Bracey Sherman, founder of We Testify. “To be clear, friendship and models of love and support are an important aspect to depict, but they cannot and should not come at the expense and dimension of the characters of color.” While these three movies do a lot to portray abortion in a realistic way that can de-stigmatize the process, we have more work to do.
These films are tied together by the core relationships at the heart of them. Cousins who care deeply for each other when no one else will; friends who have grown apart but never really unstuck from each other; sisters with immense baggage who nonetheless will do anything to help each other — all three distinct relationships in these films touch on the ways women support and protect each other within a sexist and patriarchal system. Autumn’s relationship with her cousin Skylar is hands down the best part of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, captured in intimate, lovely moments. Almost every adult in the movie represents a threat to Autumn and Skylar’s safety. They only have each other. Similarly, Unpregnant runs on the fuel of Veronica and Bailey’s great and complicated relationship dynamic. These relationships are inextricable from the abortion narratives in these films: These women have to protect each other, because patriarchal institutions will not.
Differences between the characters, the tone of the writing, and the narrative structures in these films abound, but they all ultimately depict abortion as normal and access to it as necessary. And given recent rollbacks of reproductive rights across the country and ongoing political attempts to dismantle Planned Parenthood, the message carries immense weight and real-world relevance. Abortion patients in the U.S. have to travel significant distances and face dangers along the way, and those dangers are spelled out clearly and comprehensively in these three movies. An “abortion road trip” isn’t so much a trope as it is a dark reality of American healthcare, one so baked into society that it’s rising to the surface in pop culture in myriad ways.