Elaine Saenz, 26, found out she was pregnant just a few weeks before her high school graduation in June of 2013. Her parents had made it clear that if she ever got pregnant, she would be kicked out of the house. So she called a friend in San Antonio, about three hours from where she lived, to tell her that she wanted an abortion. She scheduled an appointment at a Planned Parenthood for a medication abortion, so she could induce a miscarriage from the comfort of her friend’s home.
Her friend accompanied her to the appointment, supporting her as she waited for a nurse to pull her in and give her the pills that would end her unwanted pregnancy. And that’s when it happened — a moment of levity that left everyone laughing.
“My name got called to go to the back, and my friend, who is clearly a very masculine lesbian, stands up and goes, ‘Yes, it’s me — the father of her child! It was an accident! Shouldn’t have had oysters last night! Come on babe,’” Saenz tells Jezebel. “The whole room started giggling and smiling. I’ll never forget that, and I’m truly grateful to her.”
Abortion is often depicted as a heavy, fraught, devastating personal decision — usually by politicians and anti-abortion zealots. But the procedure can also be a source of joy and laughter; of conviviality and comfort; a way to feel solidarity, support, and human connection. One study found that the most common feeling after an abortion is relief, not sadness. Another study found that most abortion patients felt regret, sadness, and anger about their unwanted pregnancies, but felt happy about their abortions.
And while the ongoing state-level attacks on abortion access are undeniably serious and heartbreaking — impacting pregnant people’s lives in an intentionally cruel, inhumane way — if abortion is to be accurately discussed in public and the stigma surrounding this common reproductive outcome thoroughly abolished, then it’s long-past time to acknowledge that abortion can create moments of joy and, yes, even laughter.
It certainly did for Steffani Bangel, 32, before and immediately following her surgical abortion at 10 weeks gestation. After finding out she was pregnant during Thanksgiving break her freshman year of college in Louisiana, she scheduled her abortion at an independent clinic in New York City, her home. She remembers how odd it was to be a pregnant teenager in 2008, because Juno was the number one movie in the country at the time — a memory that, to this day, makes her laugh.
“I actually saw Juno at Union Square Theatre with a bunch of my high school friends while I was pregnant and with a scheduled abortion on the calendar,” Bangel tells Jezebel. “It was a little surreal.”
Before entering into a twilight sleep before her procedure, Bangel recalls hearing the name of her provider just as the anesthesia was kicking in — a name that was strangely familiar. When she woke up in the recovery room, she asked a nurse if the provider was still there and if he could come back and talk to her.
“He turned out to be the very same physician who had delivered me eighteen years prior,” she says, laughing. “We both laughed. We both thought it was wild and uncanny. And he recognized my last name too, which is also unusual. And he remembered my mom! There was something so cinematic and universal in the fact that the physician who delivered me at NYU Medical Center forty blocks from where I got my abortion was the same physician who ended a pregnancy I didn’t want.”
It’s not just that more real-life abortion stories like Sanez’s and Bangel’s need to be told; fictional depictions of abortion can also go a long way towards combating the stigma of abortion. Between 2015 and 2019, there were 85 abortion storylines in television and film, according to a recent study by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. And while abortion is still predominately depicted in dramas, abortion plotlines in comedies have increased — from just 7 percent in an almost 10-year time span between 2005 and 2014, to 27 percent between 2015 and 2019.
Crazy X Girlfriend showed a mom having an abortion, and when a friend comes to her home her daughter says, “Sorry, my mom just had an abortion she can’t come to the door right now.” Unpregnant, an abortion road trip comedy, showcases all kinds of hijinks on two friends’ quest to obtain out-of-state abortion care. In Claws, a boyfriend proposes to his girlfriend after her abortion. When anti-abortion protestors cheer, assuming she didn’t go through with the procedure, she yells back, “We still D&C’d that shit, bitch!”
In 2014, Jenny Slate starred in the independent film Obvious Child, which was later dubbed the first “abortion rom-com.” The film centers around Donna, a comedian living in Brooklyn, who after a painful breakup played “Russian roulette with her vagina.” Donna has an abortion, and hilarity ensues.
Slate didn’t like the term “abortion rom-com.” She told The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman that abortion rom-coms are not a thing, arguing that “the movie isn’t saying that abortions are funny,” but that people are. Slate argued that the film purposefully showed how someone can be sure of their decision to have an abortion, still feel many different kinds of feelings about it, and have downright funny post-abortion experiences.
“I feel I have to be totally cemented in my position, all: ‘You can’t tell me what to do with my body,’” Slate said. “But there is another part of me that is, you know, myself: vulnerable, with lots of doubts. I think our film shows that complexity.”
This kind of humorous, complex, accurate depiction of abortion care is what Steph Herold, a research analyst who studies the portrayal of abortion on television and in film for ANSIRH, wants to see more of. “It can show people who’ve had abortions that if they experienced moments of levity, that they’re not alone,” she tells Jezebel. “That if they weren’t there just crying before, during, and after, that’s totally fine and normal and okay. There are moments when something funny happens, and that’s part of a lot of people’s experiences.”
Herold says these depictions can also show people how to support someone who has had or is going through the process of obtaining an abortion: It doesn’t just have to be sitting next to the patient quietly; it can also be watching a funny movie, or telling them a joke to lighten up the mood.
For Kelley Huber, 28, who was facing a painful IUD insertion after her medication abortion at around 9 weeks gestation, her moment of levity was in singing Dolly Parton. While she says her abortion was empowering, she was scared about the possible pain she’d feel when she had her post-abortion IUD. So she asked her provider if she could listen to music and selected her Dolly playlist.
“So I turn on Dolly and I try to breathe, and then that soft-strumming intro of ‘Islands In The Stream’ starts. I’m lying there, legs in the stirrups, wondering if my provider will think I’m an oddball for playing ‘Islands in the Stream’ during my appointment, until my petite and serene provider tries this molasses-thick drawl to sing Kenny Loggins’ intro,” Huber tells Jezebel. “I couldn’t hold it together, not only because it was so wonderfully bad of an impression, but because it was such a selfless gesture. We sang the whole song together, with me butchering Dolly’s part, before I openly screamed ‘motherfucker’ at that little device going in.”
While some people do feel very sad about their abortions, and that reaction is as valid and legitimate as any, many people also feel joy, and happiness, and share a good laugh, or a poorly sang song. And as those in power continue to chip away at abortion access and attack people who seek out and provide abortions, celebrating the jubilation and humor of abortion isn’t just highlighting the reality of abortion care — it’s a radical act of defiant, unwavering self-love.