By Alex Gonzalez
HBO Max’s latest film Unpregnant offers a timely update to the traditional road movie, which typically sees a group of friends in search of debaucherous adventures. In this case, ex-best friends Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) and Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) set out for the former to get an abortion in secrecy.
There is one particularly poignant scene about midway through the movie when, shortly before arriving at the clinic, the two get into an argument after Veronica’s classmates call her to tell her they solved the mystery of a telltale pregnancy test found in their school’s dumpster. While the test was Veronica’s, her friends insist that it’s Bailey’s. To save face, Veronica agrees — but Bailey overhears, leading her to ditch Veronica. Veronica follows, insisting that she’s “not the type” of person who gets an abortion, a statement that reflects an insidious yet pervasive stereotype that women who receive abortions are irresponsible. Bailey replies, “You are exactly the kind of person who gets an abortion and then doesn’t tell anyone.”
“I think that’s my favorite line in the whole movie,” Ferreira tells MTV News. “I always laugh when people think they're above something. And it's like, having an abortion, there's no type for that. Anybody who is having sexual intercourse with a penis and a vagina can have some sort of chance of getting pregnant, whether that’s with birth control or not. There's no look for it. It's not a certain type of girl. One in four women will have an abortion or have had an abortion. So clearly there is no type, and I think that's one of a lot of things that we need to destigmatize.”
Destigmatizing abortion and dispelling the notion that there are “types” of people who need access to them is just one thematic element of the film, which hits the streaming platform today (September 10). While Veronica seems to come to the decision of terminating her pregnancy rather quickly, the difficulties manifest in other ways, due to external pressures from her conservative community. She can’t even google the full word, only bringing herself to type “abor” in the search bar. When her boyfriend, Kevin (Alex MacNicoll), catches up with her and Bailey on their road trip after tracking Veronica through her iPhone’s Find My Friends feature, she tells him she’s “taking care of the situation.” But she’s still wary.
“Even though she almost immediately knows what she wants to do and the choice that she wants to make for herself, it doesn't mean that she's totally comfortable with it,” Richardson says, “which is why she feels like she can't go to her friends or her boyfriend or even her parents, because she's so worried about what they're going to think of her and how their perception of her will be tarnished because she failed in this way.”
While the characters Richardson brought to life in The Edge of Seventeen and Support the Girls are more relaxed and easy-going about life, she drew upon difficult moments from her own past to embody Veronica through her journey. When preparing for the role of the pregnant straight-A student set to attend Brown University following graduation, Richardson thought back to the pressure she put on herself as a child while preparing for dance competitions. Most of the desire to be the perfect pupil is refraction from Veronica’s family and peers, and Richardson compared dealing with such external forces similar to that which she faced growing up.
“I was so hard on myself,” Richardson says. “I realized a lot of the torture that I put myself through, in terms of my pressure that I had on myself, came from me wanting to like perform for others or be perfect or win the competition for others. And then when I would feel that disappointment, if I didn't live up to that, it wasn't necessarily me being disappointed in myself or me honestly thinking that I sucked. It was me feeling like I let everyone else down. And I feel like that's something that I really related to about Veronica.”
58 percent of women who receive abortions feel the need to keep the procedure a secret from friends and family. Two out of three women who receive abortions fear stigma if others were to find out. Throughout the movie, Veronica wants to remain as mum about the pregnancy as possible. She tells her mom that she is studying at a friend’s house for the weekend, her friends that she is studying at home, and she posts decoy “self-care” Instagram posts, so people know not to bother her.
Dr. David Eisenberg, an ob-gyn based in St. Louis, Missouri, believes Unpregnant is timely, given the current political climate and the upcoming presidential election. While the issue of abortion has at times been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris has spoken in support of reproductive justice. President Trump has been outspoken in his opposition to abortion, having attended the anti-abortion March for Life rally and appointing over 200 judges to the federal judiciary, many of whom have anti-abortion track records.
Eisenberg, who has been providing abortion care in multiple states for over a decade, says that situations like the one in Unpregnant, where a 17-year-old girl has to travel out of state to get an abortion, are very real and far too common. While abortion is currently legal in all 50 states, the restrictions on the procedures, abortion deserts in many states, and duplicitous “crisis pregnancy centers” make it difficult for many to access choice-affirming health care.
“We have been seeing over and over again how state-level regulations that have no basis in science or public health practices are making it harder and harder for people who need abortion care to get the care they need locally when they need it,” Eisenberg says, “and it is forcing folks to have to leave their communities to seek that care in other locations.” With the 2020 election 54 days away, Eisenberg says that it is important that we all show up and vote this November. He insists that we must keep in mind state representatives and legislators, as well as the president.
Unpregnant puts these political implications on full display. When Veronica finally arrives at the abortion clinic in Albequerque, she sits down with a nurse, who explains what the abortion process entails. The nurse asks Veronica if the abortion is her choice, explains that the doctor will insert a wand inside of her to remove the fetus and that she has the choice of either staying awake or being asleep while the procedure is taking place. At this point, Veronica is calm, relaxed, and comfortable with her decision. Prior to the film’s production, director Rachel Lee Goldenberg visited many abortion clinics and talked to people about different types of scenarios in which people choose to receive abortions. But beyond a desire to portray their stories accurately, the project is a personal one for Goldenberg.
“I had an abortion years ago and have been pro-choice my whole life. But after I got my abortion, I didn’t talk about it with many people,” Goldenberg told Variety. “I didn’t question the decision, it just felt like something you don’t talk about. It somehow felt inappropriate. Then I started reading about the history of this issue and how actually since the 1980s it’s a norm that’s been created by society where we’re making it less and less OK to talk about and that me not talking about was sort of its own political act.”
For her part, Ferreira is dedicated to unpacking the tough issues that affect young women today. Through her powerful performance as the quiet, reserved Kat Hernandez in Euphoria, who confronts a boy after leaking a video of her having sex, she explores teen sexuality and body positivity. And while many fans believe public figures like Ferreira and Richardson should use their platforms to address such issues, Ferreira believes that this is less of an obligation and more something she enjoys.
“I never think of it as a responsibility,” Ferreira says. “It's more of an interest of mine. I gravitate towards things that are maybe a little bit more controversial in other people's eyes. I gravitate towards conversations that are a little bit more taboo. I have really strong opinions and I always have… I've always chosen to be a part of something that has a greater message."