Renee Bracey Sherman is a writer and reproductive justice activist.
Pop culture has made some progress since 1956, when an addition to the Motion Picture Production Code that governed Hollywood movie-making declared, “The subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and, when referred to, shall be condemned.” But even by contemporary standards, in which characters are allowed to have abortions and movies can depict those decisions positively, Nia DaCosta’s debut feature film, “Little Woods,” is a politically urgent revelation.
Rather than making the decision to have an abortion the major source of tension in the film, DaCosta starkly depicts the sacrifices that families make to afford health care, dramatizing the recent onslaught of restrictions on abortion. And her character’s choices place abortion in conversation with our national debate about opioid addiction and drug trafficking to illuminate these well-worn subjects in new ways.
Set in rural North Dakota near the Canadian border, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is serving her final week on probation for illegal oxycodone sales. Her sister Deb (Lily James) is unexpectedly pregnant and figuring out how to care for her young son, maintain their trailer-van home and get to the nearest abortion clinic. With no other options for income, Ollie reluctantly returns to selling oxycodone.
“Little Woods” is more realistic about why American women have abortions than most other pop-culture treatments of the subject. In the film, Deb attempts to start prenatal care, but when faced with a four-to-six-week wait and an $8,000 price tag (without insurance) to give birth, she decides to have an abortion.
Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, found in their study of depictions of abortion on American television that only 15 percent of characters who terminate pregnancies are already parenting. Not being financially prepared is a reason for ending a pregnancy in only 10 percent of plot lines. The truth is, 59 percent of abortion patients have given birth at least once before, a majority are women of color, and three-quarters in 2014 were low-income.
The cost of pregnancy and child-rearing is a common aspect of what reproductive justice advocates call economic coercion: Some people have abortions simply because they cannot afford to have a child and the government does not provide adequate safety-net services such as food, transportation and housing resources to support people taking care of another baby. What “Little Woods” does give Deb, though, is emotional support: Though Ollie is adopted, she stands by her sister rather than using her own adoption to urge Deb to make a different decision.
“Little Woods” is also revelatory about the logistical challenges involved in having an abortion. After a series of devastating mishaps, the sisters ultimately make a road trip to Canada for an abortion because the only clinic in their state is hundreds of miles away.
“I am much more interested in the reality that, no matter what laws are in place, abortions will happen. Once someone decides and realizes that there are so many barriers to access, what will they do?” DaCosta said.
Traveling long distances for an abortion is increasingly common as onerous restrictions increase; by contrast, Canada is facilitating access to abortion, including a decision last week to remove an unnecessary ultrasound requirement for medication abortions.
“Women seeking abortions in North Dakota can travel anywhere from one to six hours one way to reach Fargo,” explained Tammi Kromenaker, director of Red River Women’s Clinic, the only abortion clinic in North Dakota. “[Patients] face a number of barriers such as restrictions on Medicaid coverage of abortions, a ban on insurance coverage of abortions, and having to walk through a barrage of bullying protesters just to enter the clinic.”
The financial and logistical barriers Deb experiences are common occurrences for people who call abortion funds, such as the North Dakota Women In Need Abortion Access Fund, which raise money to help abortion patients pay for the procedure.
And “Little Woods” draws a blunt comparison behind the medicine we restrict and the medicine that’s all too easy to find. Throughout the film, oxycodone, an addictive, dangerous drug, is readily — although illegally — available. Abortion pills are extremely safe, but in “Little Woods,” they are harder to find. The lack of the latter pushes the characters toward dealing in the former. As Ollie puts it, “Your choices are only as good as your options are.”
This contrast starkly demonstrates the illogic of our abortion policy. And Ollie’s argument is one of the tenets of reproductive justice, a framework created by black women demanding we examine the community circumstances in which a person is making their pregnancy and parenting decisions. “Little Woods” forces viewers to consider whether our laws are producing the outcomes we want: A regimen that pushes a family to deal drugs so they can be in the best possible position to care for Deb’s son doesn’t exactly seem like a pro-life victory.
Given the stakes of our current debates over abortion, mainstream Hollywood’s steps toward depicting abortion remain artistically — and politically — timid. If the entertainment industry really cares about reproductive rights, it could take a lesson from “Little Woods” about how to tell the truths about abortions that Americans need to hear.