By Jonathon Van Maren
Every couple of years, the release of a new abortion film is heralded by the media as a paradigm-shifting contribution to America’s fiercest culture war. Back in 2014, Hollywood took a stab at the “abortion comedy” with Obvious Child, which was an enormous flop due to the fact that not even pro-choice viewers could quite persuade themselves that abortion is funny. Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, on the other hand, is something very different.
Hittman’s film tells the story of 17-year-old Autumn’s abortion odyssey. When Autumn finds herself pregnant, she soon discovers that due to parental consent laws, she cannot get an abortion in Pennsylvania without seeking permission from her kindly mother or loutish, drunken stepdad. Her cousin Skylar, who works with her at a local grocery store in their rural town, travels with her by bus to New York to get an abortion. The title is derived from the questionnaire that a kind Planned Parenthood employee reads to Autumn, with the multiple-choice answers being never; rarely; sometimes; or always.
The film, predictably, is being hailed as a triumph. The New Republic headlined their review by observing that “Planned Parenthood is the real hero of Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” In their estimation, the film is “almost closer to the genre of polemical documentary than fiction” because of Pennsylvania’s apparently cruel abortion laws, and “its delicate cinematography is inevitably overshadowed by the towering political issues at play.” In short: “One leaves the movie shattered with gratitude toward Planned Parenthood and the people who work there, and disoriented with rage toward almost everybody else.”
The New York Times, which featured the movie as its “critic’s pick,” concurred: “At its most obvious, it follows a 17-year-old as she tries to terminate her pregnancy. It’s a seemingly simple objective that proves (no surprise given the battles over abortion) logistically difficult, forcing her to marshal her modest resources and navigate perilous twists and turns. Here, a woman’s right to self-determination has become the stuff of a new and radical heroic journey.”
It is true that Hittman’s film is an incredibly well-made piece of propaganda. The visuals are powerful, and at times even breathtaking. It is impossible not to feel empathy for Autumn, as stolid and sullen as she is throughout the story, especially as virtually every male in the film is a creep, a pervert, or a predator, from the boyfriend who got her pregnant to a leering fellow offering his help with the clear expectation of certain favors in exchange. In fact, the more we find out about the way Autumn is treated by boys and men, the more we understand just how heartbreaking the consequences of the Sexual Revolution have been. Of course, we know this is not just her experience with men—it is the story of so many other girls as well. It is as ugly as it is real.
Hittman deftly draws the viewer into the desperation of someone who does not, as a kindly middle-aged volunteer at the crisis pregnancy center Autumn visits assures her she will, receive the sound of the thomp-thomp of a baby’s heartbeat as “the most magical sound you’ll ever hear.” Autumn, we discover, has been in an abusive relationship, and one of the most powerful scenes is the session with the Planned Parenthood counselor where she reveals the abuse that she has undergone. She feels cornered. She wants an abortion, as Frederica Mathewes-Green once put it, “as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.” Before looking for out-of-state options, Autumn attempts to self-abort, swallowing handfuls of pills and punching herself in the stomach. The sound of her fist hitting flesh is so difficult to watch that you almost instinctively shut your eyes.
And it is here that Hittman fails. This film is advertised as—and intended to be—realistic, gritty, and unflinching. This story is billed as an unblinking look at the stories that make up the abortion wars, with nothing left out. And credit where credit is due: Hittman does not demonize pro-lifers. The volunteers at the crisis pregnancy center are a bit bumbling, but fundamentally good-hearted, kind, and obviously motivated by a genuine love for pre-born children. The protestors outside the abortion clinic in New York are clearly religious (specifically, Catholic), but not angry, screaming fanatics. But that said, Hittman ignores the fact that in a crisis pregnancy, there is not just one life involved in the story. There are two—and this film expects you to essentially view events with the assumption that the other life involved is of no moral consequence. Without understanding that fact, pro-lifers obviously appear stupid, if not cruel.
When Autumn first discovers she is pregnant and gets an ultrasound at the crisis pregnancy center, we see her baby on the screen—her head, arms, and legs. We hear her heartbeat. And then, the child moves off-screen, and the viewer is expected to forget that she exists, despite the fact that the “heroic” journey Autumn embarks on is for the express purpose of ridding herself of the child we were so briefly introduced to. We are expected to forget that when Autumn is punching herself in the stomach, she is trying to punch her baby. It may seem unkind to point this out, but it is also an inescapable truth that is fundamental to this story. This fact towers over the film, and no attempt is made to grapple with the fact that the child we have seen on the screen is going to be brutally killed.
The filmmakers are fully aware of this fact, as well. The volunteer at the crisis pregnancy center shows Autumn a film produced by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform titled “Hard Truth,” and shows long-time pro-life activist Gregg Cunningham introducing the video and explaining that abortion “is an act of violence that kills a baby.” (Incidentally, I called him to let him know he was in the film, and he had no idea.) But the film cuts away just as images of aborted babies are about to come onscreen. Hittman obviously does not want the victims of abortion in a film about the desperate circumstances some girls find themselves in—that would complicate the narrative too much. This film isn’t about a moral dilemma. It is a moral defence of Planned Parenthood.
This is spelled out bluntly. Autumn tells the Planned Parenthood counselor that she is “just not ready to be a mom.” The counselor, who is easily one of the most sympathetic characters, assures her that that is “totally fine. Whatever your decision is is totally fine as long as it’s yours.” Autumn is told that she is 18 weeks pregnant, and when she asks if the abortion will be painful, she’s told it will be “a little uncomfortable.” For her, not for the baby, that is. At 18 weeks, her perfectly-formed child is just starting to hear sound—and may hear the murmuring of the conversation about her demise.
When Skylar asks Autumn what it was like once the abortion has been performed, Autumn responds that “it was kind of…whatever…It was just uncomfortable.” It brought to mind a screenshot posted on Facebook by pro-life activist Laura Klassen last week, of a message written by someone who had just had an abortion at 17 weeks. The “[o]nly part I remember,” the girl wrote, “is the pain while pulling the head out but other than that it went smoothly.” The comment section promptly filled with friends telling her they were glad that it “went okay.” The baby had been successfully dismembered, the decapitated head pulled from the womb, the procedure a success. I know it sounds extraordinarily harsh to say. But it is the truth, and without stating it bluntly it is impossible for many to understand why abortion is morally reprehensible even when the circumstances of the crisis make the desire for an abortion easier to understand.
The film ends with the two teenage girls boarding the bus to head back to Pennsylvania, the baby successfully dropped off in New York. And what awaits them there? Will Autumn’s abortion have solved the problem of her abusive boyfriend? Her troubled home life? The fact that the men in her life appear to be, without exception, moral defectives? The fact that her world seems to be drab and depressing shades of gray? Of course not.
But that is not what Hittman’s film would have us believe. The message of Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a simple and powerful one: Abortion solves everything. Have an abortion, and your problems will go away. In short: Your problem is the baby.
This film is, in many ways, a searing indictment of the Sexual Revolution. We get an up-close glimpse of a world where teenage girls expect their pornified boyfriends to make unwanted sexual demands and are unsurprised when those boys push them into things they do not want to do. Hittman shows us the grim, depressing reality of broken homes and the children who don’t quite fit anywhere, fearing even to speak with their parents (or, more often, parent) in the face of a crisis. She introduces us to a generation of lost boys who have been taught by a hyper-sexualized, porn-driven culture that they have a right to the bodies of girls and women, and act accordingly. The world that Autumn and Skylar live in is a real one. It is this one.
But it is the world that Planned Parenthood and their fellow sexual revolutionaries helped to create—and one that they now profit from by killing the unwanted children of a lost generation.