Stealing a Page

Michael Metzger

Popular media depictions of abortion have markedly increased in 2019. Abortion proponents are shrewd. They’re stealing a page from impactful movements.

Abortion depicted as an everyday matter-of-fact occurrence is increasing in popular shows and films. The actors are unapologetic. In the pilot for “Shrill,” Abby, the single millennial played by Aidy Bryant, says she feels “powerful” after having terminated her unplanned pregnancy.

This is a marked departure from how abortion was depicted in the ’80s. Most characters facing unplanned pregnancies then usually agonized about what to do. No more. So far, halfway through 2019, nearly two dozen characters have said they’ve have had one or are going to. No big deal. Get over it.

Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, has been researching this trend. She’s been tracking how abortion is characterized onscreen. “You’re definitely seeing more of the matter-of-fact ‘I am pregnant, I don’t want to be, I’m going to have an abortion’.” Sisson adds: “And it’s gone way up in 2019.”

In 2018, there were 18 instances of characters mentioning abortions. A little more than halfway through 2019, that figure was already at 21. Sisson expects this year to match or outpace her tally from 2017, when the figure hit a high of 34.

This impacts how people imagine abortion. According to Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who are pro-choice is increasing slightly, the percentage who are pro-life is decreasing slightly. And now women who have had abortions overwhelmingly say they made the right decision, according to a study released in 2015.

I’m pro-life but recognize the pro-choice movement is presently more impactful. The reason is two opposing approaches. Pro-life tends to focus on words, reason, and worldviews. Pro-choice tends to focus on images and influential institutions. Pro-choice is shrewd, as they’re simply stealing a page from movements that change the world.

Impactful movements recognize art has the power to change the world. But its art must be associated with influential institutions (think: mainstream media). The pro-choice movement recognizes this. But it’s not the first to do this. Abortion advocates are in fact stealing a page from the gay movement.

Years ago, Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen predicted the gay movement would alter beliefs “without reference to facts, logic or proof.”[1] By waging a culture war? Nope. By focusing on images and influential institutions. The gay movement is impacting the world.

But gay leaders are simply stealing a page from Mormonism, another growing movement seeking to change the world. Mormon vitality is attributed to sacrifice and service. But Mormon impact is attributed to focusing on images and influential institutions. In The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough writes of Mormon artists who enrolled at the Académie Julian, one of the most elite art institutes of that day. Today you can find Mormon writers and actors throughout Hollywood and Broadway.

But Mormonism is simply stealing a page from the Clapham movement (c. 1790-1833). Clapham helped abolish the English Slave Trade. It focused on images and influential institutions. Their most notable image was the AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER? plate produced by Wedgwood, the most influential pottery maker of that day.

But Clapham was stealing a page from the medieval church. It focused on images and institutions. Think: Michelangelo and The House of Medici, the Italian banking family and political dynasty in the Republic of Florence during the first half of the 15th century.

“Thou shalt not steal” doesn’t preclude stealing a page from impactful movements. Few pro-lifers do this. Take the 2019 film “Unplanned,” based on the memoir of a clinical director at Planned Parenthood. It’s taken in $18 million, mostly from churches encouraging congregations to see it. “Unplanned” is a good film but was produced outside influential institutions, so hardly anyone outside the faith community has seen it.

A better film is U2’s 2004 pro-life video, Origin of the Species. In 2018, however, U2 launched a tour with a call to repeal Ireland’s eighth amendment that bans abortion. For reasons that are unclear to me, U2 seemed to change their mind on abortion. Voters repealed the amendment. Heartbreaking.

But we can’t give up. Pro-lifers have work to do. It’d be great if pro-life leaders stole a page from movements that changed the world. That page has two words: images and institutions.


[1] Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s (Doubleday, 1989)


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