A crinkle of paper, a bathroom stall and a small white stick launch HBO Max’s newest film release “Unpregnant.” It’s a somewhat familiar story, with its predecessors “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Juno,” and even “Dirty Dancing” tackling similar narratives of teen pregnancy, reproductive health and abortion.
But, the film leaves its mark on these matters all the same, using comedy and performances from Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) and her friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) as they travel across state-lines for an abortion procedure. While many critics gave the filmography and acting a thumbs-up, the film also employs deeper messages about women’s sexual and reproductive health — it reminds us about crucial, pressing issues like intimate partner violence, women’s accessibility and the ultimate necessity of health care as a human right.
A running form of comedic relief, Veronica’s persistent and crazy boyfriend Kevin provides an exceedingly clear starting point to the issue of intimate partner violence, emotional manipulation and reproductive control in relationships. As he embarrasses Veronica with his public marriage proposal, tracks her across the country and gaslights her at the abortion clinic before her procedure, it’s no surprise Bailey continues to call Kevin a stalker. He not only doesn’t tell Veronica about a condom breaking, but intentionally planned a future resting on the probability Veronica would become pregnant and have to remain in Missouri rather than attending college. This relationship is an immediate reminder that women’s reproductive rights are intrinsically tied to intimate partner violence.
While intimate partner violence manifests in many ways, reproductive control, birth control sabotage, sexual assault and emotional manipulation are a few channels that can cause unintended pregnancies for women. One study from the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association found that 34% of women reported that their abusive partners had limited their ability to decide whether or not to have children. While Kevin and Veronica’s breakup provides a sigh of relief to the audience, too many women often find themselves stuck in cycles of abuse, unable to make decisions for their needs and their bodies.
This issue is intersectional at its core. While Veronica was able to (with great difficulty) drive 996 miles for her procedure, many women, whether facing intimate partner violence or not, endure similar struggles. As Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health explains, recent extensive restrictions and subsequent closures of abortion clinics limit women’s accessibility to reproductive care as they face challenges like making multiple visits, taking days off work, finding child care and paying for transportation. These limitations disproportionately affect certain populations, including low-income women, women of color and rural women.
While issues of intimate partner violence and reproductive health are incredibly important, “Unpregnant” does an excellent job of tackling these difficult matters in a relatable, graceful way. As the film ends with Veronica’s mother telling her that though she wouldn’t make the same choice as Veronica (and may never understand it), she will always love her. It reminds us that every person’s reproductive needs are unique, and while we may not make the same choice as someone else, health care, including reproductive care, is a human right and one that must be protected, honored and upheld.