In my high school, there were a few different methods of communication for spreading gossip about people. You could share whispered rumours mouth-to-ear; or call your friends on the landline after school; or write notes to hand around in class under the not-so-watchful eye of the German teacher (who was always hungover). Despite the availability of these multiple channels of communication, important gossip would always be delivered face-to-face; and this was how I learnt the biggest news anyone at our school had ever heard: that one of our classmates was absent from school because she was having an abortion.
The information was whispered to me in the hushed tone usually reserved for rumours about someone being gay, or the new kid getting expelled from his last school for getting a blowie on the bus, or the home economics teacher having sex with the creepy P.E. teacher. But there was something about this specific rumour that set it apart from the others. It lacked the underlying sense of careless humour that accompanied other types of gossip, and instead attracted an undercurrent of gravity and fear, along with a unique type of judgement. I think it was understandable: we were kids in Toowoomba, a conservative city in regional Queensland. (Toowoomba is also the successful home and work location of GP Dr David Van Gend, one of Australia’s most prolific anti-choice (and anti-gay) activists.)
Not only that, but abortion was then, and still is, in the criminal code in Queensland – even in this, the Year of Our Beyoncé 2015. While women are unlikely to face practical obstacles to abortion due to the law, it can still cause isolation and unnecessary fear, and creates a stigma around the act. This stigma resonated in the voices of my classmates back then. Abortion was only ever referenced in serious tones, or shouted in a screed about the dire consequence of sweaty teen sex.
As an extra disincentive, having an abortion in Toowoomba itself wasn’t possible then, and apparently still isn’t. This meant (and still means) a woman seeking an abortion was required to make a two-hour trip to Brisbane. The combination of the travel time, the cost of the procedure, the culturally imposed secrecy, and the potential judgement of family, teachers and classmates, could not have made for a pleasant experience for a 16-year-old high school girl. For my classmate, what was the worst part: The actual procedure itself? The secrecy, the whispers, and the judgement? The anti-abortion signs lining the road as you enter Toowoomba, conceivably aimed at shaming women who are returning from Brisbane after the procedure?
I don’t know. I don’t know because I was too scared to discuss it with her. The silence created by fear and stigma continues to shadow this issue that affects so many.
Abortion need not always be a traumatic event that is too emotional and fraught to talk about. A recent U.S. study found that 99% of women who’d had an abortion felt they had made the right decision. This isn’t to say that it isn’t a difficult or damaging experience for some women, but that’s the point exactly – no two women’s decisions and feelings and experiences are identical when it comes to this choice.
And yet, on the rare occasions abortion is discussed and portrayed in popular culture, the same near-identical stories are regularly depicted, leading us to believe that abortions lead to catastrophe (e.g. Revolutionary Road) and that the ‘right’ decision is, invariably, to not have one (e.g. Juno). The choice to have an abortion is always a huge one, we are told, a choice that is grave and serious and will lead to a future tinged with regret. And most of all, popular culture tells us that the decision and process and aftermath of abortion are absolutely humourless.
Perhaps that’s why the reason the recent abundance of cinema and television that addresses abortion while utilising humour feels so exciting. In Obvious Child (2014), Jenny Slate’s character Donna (below) experiences an unplanned pregnancy and makes the very quick decision to have an abortion. Her choice and the act itself are not played for laughs, but there is humour in everything surrounding them.
The film doesn’t focus on what, in this case, is an easy choice, instead examining everything that comes with it – how much to involve the man who got you pregnant, what to tell everyone, and how to talk about it publicly. At its heart, Obvious Child is a romantic comedy in which the lead character just happens to go through the common experience of having an abortion, while the real focus remains squarely on her new relationship and chances of getting a ‘happy ever after’ ending. It’s a comedy.
In the upcoming movie Grandma, Lily Tomlin plays a grandmother (surprise) who helps her granddaughter procure an abortion. Grandma is a drama-comedy, and the fact that viewers are encouraged to laugh along the road is significant. On a recent Girls episode, one character casually told her boyfriend she couldn’t go for a run with him because she’d ‘had an abortion yesterday’. In classic Girls style, it was strange and uncomfortable and awkwardly humorous viewing.
There is no single, universal abortion storyline in life, and there should not be one on screen. There is no right way to make the choice, to handle the experience, or to deal with the consequences (whether positive or negative). Abortion is a big deal for some women, but not for all. But if the entire topic of abortion is off-limits, or taboo, or something women are taught to be ashamed of speaking about, that is a big deal for women collectively.
Humour is a crucial tool to deal with the experiences of humanity, from the darkest of the dark, to little things that don’t really matter. The more broadly abortion is portrayed and the sooner it becomes something that can be depicted with nuance and even humour, the sooner it will become something women feel freer to speak openly about. Some things about the process in its entirety will invariably be funny. As one character in Obvious Child says, ‘we already live in a patriarchal society where a group of weird old white men in robes get to legislate our cunts.’
Don’t let them control our conversations too.