Abortion isn't the taboo topic it once was on television. In the past year alone, several series incorporated storylines that showed characters terminating pregnancies in different ways and for a variety of reasons. On The Fosters, Lena (Sherri Saum) has a late-term abortion when she develops life-threatening preeclampsia. On Scandal, Olivia (Kerry Washington) has an abortion while Mellie (Bellamy Young) filibusters in the Senate to stop the defunding of Planned Parenthood. On Girls, Mimi-Rose (Gillian Jacobs) casually mentions to Adam (Adam Driver) that she can't go running with him because she got an abortion the day before. All of these on-air depictions of pregnancy termination help shed light on a topic that's fraught with emotional, ethical, and other repercussions.
Still, we've never seen as genuine and well-articulated a depiction of abortion on television as on Please Like Me. The episode follows Claire (Caitlin Stasey) through the entire process of having a medical abortion. Actually, the story starts in the previous episode, when Claire tells Josh (Josh Thomas, the series' creator and star, who also co-wrote this instalment) that she's pregnant.
"I'm pregnant, in my belly. There is a human forming in my belly, and I have to get an abortion. Obviously, I refuse to feel bad about it, because they are just cells, and every time they decide to multiply, they are making a horrible decision, and they need to be stopped," Claire says. She's only telling Josh because she needs him to take her to the clinic. "Okay, so that's done," Claire affirms before jogging off.
Thomas — who, it should be noted, is very dry and matter-of-fact, and also refers to women as “girls” in conversation — tells Refinery29 that the decision to make Claire have an abortion didn't take much thought. "Honestly, I think one of my friends was like, 'Why doesn't one of your characters have an abortion? Why hasn't that happened?' I thought about it for awhile, and I was like, 'Yeah, that's weird,'" Thomas says. "Girls have abortions [sometimes], you know? This is a thing that happens. Let's be honest about what happens in the world."
He was surprised by the response to the episode, even during the writing stage. "For two weeks, all I talked about was abortion," Josh says. "Anytime I said to a girl, 'Claire's going to have an abortion,' they would have a story about themselves. I've never done a storyline where people wanted to have as much input and be like, 'This should happen, and this should happen. This never happens on TV, but this is what happens in real life.' They really got fired up about it, in a positive way."
It's a not-quite-confident Claire who greets Josh's character on the morning of the procedure. She asks him if he thinks she's making the right decision. She reminds him that they've talked about raising kids together, and even though it's a big thing, maybe they could keep this baby and try it. Josh assumes Claire is joking, because he's never seen her waffle this much, especially about something this serious.
When they arrive at the clinic, though, Claire is back to being her confident self. "I am very excited to exercise my right to decide what happens to my body today," she asserts as they open the door. Josh then acts as an audience surrogate as he's informed, in great detail, about what exactly happens during a medical abortion. "I did a lot of research," Thomas notes. "I co-wrote the episode with Liz Doran...We spoke to family-planning clinics."
First, the doctor asks Josh's character if he's forcing Claire to have an abortion, which, Thomas points out, "paints a dark picture of the world we live in." The doctor tells Josh that Claire has already had an ultrasound — Claire's response: "There's a baby in me, which is pretty fucking weird" — and has opted to have a medical termination of her pregnancy.
The doctor proceeds to tell Josh that Claire has already taken mifepristone to stop the supply of the pregnancy hormone that's needed to keep a pregnancy progressing, and tomorrow she'll take misoprostol to induce a miscarriage. "That can be a bit painful, and everyone reacts differently...You should be prepared to be irritable and emotional," the doctor warns.
The show outlines the entire process, which is something you can find on the Planned Parenthood website. What you won't get on the site, though, is the ability to watch a (even fictional) person's reaction to hearing all of those steps detailed; few television shows that depict abortion take the audience through the process in this way. Claire sort of shuts down and stares vacantly into the distance, while Josh listens to what will happen to Claire's body. He has to nudge her to ask if she heard that she's going to be irritable and emotional.
Back at their house, Claire takes the misoprostol, and we see her on the toilet, in pain. "I'm never, ever having sex again," she groans. When Claire finally miscarries, she asks Josh if he wants to see it. He says no. "Should I take a picture?" Claire calls through the door. "Show it to people when they show me photos of their kids?"
"Just flush the toilet... Have a shower," Josh urges.
Claire stands up and looks at the contents of the toilet before flushing it. Then, she takes a shower, looking pensive.
Later on, Josh and Claire share their feelings from the weekend. "I thought my politics would keep me safe from my feelings, and I was wrong... I felt guilty...maybe not guilty, just kind of like a fuckup. Flushing the toilet reminded me of the time I forgot to feed Bert and Ernie, and I had to flush them by down the toilet. It's just, this is it...we're grownups. We're not practicing anymore," Claire says, as tears stream down her face.
"I know you know, but you have nothing to feel guilty about," Josh tells her.
Claire also says that she got dressed up for the abortion clinic and tried on several outfits. "I guess I didn't want them to think I was like the other girls. I'm furious at myself for thinking that."
All of her words touch on why abortion is such a personal issue. Even though it's a decision that many women face, it's one that everyone has to make individually, based on her own unique situation and circumstances. We can't compare one woman to another, whether those women are in an abortion clinic or not. Even Claire, a staunch pro-choice feminist, isn't prepared for the emotional experience of terminating a pregnancy — although she ultimately doesn't regret it.
"Before we did the episode, I never really understood the emotions behind [having an abortion] because I've always been sort of logical in my head and scientific about it. Also, I'm a gay man; it's just not a thing that comes up very often for me," Thomas says. "As we researched and heard more stories and spoke to more girls about it and the emotion behind it, I was surprised to find how upsetting I found some of it. That's reflected in Claire's character." He continues, "A lot of girls who I spoke to were all sort of caught off guard by how much it got to them, when they had one or their friends had one. It's such an incredibly personal thing."
The part about being grownups also hits very close to home, especially for viewers in their 20s. Claire entertains the idea that she might actually be able to raise a baby, with Josh's help; it's that thought process that feels like even more of a loss of innocence than getting pregnant in the first place. It's a dividing line between childhood and adulthood — between being provided for and being able to provide for someone else. Thomas adds, "That's huge. Even if you're comfortable with the idea of having an abortion, it's the fact that you're old enough to have...a child, and that's a path you could have legitimately gone down. That's kind of terrifying."
That's what's most relatable about this week's episode of Please Like Me, though. It's really about the moment when you fully realise that you've started to make decisions as an adult. You recognise the emotional, financial, and other repercussions of something that will have an impact long into the future. You're able to give voice to your doubts, fears, and concerns, even if it's difficult and brings you to tears.
Please Like Me went there. No melodrama, no preaching — just two people trying to get through life.