Scarier Than Fiction: ‘Black Mirror’ Stumbles on Abortion

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Culture & Conversation Media

Scarier Than Fiction: ‘Black Mirror’ Stumbles on Abortion

Holly Bland, Stephanie Loraine & Zoraima Pelaez

We Testify storytellers discuss where the latest season of Netflix's sci-fi drama Black Mirror fell short and imagine what the creators could have done if they wanted to be truly futuristic about abortion access.

Black Mirror, the Netflix drama anthology known for its dystopian and often “futuristic” plots just released its much anticipated fourth season. This season’s second episode, “Arkangel,” focuses on Marie, a single, very protective mother who enlists the support of a new technology company, Arkangel, to help keep an eye on her daughter, Sara. Arkangel places an implant in Sara’s head that allows Marie to see everything Sara sees. Marie initially opts to censor Sara from seeing any graphic or uncomfortable actions or events unfolding before her in real time.

When Marie, who has the ability to watch her daughter via a tablet 24/7, sees 15-year-old Sara having sex with her boyfriend, something that many teens do, she doesn’t take the opportunity to talk with her daughter about safe sex, but instead chooses to pretend it didn’t happen. Unsurprisingly, Sara eventually becomes pregnant and the chip implanted by Arkangel detects the pregnancy almost immediately, which the company then relays to Marie via the tablet in her possession.

Instead of telling Sara about the pregnancy, or even suggesting that she take a pregnancy test, Marie decides to keep the news to herself and slips emergency contraception in Sara’s smoothie the next morning without telling her daughter that she was taking the medication.

When the emergency contraception kicks in, Sara is in class. Sara suddenly feels nauseated and runs to the bathroom to vomit. She then visits a school nurse, who examines her and tells her that her pregnancy has been “officially terminated,” and that emergency contraception was causing her to feel ill.

This scene might seem believable to the average viewer but, importantly, that’s not how emergency contraception works at all. Emergency contraception simply prevents pregnancy—it does not and can not cause an abortion.

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Commonly known as the “morning-after pill” or “Plan B,” emergency contraception is taken after unprotected sex to prevent the ovaries from ovulating, or releasing eggs, so sperm and egg never meet. Emergency contraception cannot terminate an established pregnancy. This episode’s writers seem to have emergency contraception confused with a medication abortion, or the “abortion pill,” a combination of drugs (mifepristone and misoprostol), taken several weeks after a pregnancy has been established. It can be difficult for people to access medication abortions in the United States, even though the pill is available over-the-counter, sometimes at no cost, in other countries.

While some may think Black Mirror’s mix up is minimal and that viewers shouldn’t expect a science fiction show to mirror reality, in a world where many people don’t have access to information about abortion or contraception, it was irresponsible. By using a nurse to deliver this information, the show inadvertently suggested that it was medical fact as opposed to science fiction. It is especially dangerous in this environment, where anti-abortion advocates for years have been arguing that medication abortion and emergency contraception are the same, thus they shouldn’t have to cover them in health insurance plans. This conflation was a central point in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell. That 2016 Supreme Court case allowed certain employers to deny birth control coverage to their employees.

By airing this episode, Black Mirror contributed to the stigma surrounding abortion and reproductive health care in general. With such a wide audience, Black Mirror has a responsibility to represent medical information accurately, or at the very least omit patently false medical information that could confuse their viewers.

Accurate representation of abortion on screen is crucial to de-stigmatizing and normalizing abortion care, and ensuring that people who have abortions can see realistic depictions of ourselves in the media. As storytellers with We Testify, a program of the National Network of Abortion Funds, who’ve had abortions and taken emergency contraception, we decided to break down how the episode matched up to our real-life experiences.

Stephanie Loraine: What were your first impressions of the Black Mirror episode, “Arkangel”?

Holly Bland: I’ve had an abortion and I’ve taken emergency contraception on multiple occasions, so I was appalled at the misinformation portrayed in this episode. Regardless if it’s a sci-fi TV series, the writers should still be accurate about basic medical facts. The episode was already uncomfortable enough to watch as this young person’s bodily autonomy and privacy were violated, without the added blatant lies about abortion. The entire time I watched the show, I felt my jaw drop in awe because of how wrong the information was, knowing that there are people who think this is true.

SL: I found this episode to be cringeworthy too. It made me uncomfortable to know this person’s bodily autonomy was violated in so many ways. I’ve also had an abortion and used emergency contraception, and the way everything was portrayed in the show was nothing like my real experience. It was appalling that the show missed their opportunity to provide accurate, non-judgemental information to the public. I was disappointed that the writers and directors included this misinformed depiction and chose not to do the research to educate their audience with medically accurate information.

Zoraima Pelaez: I think another important distinction to make in the conflation of emergency contraception and medical abortion is accessibility. The emergency contraception was picked up at the pharmacy by the mother, the way you can pick up over-the-counter emergency contraception. Had it actually been a medication abortion taking place in the state of Texas, where I live and had my abortion, the daughter would have to make an appointment with a physician in order for the medication to be administered—and then come back for a follow-up visit. She would also have needed to notify a parent at least 48 hours ahead of her abortion, or get a judicial bypass if it wasn’t possible to inform her parents. The convenience with which the mother bought and administered the medication completely ignores the reality of harsh anti-abortion laws in states like Texas.

HB: The theme of the episode was around privacy, consent, and relationships between parents and children. Did anything feel real to you about your relationship with your parents when you first started having sex?

SL: This Black Mirror episode hit home for me. The implant that gave Marie a view from the eyes of her child felt like something my parents would have utilized on me if they could. Marie justified her use of Arkangel as a way to protect Sara from harm and protect her innocence. However, the use of Arkangel’s technology quickly spiraled out of control and into an obsession that was then used to wield power and control over the way Sara viewed and navigated the world. My parents found out I was sexually active by reading my messages on my social media. Once they knew I was sexually active, they took control of my social media accounts and contacted the numbers dialed from my cell phone to see if they were boys to scare them away. I wish I could have talked to my parents about my sex, but I turned to the internet and my friends for information.

HB: Your experience sounds like mine, Stephanie. My parents routinely invaded my privacy through my social media and the technology I used, and I totally feel like Arkangel is something they would have utilized if given the option. I missed out on a lot of social gatherings when I was younger, and couldn’t play certain video games or watch certain movies because of gore. I wasn’t allowed to have a MySpace account back when it was cool (though I had one anyway). I remember my mom checking my message history on Yahoo! Messenger because she thought I was sexting people late at night. They sometimes threatened to read my texts between my partner and me whenever I was going to be grounded or just try to take my phone and look through it. It invaded my privacy as a young adult. I wish they would have just talked to me, or asked me what I was doing, rather than assuming the worst.

ZP: When I first became sexually active, I was pretty much raising myself. My parents were in the picture, but I was left to my own devices most of the time. While I wish I would have had a little more guidance throughout those years, I was OK. I trusted myself. But after hearing both of your stories and thinking about the relationship between mother and daughter in the show, I realize that my experience may not be the norm. This episode feels like a perfect example of how little trust adults have in young people to make decisions for themselves in our society—especially reproductive decisions. Infantilizing 15-and 16-year-olds does no good for anyone, especially when legislators make laws based on that mistrust and deny them autonomy in the process.

SL: We’ve all taken emergency contraception and we’ve all had abortions. Not only did the episode get wrong the basic science of how the emergency contraception works, it also shared misinformation about all the symptoms. What did you see on the show that was different from your actual experience?

HB: For me, emergency contraception and abortion were both pretty symptom-less, aside from common period-like cramping. Each time I’ve taken emergency contraception, usually Plan B Next Step, I’ve made sure to take it within 72 hours of unprotected sex or failed birth control, and with food to avoid nausea. I’m dumbfounded, because every time I’ve taken emergency contraception it has been one pill, but on the show Sara’s mother appeared to use several and crushed them up, which typically is not recommended. Regardless, emergency contraception cannot terminate a pregnancy, it can only prevent one from happening.

SL: I’ve used emergency contraception in two different ways, the Yuzpe Method and over-the-counter emergency contraception pills. I have not always had consistent access to birth control, or had the money to pay the cost of Plan B, which is $50. I have used the Yuzpe Method with old birth control packs, where I took multiple birth control pills in a specific order within 72 hours to prevent a pregnancy. Since I tried this method without medical supervision, I experienced side effects similar to those experienced by Sara, such as vomiting and nausea. When I used over-the-counter emergency contraception, I experienced no symptoms. The hardest part for me was the glare of judgment I felt from the pharmacist when I purchased the emergency contraception. Now, I’m lucky to have health insurance to maintain my Skyla [intrauterine device] and don’t need to worry about emergency contraception.

HB: Yeah, emergency contraception like Plan B can be expensive. You’re right—it’s a privilege to be able to access it, and there’s times I’ve risked just not taking it. I never experienced judgment from a pharmacist, but I did get it from a cashier at CVS when trying to purchase it. She refused to ring up my purchase because she didn’t want to “aid in murder.” I was humiliated. Sometimes I depend on emergency contraception because I’m not currently taking birth control due to polycystic ovary syndrome. This is why portraying emergency contraception accurately on shows like Black Mirror is important—we need viewers, like the cashier who thought I was committing murder, to receive accurate information about how it works, not more stigma. That stigma stands between people and the health care they need, and that’s not OK.

ZP: It amazes me how little people know about reproductive health care—which abortion, emergency contraception, and birth control all are. But you’re right, how are audiences supposed to decide for themselves what is correct or incorrect when depictions of reproductive health care in popular culture are filled with superfluous, conflicting, and sometimes flat out wrong information? I’ve taken Plan B a number of times, and none of the experiences stand out to the point where I can truly comment on any symptoms other than cramping. My abortion procedure also did not mimic the symptoms the character experienced on the show—aside from having a few bouts of morning sickness before I had my procedure.

HB: Marie, Sara’s mother, crushes the emergency contraception and puts it in Sara’s smoothie without her consent. As viewers, we don’t know what Sara’s decision would have been. I felt like this was reproductive coercion because her mother is making the decision about Sara’s pregnancy for her, and not allowing her to make her own decision. What did you think?

SL: That was absolutely reproductive coercion and it is inexcusable. Sara should have had the opportunity to make her own reproductive decision; the decision to have an abortion or continue a pregnancy was her decision to make. It is important to note that in 37 states minors cannot have abortions without parental notification and are subjected to making decisions that include self-inducing abortion, continuing unwanted pregnancies, or attempting the judicial bypass, which Zoraima mentioned. It is the process of getting court approval to receive an abortion, something I have had to do before.

ZP: My sisters were teenage mothers, and I’m glad they were given the option to choose to become parents. I may not have made the same decision, but the chance to make that decision for ourselves was crucial. I could not imagine a reality where that was taken away from them, and for that matter, a reality where my decision to have an abortion was taken from me. But, as you mentioned, Stephanie, that is a reality for so many pregnant people. Their decision is ripped away from them, whether by a judge or their parent. There is no doubt that inducing abortion without the pregnant person’s consent and forcing someone to parent against their will is reproductive coercion.

Recently, there have been a lot of portrayals of abortion on TV and film, some great and some not so good. Dr. Gretchen Sisson, a researcher at the University of California San Francisco, found that even in futuristic, fantasy, and sci-fi depictions of abortion, it’s still shown as dangerous, even though it’s safe, access is still difficult, and it’s through basic medical means, like in a clinic. What would you have liked to see in Black Mirror or another futuristic, sci-fi depiction of abortion?

SL: I would have liked to see an accurate depiction of the full decision-making process when deciding to continue a pregnancy. Further, if they decide to choose abortion, providing an abortion-positive view where the feelings and needs of the character are honored and respected. What I appreciated about the episode despite the inaccurate depiction of the use of emergency contraception was part of the nurse’s response when she told Sara “and I want you to know, I got your back.” Everyone deserves to have supportive people especially in situations like Sara’s. Supportive people, like school nurses, have a responsibility to have their students’ backs when the system fails them by not providing comprehensive sex education and providing them with a non-judgemental information to make an informed decision.

HB: I agree with you, Stephanie. If the writers wanted to be futuristic about abortion access, and Sara did opt to have an abortion, they could have shown her obtain an abortion, without the ridiculous laws we have now slowing the process. They could have even shown telemedicine, which is a real way to get an abortion in several states and super safe! Perhaps she could have taken a futuristic pill that ended her pregnancy immediately without cramps, or an abortion by laser scan or time travel. The writers could be creative. It’s sci-fi! But unfortunately, they stuck to the same methods drenched in stigma.

ZP: I agree with you both and wish Black Mirror would have also been a little more real about the society we live in. It isn’t easy to get an abortion in many states and adding that level of difficulty to the storyline would have made for a more interesting and realistic plot that viewers can connect with. The reality in our and other countries can be even scarier than the fiction they create in the show. I also know plenty of young people choose to parent. A dialogue about that decision and respecting a young person’s autonomy to parent—regardless of what you think they’re ready for—would be a refreshing twist to the tired girl “in trouble” trope that doesn’t actually mirror (get it? mirror!) people’s lived experiences with abortion care or choosing to parent. Art imitates life or is it the other way around? At any rate, it’s important that we not distort an experience so much that the consequences spill over into the real world and cause real harm.