Something surprising happens in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and it’s not a pregnant trenager's decision to have an abortion. The film, directed by Eliza Hittman (the acclaimed director behind 2013’s coming-of-age tale It Felt Like Love), treats that matter-of-factly. Never Rarely plays almost like a thriller, but the will-she-or-won't she suspense isn't around whether she will or choose to go through with it. It's about is whether she'll be able to, and how scary the obstacles to getting an abortion can be. Autumn, played by newcomer Sidney Flanigan, is a teenager from rural Pennsylvania who unequivocally wants an abortion, but obtaining the legal, low-risk medical procedure quickly becomes harrowing: First, Autumn seeks care at what turns out to be a Crisis Pregnancy Center — an entity disguised as a clinic established to pressure pregnant women into keeping their pregnancies — where the counselors lie to her about how far along she is and what her options are. When it becomes clear she must go all the way to New York City for her abortion, she and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), also a teenager, fight an array of obstacles to schedule, travel to, and pay for the procedure. Though Autumn’s actual providers end up being helpful and professional, it’s a treacherous journey — that leaves them penniless, homeless, and at one point, needing to trade on their sexuality for cash — to get to the other side.
Movies tend to use abortion to say something bigger about a character: that they’re irresponsible (Dirty Dancing), that the person with whom they got pregnant is absentee (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), or that all involved are conflicted about their lives and seeking an abortion is just one way that manifests (Obvious Child). Not so in the Barry Jenkins-produced Never Rarely. Instead, through Autumn's story, the film questions the character of a society that makes a woman go to near impossible lengths to control her own body. The never-ending cascade of dead-ends that Autumn and Skylar face — at times it feels Handmaid’s Tale-level bleak — is more chilling because it is entirely realistic. Even the title is a reference to the very-real questionnaire given to patients seeking abortion, in all its bureaucratic absurdity. “Never,” “Rarely,” “Sometimes,” and “Always'' are the four answer choices offered to for questions about whether anyone is pressuring them to get the procedure or if they’ve ever been sexually assaulted.
Under the Trump administration, anti-abortion state legislators have been emboldened to enact increasingly stringent restrictions on who can get an abortion and when. By the end of last year, 25 new bans had been put in place, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Just last week, one such ruling — June Medical Services v. Russo — was taken up by the Supreme Court, and the ruling could put many states’ abortion access in jeopardy. The case centers on whether a Louisiana law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (a medically unnecessary barrier that most providers cannot meet) should be upheld. The law has been called “the beginning of the end of Roe” — never mind that it’s nearly identical to Texas House Bill 2 (HB2), which the Supreme Court struck down in 2016, ruling that it created an “undue burden” for patients.
As more laws increase the pressure on clinics, more people are traveling for abortions, incurring childcare, lodging, and transportation costs along the way. “Ninety percent of counties in the U.S. do not have an abortion provider,” Yamani Hernandez, the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, tells Bustle. “The legal right to an abortion has never ensured equal access to an abortion.”
According to Sarah Lopez, program director at the abortion fund Fund Texas Choice, TRAP laws (targeted restrictions on abortion providers) make it nearly impossible for some patients to seek care where they live — especially if they need an abortion past 20 weeks of pregnancy, as Autumn does in the film. “While everyone chooses to have an abortion for their own reason, typically if it's past 20 weeks, that can be due to your appointment being delayed due to funding, a fetal anomaly, health issues either for the baby or the [patient] — things happen,” says Lopez. So if your pregnancy is past 20 weeks and your state has restricted second-trimester abortions, you have to leave the state for an abortion.
“I wasn’t financially stable enough at that time to have another kid, so I didn’t feel like it was a selfish decision. Everyone tried to convince me otherwise and tell me that I'm going to regret it, even to this day. And I don't regret it, because I know that I actually made a decision for myself.”
To accurately depict Autumn's journey, Hittman spoke with healthcare professionals to understand some of the real-life trials that many patients face when seeking abortion. “I just tried to play out scenarios [with them],” Hittman tells Bustle. “How would you interact with a minor? What would your concerns be? [To get] something more emotional about what their experience would be.” That research comes through in scenes like when Autumn is responding to the titular questionnaire. When the practitioner asks her questions like whether or not she’s ever been abused, she doesn’t push Autumn to speak through her tears. She just lets her know that she’s there for her — and will always be available to talk.
Autumn’s story echoes those of women who have had abortions and subsequently become activists to fight TRAP laws. Angel Kai, 21, is a storyteller for We Testify, an organization that gives abortion patients a platform for sharing their own stories to shift the narrative of abortion in the United States. She found out she was pregnant last year, only a few months after giving birth to her second child. Unable to support a third child, she started looking for an abortion provider. “I think I called about four different places, and they all told me the same price, and I was like, ‘There's no way I can afford to do this,’” she says. She ultimately chose to visit a clinic in New Mexico that she was able to get to with the help of the Texas abortion fund Fund Texas Choice, which helped her with gas money and a hotel stay. From there she left her children with a babysitter and drove five hours to get the abortion pill. For Angel, like Autumn, the abortion didn’t have anything to do with her character, except that she took responsibility for her own life. “I wasn’t financially stable enough at that time to have another kid, so I didn’t feel like it was a selfish decision. Everyone tried to convince me otherwise and tell me that I'm going to regret it, even to this day. And I don't regret it, because I know that I actually made a decision for myself.”
“Because I had my abortion, I was able to go to college, get the job I wanted to get,” she says. “I now have a 3-month-old baby that I had by choice, that was planned because I had access to care."
Maleeha Aziz, 26, is another We Testify storyteller. She also had to leave Texas for her abortion after an experience at a Crisis Pregnancy Center that echoes Autumn’s, especially the portrayal of the reported tactic of lying to patients. Seeking a sonogram to confirm the pregnancy, Aziz ended up at a CPC, where workers kept telling her about the dangers of abortion. “They told me [that I wasn’t] going to be able to do the medication abortion in Texas,” she says. As a sexual assault survivor, Aziz knew she wouldn’t feel comfortable having a surgical abortion or pelvic exam, so a medication abortion was her only option. “I found out years after I had my abortion that that wasn't true and medication abortion was never banned in Texas,” she says. Some family friends helped fund a flight to Colorado Springs, where she was able to get the abortion medication — all because a crisis pregnancy center lied to her. Aziz now works at the Texas Equal Access Fund, an abortion fund in the state. “Because I had my abortion, I was able to go to college, get the job I wanted to get,” she says. “I now have a 3-month-old baby that I had by choice, that was planned because I had access to care."
We don’t see what follows Autumn’s abortion. She gets back on the bus to return home to Pennsylvania — and after two sleepless nights — she’s finally able to close her eyes. The rest is up to her.
To find an abortion fund near you, or to donate to one, you can visit the National Network of Abortion Funds.
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