A number of viewers are not happy with the second episode of Black Mirror’s newest season, but perhaps not for the reason you might expect from the series known for its controversial and dark storylines. Specifically, the internet is calling Black Mirror’s portrayal of emergency contraception and abortion “medically inaccurate” at best, and “dangerous” and “irresponsible” at worst.
(If you haven’t caught up on Black Mirror Season 4, you might want to stop here as there will be spoilers for Episode 2, “Arkangel.”)
In “Arkangel,” we see the effects of “helicopter parenting” to its extreme, aided (in Black Mirror fashion) by future technological advancements. A mother, Marie, surveys her daughter Sara using a chip she had implanted in Sara’s brain when Sara was a child. Using an iPad-like monitoring device, Marie is able to track everything Sara does, feels, and even sees. Through the monitoring device, Marie learns that Sara, now 15, has become pregnant.
In an interview with Buzzfeed News, episode director Jodie Foster called what happened next “the biggest invasion of all”: After we see Marie return from the pharmacy, she secretly gives Sara crushed up emergency contraception pills in a smoothie. Later on, Sara is seen getting sick at school. This is where the episode’s portrayal of abortion pills and emergency contraceptives has fallen under scrutiny.
Sara sees the school nurse who says, “It was the EC pill that made you sick.”
“EC?” Sara asks. The nurse clarifies, “Emergency contraception. For terminating a pregnancy.” As many people were quick to point out online, that’s not how emergency contraception works.
Emergency contraception (EC), like Plan B, is not an abortifacient, or a pill that causes an abortion. Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy from happening the first place. As this video from Planned Parenthood states, it can take up to five days after sex for pregnancy to actually occur. Plan B and other emergency contraceptives work by keeping sperm from ever fertilizing the egg. Meaning, emergency contraception cannot end a pregnancy because a pregnancy never occurred.
“Maybe in this dystopian future, EC will be something else. But currently, EC is not something that can induce an abortion,” Dr. Daniel Grossman, obstetrics and gynecology professor and leading reproductive health researcher and director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), told BuzzFeed Health. “It has no effect if you take it once the pregnancy is already established.”
The “abortion pill” is completely different from emergency contraception, both the pill itself and how it works. Like Dr. Grossman stated, emergency contraceptives will not end a pregnancy if fertilization has already occurred. Medical abortion pills are used specifically to terminate a pregnancy.
Abortifacients like Mifepristone and Misoprostol are regulated much more heavily than emergency contraception. They are required to be administered by qualified medical professionals, where emergency can be purchased over-the-counter. “A doctor can't even write a prescription for medication abortion so that it can be dispensed at a pharmacy,” Dr. Grossman told Buzzfeed.
Are there plenty of other technologies and details in Black Mirror that don’t exactly or scientifically reflect our current reality in? I mean, yeah, that’s kind of the point. Nobody watches Black Mirror without expecting some level of surrealism. However, Black Mirror typically uses these “unreal” plot points as cultural commentary; the unrealistic portrayal of EC and abortion pills in this episode just reads as an error or, worse, perpetuating false information.
This error in “Arkangel” is more than just an inaccurate plot point; it conflates emergency contraception and abortion pills in a way that is often used in arguments against both emergency contraception and abortion. In fact, after the episode aired, the conservative-leaning website The Federalist published a piece titled, “Black Mirror Is Right: ‘Emergency Contraception’ Can Cause Abortion,” which incorrectly claims that the episode’s portrayal of EC is scientifically accurate.
Distinguishing emergency contraception from medical abortion pills in conversation is crucial. When the two are conflated, it can lead to more than just a mistake in a storyline. It can cause further cultural confusion, be used as political rhetoric, and affect policy and regulation.