The term “road trip” used to mean jumping in a car with friends or family to go on an adventure—maybe to watch the Olympic Games (as in the 2002 Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen film Getting There) or perhaps just to get home to your loved ones (as in Planes, Trains and Automobiles). But lately, we’ve seen a trend of a different kind of road trip: One where the destination is an abortion clinic.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant are two movies released this year that focus on this new trend. And while these movies (in true road trip fashion) suggest that it’s about the journey, not the destination, they still end with their title characters terminating their pregnancies.
In Never Rarely Sometimes Always (which came out in March), audiences are introduced to Autumn, the eldest child of a working-class family in Pennsylvania. At 17, Autumn is too young to have an abortion without her parents’ permission. So, she travels to New York with her cousin, Skylar, to end her pregnancy at a Planned Parenthood facility.
In Unpregnant (released on HBO Max earlier this month), we meet Veronica. And besides the fact that she’s also 17, pregnant and too young to have an abortion without parental consent, she has almost nothing in common with Autumn. Veronica is the youngest child of a well-to-do family in Missouri and Ivy League bound. So, she hitches a ride with her former best friend Bailey to get to a clinic in New Mexico.
Compared directly, these two films tell two very different stories. Autumn’s tale is somber and heavy. She and Skylar face sexual harassment on a daily basis from their classmates, their boss at the local supermarket and even random strangers as they journey to New York. We’re invited to sympathize with Autumn as the guy responsible for fathering her child yells “slut” during her solo performance at a school concert. And we also learn that she was forced into a sexual act at least once.
Veronica’s tale, on the other hand, is light and funny. She and Bailey relive childhood experiences together, fend off comically bad pro-life protesters and build new friendships on their journey. And unlike Autumn, the father of Veronica’s baby loves her so much that he proposes when he finds out she’s pregnant.
But the goal of these movies is still the same—to normalize abortion.
Considering how different Autumn and Veronica’s journeys are, the depictions of their destinations are surprisingly similar. Once inside their respective abortion clinics, the processes are nearly identical. They are questioned by kind and sympathetic nurses. The abortion itself is depicted as a calm and even peaceful process. And when the girls are finished, they feel nothing but relief.
However, neither film addresses the fact that what is happening is the ending of a human life. In fact, Unpregnant goes out of its way to state that Veronica’s child isn’t a baby “yet,” and the nurse who eventually performs the ultrasound to confirm her pregnancy tells Veronica that she doesn’t have to look at the monitor (a poignant point in the Focus on the Family documentary See Life 2020 since many mothers who see their child through an ultrasound choose life for their babies).
Furthermore, both films reinforce simplistic and inaccurate caricatures of pro-life volunteers. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, this comes in the form of a well-meaning worker at a women’s crisis pregnancy center urging Autumn to choose adoption, lying about how far along in her pregnancy she is and ultimately showing her an extreme scare-tactic video about abortion. In Unpregnant, the girls are literally kidnapped by a Christian couple and later chased down in an ultrasound-equipped RV, causing them to drive off a cliff, Thelma and Louise style.
There’s also the heartbreaking fact that neither girl is able to speak to a trusted adult before making their decision. Even though Autumn and Veronica both seem to have loving and understanding mothers, they both find it too difficult to tell their moms the truth about what they are going through.
These films chose a very vulnerable target audience. When your title characters are 17 (conveniently just under the mark to have an abortion without notifying the parents), there’s no doubt what the message is—that abortion laws are “oppressive” and teen girls should be able to access this basic “healthcare” more easily. And when these same characters are as likable and relatable as Veronica or as hurt and scared as Autumn, it makes it difficult for any young audience member to objectively see that these girls would have had many other options if they had just been able to talk to someone that wasn’t openly trying to manipulate them one way or the other.
The new “abortion road trip” genre (and movies like it) attempts to remove the stigma surrounding abortion and paint it as something to be celebrated, not mourned (something that Plugged In director Adam Holz addressed in a blog last week). It urges young people to view abortion as something as routine and normal as having one’s appendix removed. And it does so by focusing not on the emotional repercussions of the act once these girls reach their destination but rather on the emotional (and indirectly related) coming-of-age journeys they take to get there.
For those looking for a more realistic depiction of abortion, I would recommend the Pure Flix film Unplanned, about how former Planned Parenthood worker Abby Johnson learned the truth about what was happening in abortion clinics and became a prolific warrior in the pro-life movement (although I would also advise viewers to read the Plugged In review first since the film is rated R for some graphic depictions of abortion). You can also learn more about the harsh realities of abortion—both emotional and otherwise—in Focus on the Family’s new documentary See Life 2020 (which you can read the review for here).