TV & Movies

Planned Parenthood’s Film and TV Expert: ‘We’re Never Going to Change Policies Unless We Change the Culture’

With news that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade, the legal right to abortion is suddenly endangered in half the country. On film and TV, however, the past decade has seen an uptick in stories about abortions that don’t stigmatize the experience. 

The 2014 breakout comedy “Obvious Child” was the first turning point in depicting a young woman going through with her abortion and not suffering form the guilt or stigmatization of her decision. The 2020 drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” followed a teenager forced to cross state lines to get an abortion without parental consent. Other films have brought a historical context to the table, including recent Sundance hit “Call Jane,” which depicts an underground network of abortion clinics in Chicago. Abortions have also figured into recent episodes of “Better Things,” “A Million Little Things,” and “Scenes from a Marriage.”

The common thread in this proliferation of stories is Caren Spruch, the national director of arts and entertainment engagement for Planned Parenthood, who has consulted on all of them.

For over 20 years, Spruch has worked to engage artists on the subject of abortion, in a unique form of cultural advocacy that has a direct impact on the way these stories are told. “I started by just going to the right events and forcing myself to talk to people,” Spruch told IndieWire by phone this week. “More and more people are calling me. More and more stories are being told. People don’t want to abortion to be illegal. This culture-changing work really does make a difference.”

Spruch acknowledged that the news of Roe’s impending demise created new challenges across the country. “I’m beyond horrified but I’m not totally surprised,” she said. “Planned Parenthood has been around for more than 100 years. We certainly have been preparing for something like this to happen.” 

Spruch’s work has never been more timely, and not only because of the Supreme Court news. A majority of Americans support legal abortion, which makes the potential for stories about the experience to have commercial impact that much higher. “I think it’s the entertainment community’s responsibility to depict real, lived stories,” Spruch said. “Their viewers want to see that because they or their family and friends have lived these stories.”

Spruch initially made inroads into the entertainment arena by working with musicians to have Planned Parenthood booths present at their events, including Santana, the Dave Matthews Band, and the Lillith Fair concert tour in the late ’90s. Back then, the subject was still treated as taboo. At one point, Joan Osbourne and Sarah MacLachlan had to force a Texas venue to allow Planned Parenthood at the event after it was deemed too “controversial” to be there. Spruch was asked to advise on a few scripts in the ensuing years, including the depiction of Planned Parenthood in “Knocked Up,” but “Obvious Child” marked a turning point. 

“That film changed the way people in my organization think about the arts, and it really gave other content creators the courage to include these storylines,” she said. She worked closely with director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate to develop the script, including key interactions with Planned Parenthood personnel, and the way the character processes her decision. She also helped set them up a shoot at one of the organization’s facilities. “It was a comedy, but within that comedy, it was really a story about one woman making a decision that was best for her,” Spruch said. 

The project led her to advise on other features with abortion storylines, including “Grandma,” “Unpregnant,” and “Little Woods.” The slew of gigs reflected the shifting cultural landscape of the country. “The politics of what’s going on will always affect the content,” Spruch said. “In 2010, the Tea Party took over and attacks on sexual reproductive health skyrocketed. I really began to work very closely with a lot of artists who wanted to channel their rage into their work.”

In the case of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Spruch met with director Eliza Hittman at a New York facility and set her up with five hours of interviews with personnel, including a nurse, a social worker, and an educator, all of whom ended up informing the experiences of the young protagonist when she arrives at the clinic. “She was beyond dedicated to getting it right and that became a very strong collaboration,” Spruch said. “It was the first time in a narrative feature that you saw the state restriction on one person, which was extraordinary.” 


“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Focus Features

It was also a tragic foreshadowing of the challenge awaiting many young women across the country. There are 26 states expected to outlaw abortion if Roe is struck down, and 13 of them have so-called “trigger laws” that will go into effect immediately. Spruch said that the biggest hurdle for her work was finding underrepresented stories involving women requiring abortions around the country.

“Honestly, most of the people you see who have abortions on film and TV are white women who do not have children,” she said. “Everybody has abortions, people from all walks of life. In fact, the majority of people who have abortions are already mothers. They’re making these decisions for their families. These abortion bans already add to existing hurdles to getting care that disproportionately harm Black, Hispanic, indigenous, and rural communities. We don’t see immigrants, we don’t see prisoners. That’s something I’ve been working on to include.”

For better or worse, these scenarios are also fertile storytelling turf. “We need to see the stories now about what it means to travel hundreds of miles to figure out how to pay for an abortion,” Spruch said. “There are so many new stories. We have been collecting them. These stories to me are sadly so dramatic and need to be told.” 

Spruch said her involvement in a project can take many forms. “Often I review a script to make sure it’s medically or legislatively accurate,” she said. “I provide talking points on key issues. I often collaborate with our national office. I can call colleagues to discuss it.” The projects then inform the work itself: Spruch regularly circulates a memo to all regional locations with a list of recent film and TV shows showing abortion restrictions. “It’s a great way to educate and mobilize people,” she said. 

Over the years, Spruch said she has been wary of projects that treated Planned Parenthood in a reductive fashion. That included “Juno,” in which the main character ultimately decides not to have an abortion. “I didn’t think it portrayed our issue well so I didn’t get involved with it,” she said. “In the quest for accuracy, it’s important to note that people can decide what’s best for themselves, so I’m not going to say, ‘Don’t do that’ as long as it’s realistic. In that case, the health center didn’t look nice, it was only hippy-dippy people in crumbling old centers. Our healthcare centers are actually beautiful, welcoming places. That’s misinformation.” 

Spruch has no shortage of reasons to stay busy. This past week saw the U.S. release of “Happening,” the acclaimed French drama about a young woman who gets an illegal abortion in ’60s-era France. Spruch moderated a Q&A for the film and beamed about it at a recent premiere party, where she was handing out pins that read “Bans Off Our Bodies.”  The pins weren’t new — they had made the rounds during Oscar season, when everyone from Rita Moreno to Jane Campion adorned them at a Women in Film celebration — but the mission was no less relevant. That has been a recurring theme in Spruch’s work: No matter what happens with Roe, the work continues. 

“We’re never going to change these policies unless we change the culture, and the way we change the culture is through art,” she said. “Content creators know how to do that better than we do. By working together, we can make a difference. It’s not going to happen fast, and this is a setback, but what’s happening now makes this work even more urgent.”

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