Thursday 27 February 2014

It's time to slay the 'killer abortion' story

Today’s guest blogpost is from Lucy V Hay, a novelist, script editor and blogger who has just written a novel exploring one young woman’s pregnancy decision making process. She shares her insight on fictional accounts of abortion.

I’m grateful to live somewhere that allows for a woman’s right to choose, but abortion is frequently depicted in a negative light by movies and television. This Slate article sheds some light on the offenders, but does not, in my opinion, give a viable reason as to why this is so often the case.
As well as being the author of a pro-choice novel, The Decision: Lizzie's Story, I'm a script editor for movies, so hopefully I can offer an explanation – and though it may surprise some progressives, it’s not that the people creating those movies or television shows necessarily disagree with abortion!

When learning how to create fiction, the first thing any wannabe writer is taught is that, “drama is conflict”. In other words, a writer needs to create the worst problems for his/her characters that s/he can; it is overcoming those problems that make an audience relate to that character and invest in the character’s journey. So, if a story about abortion is to have the “most” conflict it can, obviously it will include death.

Simple, eh? But this is also where it gets complicated …

… 1 in 3 women in the UK will have an abortion at some point in their lives. What’s more, the likelihood of dying from having a legal abortion is extremely low. In fact, the risk of death from childbirth is 14 times higher than for abortion. So for starters, a story has potentially up to a third of its female audience going, “Eh? That just wouldn't happen!” Not. Good.

Secondly, though an individual movie or TV show may feature a death from an unsafe abortion (for example, if it was set in a time or place where abortion was illegal or inaccessible, like in the film Vera Drake), the sheer lack of variety in the representation of abortion in the media becomes problematic. It’s worth remembering, lots of people get their information from fiction … That’s why soap operas carry the famous: “If you have been affected by any of the storylines …” bit at the end of the show, alongside helpline numbers.

So if writers and producers shrug their shoulders and say, “It’s just a story!”, they are right. In isolation, their “killer abortion” story is just a story.

But all those “killer abortion” stories put together? A statement.

Working with writers, I am always at pains to point out we must be varied in our depictions of characters and situations and the “killer abortion” is no different. We are extremely lucky that safe abortion is a reality in Great Britain and that our friends, daughters, sisters and mothers have the right to bodily autonomy. But it’s also a sad reality that very few stories reflect this: instead, whether the writers and producers believe in the pro-choice message or not, they go for the lazy and stereotypical notion that “abortion kills” or is ‘dangerous’ in other ways (such as leading to infertility). It’s time to slay the “killer abortion” story and seek out representations that empower female characters – and the audience watching them.


  1. Yep. Well said. Abortion is not dangerous- at least not when it is legal and performed by qualified practitioners, as it is in the UK. Actually lots of medical procedures such as operations, or even taking antibiotics or anti anxiety drugs, are much more dangerous and have side effects and consequences.

  2. Thanks Slutty ;) I think we have a kickback against most medical procedures in fiction: we naturally go for the "worst case scenario", imagining that will be the most powerful story when in actual fact it becomes tired and stereotypical very fast. I can't comment on whether negative depiction of abortion makes the experience "worse" for women who have them because I have never had the procedure, but another example I do have experience of would be cancer treatment. Obviously lots of people DO die from cancer each year, but the odds are in most people's favour when caught early, especially if it is not an "unusual" cancer and/or they're on the younger side. Yet, judging by the representation of cancer in TV shows and in movies, you would think it is an automatic death sentence and this DOES add to a cancer patient's fear, because media images and the written words have powers of connotation all their own. Any filmmaker or writer who insists they do not wants to let him/herself off the hook for lame representation, IMHO ;)