Important Viewing: New movie casts stark light on Pa.’s teen’s quest for an abortion | Opinion

A scene from the new movie "Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Screen Capture)

By Tara Murtha

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” the new film that traces the story of a Pennsylvania teenager struggling to find abortion care that earned the Special Jury award at the Sundance Film Festival, was released to video-on-demand on Friday, April 3.

The film is an aching blue-and-gray toned drama starring Sidney Flanigan in a startling debut performance as Autumn, a working-class Pennsylvania teenager facing an unplanned pregnancy.

Autumn lives in a dysfunctional household with a depressed mother and her mom’s deadbeat boyfriend, whose furtive glances at Autumn are razor-sharp enough to make a viewer’s stomach curdle though unnoticed by anyone else in the household.

At school, a boy makes an obscene gesture at Autumn who responds by tossing water in his face. Autumn is tough, but she can’t hide the fear on her face as she inspects her swelling belly in the mirror.

Soon we see Autumn enter a room and ask a receptionist for a pregnancy test.

It’s never stated, but anyone familiar with “crisis pregnancy centers” will recognize the facility Autumn visits for what it is: One of hundreds of faith-based organizations across Pennsylvania that advertise free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds as a pretext to lure vulnerable low-income people like Autumn into the building so they can try to coerce them into childbirth. (The CPC chain Real Alternatives still receives millions of taxpayer dollars despite allegations of financial malfeasance in Pennsylvania and losing their contract in Michigan.)

The pregnancy test is positive. Next, a woman donning a white lab coat performs an ultrasound and informs Autumn that she’s 10 weeks pregnant.

Back home, we watch Autumn type “Abortions Under 18 Pennsylvania” into a search bar and pull up what looks like the Guttmacher Institute’s overview of Pennsylvania’s very long list of abortion laws.

Autumn focuses on this bullet point: “The parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided.”

Indeed, Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act of 1982 mandates that a physician—assumed to be a “he”—must have permission from a parent or guardian to provide abortion care to a minor.

Pennsylvania law also, however, permits use of the judicial bypass for minors who can’t obtain a parent’s approval.

Unfortunately, in the movie, Autumn doesn’t realize a judicial bypass is an option. So she and her cousin set off for New York City, where they navigate a series of dangers including creepy adult men—some hitting on them, some chanting and screaming at them outside a clinic.

By subtly weaving the atmospheric threat of sexual violence into the obstacle course of obtaining abortion care, director Eliza Hittman deftly highlights how sexual violence and reproductive oppression are connected, how they are complementary strategies with the shared goal of controlling women’s lives by controlling our bodies.

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Finally, Autumn gets to talk to real professionals at a legitimate clinic. She slumps in her chair as she’s told she’ll have to undergo another ultrasound since doctors at the clinic can’t rely on the accuracy of tests conducted elsewhere.

Sure enough, Autumn learns she’s actually 18 weeks pregnant. The revelation means she has to travel even further to another clinic that can perform a second-trimester abortion. (Fudging ultrasound dates is a common tactic at many CPCs. The goal is to trick the client into missing the window for having an abortion.)

After a few more harrowing obstacles, Autumn finally has an abortion.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a beautiful film and I recommend it. It does an excellent job of showing, as one reviewer put it, how “two teenage girls are forced to navigate a system seemingly designed to foil their autonomy and dignity at every turn.”

But here’s the thing: I’d like everyone to watch this film, but I also want everyone to know Autumn didn’t have to go to New York City for an abortion.

People under 18 years old in Pennsylvania have the right to a judicial bypass—meaning they can ask a judge for permission to get an abortion without telling their parents or guardian.

Attorneys at the Women’s Law Project represent minors such as Autumn in judicial bypass proceedings at no cost. Minors who need an abortion but are unable to ask a parent or guardian for consent should contact the Women’s Law Project for help.

Right now, amid coronavirus, it’s more important than ever for young people in Pennsylvania to know about judicial bypass because stay-at-home and social distancing can exacerbate domestic and interpersonal abuse.

I hope you watch Never Rarely Sometimes Always. We discuss abortion in the context of politics too often and don’t see it portrayed in the context of people’s lives enough, despite the fact abortion is a common experience.

As disheartening as it is watching teenagers struggle through an obstacle course to find abortion care, Never Rarely Sometimes Always beautifully renders the courage and resilience of these girls, who like millions of people before them, will whatever it takes to maintain the right to control their own lives. 

Tara Murtha is director of communications at Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal organization devoted to protecting and expanding the rights of women, girls, and LGTBQ+ people in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Pennsylvania courts are temporarily closed due to coronavirus, but WLP is working to ensure that judicial bypass hearings remain accessible expeditiously and confidentially, as required by the Abortion Control Act and the state and federal constitutions, and that court protocols prioritize public safety and minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission.  

If you need legal information or assistance related to judicial bypass, call us and leave a message at 412-281-3048. Spanish-speaking support is available.