Warning: This article contains spoilers for “Black Mirror.”
For many reasons, the future is something worth looking forward to. We get to enjoy medical technological and medical advancements, be they improving the way we diagnose and treat patients, or allowing people to connect with people around the world on a deeper level.
Black Mirror, Netflix’s popular science fiction drama, tends to look at the dark underbelly of this romanticized view of the future—an overprotective, ad-based livelihood that feeds into people’s most toxic queries and desires. And while these episodes exploring this impending, harsh reality often leave audiences questioning the future itself, one plotline in the latest season has critics and reproductive health advocates questioning the writers’ understanding of the present.
In the second episode of the fourth season, “Arkangel,” a 15-year-old girl named Sarah has sex for the first time and later has an abortion. When she was younger, however, Sarah’s mother installed technology into her brain that allows her to protect the child as she grows up. The monitor censors “graphic” content for Sarah, but also allows her mother to watch what her daughter sees, to replay her memories, find her location, and monitor her vitals through a tablet.
Though her mother eventually turns off the monitor with the advice of a therapist, she turns it on years later when she realizes Sarah didn’t go to the movies like she said she did. And when she turns it on, she sees her daughter having sex; a day or two later, the tablet indicates that Sarah is pregnant. Her mother then goes to the pharmacy to get emergency contraception for Sarah, grinds it into her smoothie, and has her drink it. At school, Sarah vomits and goes to the nurse’s, where she’s told that tests determined that the emergency contraception made her sick, but also resulted in her having an abortion. Of course, Sarah flips when she finds out that her mother snuck her the pill because she had been spying on her having sex.
For the record, the emergency contraception pill, commonly known as the morning after pill or by the brand name PlanB, and the abortion pill are not the same. At all. Emergency contraception pills work in several ways to prevent conception if someone has had unprotected sex, or if another method of birth control failed. The pill either prevents the release of an egg from the ovaries, or prevents the egg from being fertilized by the sperm. The pill, however, does not induce abortion and does not affect pre-existing pregnancies—which is why Black Mirror‘s suggestion that Sarah had an abortion as a result of taking the emergency contraception is so jarring.
Medical abortion, or the abortion pill, on the other hand, is a two-part system that requires one pill to stop a pregnancy’s growth, and a second pill to expel the pregnancy from the uterus. Additionally, Elizabeth Clark, the director of health media at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told the Daily Dot in a statement that pregnancy doesn’t happen right after sex—sperm can live inside the body for up to six days, waiting for an egg to fertilize.
“While science fiction as a genre often offers up smart social critiques and insights, the scientific fact is that emergency contraception is birth control,” Clark said. “Emergency contraception is a safe way to prevent pregnancy from happening—it won’t work if someone is already pregnant, and it won’t harm an existing pregnancy.”
Despite the futuristic technology that could have made this possible within this Black Mirror universe (such as medical advances to hasten conception, and an abortion-inducing pill that is somehow considered “emergency contraception”), the episode’s critics jumped on what seemed to be plain misinformation and uninformed writing that could have used a reality check. (Lead writer Charlie Brooker and episode director Jodi Foster did not respond to a request for comment from the Daily Dot via Netflix.)
And yeah, black mirror were very dangerous for calling it an emergency contraceptive when it was an abortion pill.
Also can you get abortion pills over the counter in the US???
— Oloni (@Oloni) December 31, 2017
I watched @blackmirror and I'm PISSED that they equated Emergency Contraception to an abortion pill. EC prevents pregnancy. It does NOT terminate pregnancy. This is so damn irresponsible.
— Charlene Carruthers (@CharleneCac) December 30, 2017
I’m watching the Arkangel episode in black mirror and I’m just really mad they’re calling an abortion pill an emergency contraceptive pill… that’s two completely different things?
— Bex (@rebeccaamoroso) December 31, 2017
EMERGENCY CONTRACEPTION IS NOT THE SAME AS THE ABORTION PILL. THEY ARE TWO DIFFERENT MEDICINES THAT DO DIFFERENT THINGS. CONFLATING THEM IS DANGEROUS AND IRRESPONSIBLE.
— Lauren Rankin (@laurenarankin) December 30, 2017
In fact the nurse specifically says: “you were pregnant, you’re not anymore.” And this is not what EC does. At all.
— Ej Dickson (@ejdickson) January 3, 2018
one of the episodes of @blackmirror conflates emergency contraception and the abortion pill, which is INFURIATING because emergency contraception can't terminate a pregnancy & conservatives use this falsehood against it all the time
— bored yet terrified (@morninggloria) December 29, 2017
Gretchen Sisson, a research sociologist at University of California San Francisco’s OBGYN department, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), launched the Abortion Onscreen project five years ago in an effort to analyze how often and in what manner abortion is portrayed in entertainment.
Through the project, Sisson looks at the depiction of abortion and abortion storylines in film and television, including qualities such as the outcome of the pregnancy, the health and safety outcomes of the procedure, how providers are portrayed, and the resulting portrayal of the character who received the abortion.
To Sisson, Black Mirror‘s conflation of emergency contraception with abortion pills isn’t just inaccurate, but boring. While the show works in the realm of science fiction and dystopian times and has the potential to explore what abortion might look like in an interesting, compelling manner, Sisson told the Daily Dot that the emergency contraception and abortion pill comparison wasn’t a creative choice. Instead of being an inaccurate but creative look into the future of abortion, Black Mirror‘s portrayal just looked like a mistake.
“Shows don’t have to be accurate, per se, especially in a show like Black Mirror where…it’s portraying this alternate future reality, but was inaccurate in a boring way. It wasn’t a creative choice. It wasn’t an inaccuracy that opened up a new narrative path,” Sisson said. “They sort of just conflated the two in a way that just didn’t add to the story, or didn’t explore a new reality.”
Additionally, Sisson says these inaccuracies aren’t just “insignificant details” that people are being nitpicky about. This argument, that emergency contraception causes abortion, is a deliberate anti-abortion movement argument, and its portrayal can continue to spread misinformation about abortion and influence opinion and policies—even when the show itself is operating on a fictional level.
Marisa Crawford, a writer who analyzed pop-culture abortion portrayals in the article “30 Years of Abortion in Film, From ‘Dirty Dancing’ to ‘Obvious Child’” for Bust magazine last year, echoed Sisson’s sentiment. Crawford told the Daily Dot that this kind of inaccurate portrayal is even more dangerous in our current political climate, in which President Donald Trump is actively attempting curb access to birth control, abortion, and other reproductive healthcare.
“Popular movies and TV shows have the power to influence people’s ideas about abortion, and they can affect widespread ideas about birth control, too. In the early 00s for example, popular movies like Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up treated abortion as unspeakable—literally refusing to say the word—which promoted the idea pushed by conservative politicians in power, both then and now, that abortion is wrong and shameful,” Crawford wrote in an email to the Daily Dot. “This episode is coming during a time when the Trump administration has made it easier for healthcare providers to deny coverage of birth control based on a moral opposition, so for a widely watched TV show to imply that contraception is abortion can have very real implications.”
Sisson and Crawford aren’t speaking hypothetically. The Federalist, a right-wing blog, has already picked up Black Mirror‘s signaling as an affirmation that, yes, its belief that emergency contraception causes abortion is a fact, when it is not.
‘Black Mirror’ Is Right: ‘Emergency Contraception’ Can Cause Abortion https://t.co/c8sZuiLZX1
— The Federalist (@FDRLST) January 2, 2018
“Speaking to screenwriters and producers… challenge them to think about abortion in more interesting ways rather than kind of using it like a throw-away plot point,” Sisson said. “The inclusion of abortion anyway is meaningful, but think about how you’re using it in your story to create a sense of what women’s control of their own reproduction might look like in different worlds.”