The 'Roswell, New Mexico' Abortion Storyline Is Just As Timely As Ever

Showrunner Carina Adly MacKenzie and actor Lily Cowles 'had to fight' to bring Isobel's raw narrative to TV screens

Make no mistake: Roswell, New Mexico is, in many ways, a fantasy. But in the story of three humanoid aliens finding a new sense of home after being abandoned on earth, and of the people they love and who love them, there are plenty of opportunities to tell real-world stories, too.

Take the character of Isobel Evans (Lily Cowles): In the CW show’s second season, she learns that she is pregnant by her villainous ex-husband, but feels like she has few options available to her. She can’t go to a doctor, she reasons, because her body is not of this world and doing so would risk her discovery. And she opts not to confide in her family, or anyone else she knows. Instead, Isobel decides to take a poison specifically designed to shut alien bodies down, despite receiving cautionary visions from her late brother Max (Nathan Parsons) warning her against it. What results is a self-induced abortion with potentially disastrous consequences — and a story that showrunner Carina Adly MacKenzie, who co-wrote the episode in response to the so-called “heartbeat bills” that conservative lawmakers tried to pass in states like Georgia and Ohio, hopes will resonate with viewers in a particularly timely way.

In telling this story, Roswell, New Mexico joins at least 43 other TV shows that featured abortion storylines in 2019. Isobel’s experience includes a particularly rough set of barriers, albeit fantastical ones, that complicate her ability to receive medical care. In that way, she mirrors the people who live in abortion deserts, or in states that mandate restrictive waiting periods and other invasive hurdles that many individuals living paycheck-to-paycheck simply can’t afford to broach. In March alone, lawmakers in Texas, Ohio, and Iowa have tried to use the current coronavirus pandemic as cause to ban abortion care by deeming it an “elective” and “non-essential” procedure. But how can a service that has the potential to change the trajectory of someone’s life forever be defined as “non-essential?”

The Roswell, New Mexico team kept the people who might be denied choice-affirming care in mind as they worked on what would eventually become the third episode of Season 2. MTV News spoke with Adly MacKenzie and Cowles about their supernatural allegory for the issues at stake, how it feels that this episode is airing at a time when abortion access is visibly under attack in the United States, and science fiction’s legacy of tackling controversial topics.

MTV News: How did you and the writers decide to tell this story? 

Carina Adly MacKenzie: There wasn't a plan in place last season for Noah impregnating Isobel. This was something that was really born out of wanting to speak to what it looks like when someone feels like they have to take desperate measures to save their own life, whether that's their actual physical life or the kind of life that they're choosing to have. That's the story that we're trying to tell with Isobel. It's really about her being unable to access the care that she needs through medical professionals, and doing something very, very dangerous and very, very scary to protect her own bodily autonomy and her own agency, which has been taken from her for a very long time.

Lily was the first phone call that I made, and she was at first a little bit freaked out by it. I was like, “I'm not sure that this is something I want to tackle. I'm thinking about it and then I want to put it in your head and see what you think.” She circled back to me later and was like, “Let's do it.”

Lily Cowles: I remember this moment so well. She called me and she's like, "Listen, I have an idea for Isobel and I want to run it by you because it's no small thing." And it knocked the wind out of me when she told me. For a moment I had this resistance because I knew what it was going to take to go there as an actor and to put your character through that. But Carina was very sensitive about it and told me, "I want you to think about this and take some time and tell me what your thoughts are." It was really intimidating, but I knew that it was extremely important. And so I called her the next day and I said, "We’ve got to do it."

MTV News: That Isobel tries to self-induce an abortion because she can't access care is an allegory in a sci-fi setting, but it has very real world parallels, and very real world stakes. One report from the Guttmacher Institute found that the number of attempted self-induced abortions may be on the rise, likely because people feel like they have few resources or options. With that in mind, how did you draw the line between fantasy and reality?

Cowles: It is absolutely allegorical with Isobel. She's an alien, and she can't get medical help because she has a different biology. And yet this is the reality that so many women have faced in a very real way. There are so many women who face this and I think that was the reason we felt we really needed to tell this story.

Adly MacKenzie: I think it's a very real story. We have Isobel taking alien poison but the metaphor is right there. It's not a leap to imagine a woman in this situation and what measures she might take. The story is about an alien who can't go to a normal hospital, but it's also about a woman who can't afford a $400 procedure, or a teenager who can't tell her parents, or someone in Texas right now where abortion is being halted because it's considered an elective, non-essential surgery during this pandemic, which could go on for months and months and months. Anybody in any of those scenarios could become desperate.

Cowles: There's a real stigma around this subject and it's such a hot-button political issue for so many people. Ultimately it's the most personal situation that someone can be in. In my opinion, it's absolutely the business of the person that's just going through it and it is not something that the nation needs to be commenting on.

Adly MacKenzie: We did try to make Isobel's story mirror reality. There’s a lot of blood involved and we had to fight to be able to show that on TV. We wanted to show the ugliness of what it really looks like on TV because we wanted to make sure that we weren't telling a story that sugarcoats the experience in any way or that makes it seem like it's safe to try this at home without medical help. Were she not in a sci-fi situation, she says, “I would be a statistic.”

Cowles: We felt an obligation to tell this story hopefully so that we could say “you're not alone” to people who have had to go through something like this, who are facing this.

MTV News: The fact that Isobel tries to self-induce without medical supervision is important to distinguish, because statistically, a medically-supervised abortion is one of the safest procedures there are. How did you make sure that you were telling a story about a dangerous situation as responsibly as you could?

Cowles: We're taking on a very real story that many women face and deal with and an issue that still feels dangerous to touch. I think the story that we're looking to tell here is that women’s bodies are their own bodies. We're investigating the consequences of what happens when you take away female autonomy. And it's not pretty.

Adly MacKenzie: One in four women have gotten abortions in one way or another. She is doing this in an unsafe way and I think we're really clear about that in the episode and we make sure to drive home the idea that poison is not the method, but also that it is a very real story about what happens when people get desperate.

Cowles: This is a reality that we face as a consequence of putting restrictions on female reproductive health. This is the consequence. What will happen as the people will get into situations where they have unwanted pregnancies that maybe threaten their lives, threaten their futures in some way, and they have no opportunities to manage it because of restrictions that other people have put on them?

Adly MacKenzie: We're not telling the story for shock value. We really tried to avoid glamorizing any aspect of it. There was a point in which I was asked if I could make the blood glittery. I was horrified by that. I hope that people see the ugly side of it and understand the story that we're trying to tell.

MTV News: What was it like to work with each other on this episode specifically?

Adly MacKenzie: Lily is a person who puts a lot of care and a lot of thought into her work. She comes prepared. We had a lot of conversations. I think the thing that she brought to this was fearlessness. It's a very vulnerable story to tell. She's lying in a nightgown while people are applying fake blood to her inner thigh and she's crying and she's trying to get into this space of being in a lot of pain. It was a very solemn day on set and I think that Lily took it very seriously, but she approached it ready to be completely vulnerable.

MTV News: How did you make sure that Lily was supported throughout all the filming?

Adly MacKenzie: Jeff Hunt is a director I've worked with before and who the whole cast knew pretty well. He was somebody who our cast was comfortable with. I was also on set the entire time, and Deirdre, the other writer, was on set as much as she could be.

Cowles: I came into it already feeling I was in a very safe place. I think the way that Carina handled it in general, having called me and asked me to think about it, it was always something that I felt I had a certain amount of say in. It wasn't like, “You're doing this so good luck and have fun.” It was very much a collaborative experience where I got to feel like I was really at the helm in a lot of ways.

Adly MacKenzie: I'm very serious about making sure the actors are always feeling safe and feeling comfortable even when they're portraying unsafe and uncomfortable situations. I think she was surrounded by a lot of love and a lot of feminine energy. We asked her, “OK, what do you think Isobel would be wearing in this situation? How much do you think we should be seeing? How much are you comfortable with the positioning?” When you're shooting those difficult angles, you want to make sure that the actor has the choice. She definitely guides the situation.

Richard Foreman/The CW

Good Mother

MTV News: During the moments Isobel is imagining her brother Max, she tells him that her desire to induce an abortion isn't really a matter of motherhood. Can you walk me through why you decided to include those lines?

Adly MacKenzie: It wasn't about being selfish and it's not about whether Isobel wants to be a mother. It's about having agency over her body right now and about choosing the way that you want to become a parent if you do want to become a parent. We wanted to tell a story about choosing how and when your life takes big turns.

Cowles: I truly believe that Isobel wants to be a mother. I think she wants to have a family. If Noah hadn't been a psychopathic, serial-killing alien, she probably would've wanted to have kids with him. She might've been trying for a baby, but the way that her marriage turned out… Consent almost became a question for her.

Adly MacKenzie: She's reacting to something that she never really had a say in. Now she does have a choice, and she's making it. She's just in a situation in which making that choice isn't easy, when it should be.

Cowles: Being pregnant and having a child is probably one of the most wonderful things that a human being can do. And it is conversely maybe the most terrible thing that can happen to someone when it threatens their life or their future or their personhood. And I think that's what Isobel is facing with this is, “These are not the terms that I want. This is not how I want it to be. It’s not that I don't want to be a mother, but that I want to be a mother on my own terms.”

MTV News: This episode is airing concurrent to the fight to protect abortion access in states where lawmakers are trying to argue that the procedure is “non-essential.” Given that this episode was written in response to the Georgia bill that was eventually blocked, how do you feel about the continued timeliness of the issue? 

Adly MacKenzie: It's always under siege. The people who want to ban abortion are always looking for a new reason. I also was shocked when I thought it was being considered a non-essential medical service. But then that shock turned into, “Of fucking course, the world is falling apart right now and this is what some people are thinking about.” It is a life-saving procedure always, every time. Sometimes it's about literally saving the mother's life. But it's also about protecting the lives that they're choosing and protecting the lives that they want to lead.

Cowles: We live in an age when particularly white men are trying to make decisions about female bodies. It seems like something that should've been resolved a long time ago. You can decide that you would never want to have an abortion and that is absolutely valid. Or you might need to have an abortion and you should absolutely be granted the ability to do that. It's sad at this point that we're still fighting this fight, but we have to keep fighting for it because having autonomy over one's health and one's body seems to me a very basic fundamental human right.

Adly MacKenzie: It's frustrating. When the heartbeat bill in Georgia didn't pass, I felt this immense sense of relief. But what's the next thing? And there's always something. With the Supreme Court as it stands right now, I don't know that we're going to see the end of this fight in our lifetimes. It seems like there's an endless battle against women having control over themselves and their own medical care.

MTV News: A lot of people believe that certain television shows shouldn't be political, but many elements in Roswell, New Mexico are really political. What responsibility do you think the show has to wade into the more obviously political waters?

Adly MacKenzie: I don't think the show is more political than our daily lives are. I just think it's more political than other shows are. I think other shows avoid the politics that we face on a day-to-day basis and we're just not doing the acrobatics to avoid it.

Cowles: It’s a responsibility to shed light onto all the different parts of the human experience. Some of them are really not pleasant. They're ugly and they're scary and they're raw. They make you uncomfortable. It is part of the work to represent that just as much as you represent how good it feels to be in love and to triumph over your woes. It's equally part of the human experience.

Adly MacKenzie: I don't necessarily think the show is there to push any agenda except for humanity — ironically, because we're literally dealing with actual creatures from outer space. But it's not about the politics, it's about the humanity. That's where we try to live in our storytelling.

Sci-fi, for as long as it's existed, has been about metaphor, has been about telling human stories in a fantastical way. Anybody who's a sci-fi writer will save that they're telling you a story that's a metaphor for real human emotion. The difference between that and what we do is that we are telling a story that's a metaphor alongside telling the story that's real life. Here, we’re telling a story about what it feels like to be an unwelcome alien on earth, and also telling a story about what it feels like to be an undocumented American in a border state. And we’re trying to tell it with compassion as opposed to spectacle.

These interviews have been edited for length.