Abortion is possibly the most volatile word in Irish society. Even a simple insinuation can elicit intense responses both sides. Ireland is sandwiched between two media giants, America and Britain, whose legal stance on abortion is completely different to ours. We rarely see our countries particular predicament portrayed on screen.
This summer, Irish filmmaker Tom Ryan brought the reality of Irish women travelling to England for abortions to the big screen in his film Twice Shy. Post-Leaving Cert, in a pub in Tipperary, Andy asks Maggie to the debs. Some three years later, he’s driving her to the airport, so that she can fly to London for an abortion. Flashbacks fill us in on the rise and fall of their relationship. It’s a bonafide road trip movie, only with an abortion at the end. Mid-journey, Andy is horrified to learn that Maggie is travelling alone to London and planning to stay in a hostel dorm room. But this is the reality of Irish women who need abortions, how can she afford anything else?
The film doesn’t make some grand political statement about the 8th amendment. Instead, it’s comments on the shame deeply ingrained within Irish society. Just as Maggie keeps her pregnancy a secret, Andy hides his father’s struggles with mental illness. The pivotal moment comes when Andy asks his dad (the scene-stealing Ardal O’Hanlon) for help. Andy’s father is not aware of Maggie’s pregnancy, but his message is universal; whether we are up against Irish society’s stigma surrounding mental illness or abortion, we must support each other whenever possible. It’s unfortunate that Twice Shy is one-of-a-kind, but it’s a blessing nonetheless.
Pre-dating Twice Shy, America had a similar turning point in its depiction of abortion on screen with 2014 romcom Obvious Child. Recently “dumped up with” Donna becomes pregnant after a drunken one-night-stand with a stranger and decides to get an abortion. She cries during her consult at Planned Parenthood, not because of some moral quandary, but because the price of the procedure is her entire month’s rent. She tells the father, but it’s not a point of conflict. The film features an abortion and a happy ending for the couple involved, this shouldn’t be revolutionary, yet it is.
While on television, we see more talk of abortions, but much less realism. Gretchen Sisson analysed 78 major abortion storylines between 2005 and 2014. She found that 51% of characters who considered abortion actually went through with the procedure, while the rest had last-minute change of hearts or “convenient” miscarriages. 9% of the analysed storylines ended in adoption, when in reality, only 1% do. In the film Juno, the pregnant teen needs only be told that her baby already has fingernails for her to decide against abortion. It doesn’t help that the abortion clinic Juno visits is decrepit, with vulgar staff and abusive protesters. This film is a quirky coming-of-age tale, but Juno’s pregnancy is rarely more than a slight inconvenience to her; nothing that a little punk music can’t fix.
In Grey’s Anatomy, Christina has two abortions throughout her time at Seattle Grace Hospital; having children was never part of her plan. In House of Cards, Claire has three abortions and is often criticized for not having children. Similarly, Scandal’s depiction of abortion angered many viewers as Olivia Pope aborts the president’s baby, smiling, to the soundtrack of Silent Night. Three strong and ambitious characters chose their career over children, it’s completely understandable, and yet, we are still made to see them as cold and unloving for not wanting to become mothers.
Only recently have writers began to defy the TV trope that “Good Girls Avoid Abortion”. Often, there’s no moral ambiguity for characters who have abortions; If you are a morally good person, you decide not to have the abortion. Degrassi, a veteran of the after-school-special scene, and the similar, but soapier show The Fosters, have both recently featured sixteen-year-old characters having abortions. Both girls, Lola and Emma, go to clinic appointments, not with the fathers or friends, but with a classmate and boyfriend’s older brother, respectively. Their main concern is not if they are making the right decision, but if they are horrible, or immoral, people for not feeling bad about having an abortion.
Of course, these two stories are shrouded in ludicrous plotlines. Emma informs her boyfriend of the abortion by letter, but unfortunately, he is hiding that, after a recent brain injury, he cannot read. While Lola’s pregnancy is the result of sleeping with her best friend’s older brother while his boyfriend is in a coma. The bigger picture seems like melodrama at its most unrealistic, but these two abortion storylines alone are treated with the greatest sensitivity.
Australian show Please Like Me featured, perhaps, the most realistic depiction of abortion, as we follow Claire to the clinic, past protesters and into the bathroom for the most intimate parts of the procedure. Conflicted, Claire truly believes in her right to her own bodily autonomy, and yet cannot shake the shame that society makes her feel. She explains how she spent a long time trying to decide what to wear to the clinic, she didn’t want people to think she was like the other girls there, and she hated herself for thinking that. When she says, “I thought my politics would keep me safe from my feelings” she gets to the root of what it is to be pro-choice. No singular person or plot line can represent every person’s experience with abortion. The decision to have an abortion is, first and foremost, a personal decision, not a political one.
For TV abortions, the drama lies in the moral dilemma, rather than the barriers, like finance or stigma, that more commonly exist in real life. And the people getting abortions on TV are disproportionately whiter, younger and richer than in reality. Why do we see so many inaccurate tales of abortion on screen? For the same reason that Criminal Minds is nothing like really working for the FBI; storylines must be dramatic (though a lack of female screenwriters is another possible reason). Though this article comes from a pro-choice standpoint, encouraging realistic stories of abortion on screen can only bring us closer to a solution to this staple debate in Irish society.
Muireann O’Shea – Film Editor