One of lifes more enduring mysteries is how an astonishingly small percentage of television writers understand the female reproductive system.
Black Mirrors fourth season hit Netflix last week, entertaining audiences with mini-movie-length meditations on all of the ways the tech-driven future will kill our bodies and souls.
This season is special. All six episodes feature a female lead, since women seem to be a newly-discovered demographic in entertainment.
But despite the deliberate effort to produce a show that is less pale and less male than most, one episode in particular has some women and public-health advocates rankled. (If you care about spoilers, now would be a good time to stop reading.)
Episode 2, entitled Arkangel, features a mother named Marie, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, who has a chip installed in her young daughters head that allows her to track the little girls movements and vitals. Complications arise as Sara matures, and boil over when Sara becomes sexually active as a teenager. In the scene that serves as the linchpin to the episodes bloody climax, Marie discovers, through her app companion to her daughters tracking chip, that the girl is pregnant. She drives to a drug store in the middle of the night and obtains Emergency Contraception, which she grinds up and casually adds to her daughters smoothie the next morning. Sara becomes nauseous at school, and the nurse informs her that her illness is due to the emergency contraception she took to end her pregnancy.
Black Mirror is a fictional show set in an imagined future, but none of the details of Saras pregnancy or drugging make any biological sense.
Pregnancy doesn't happen right after you have sex, explains Elizabeth Clark, Planned Parenthood Federation of Americas Director of Health Media.
And emergency contraception doesnt cause a morning-after abortion. Sperm can actually live inside someone's body for up to six days after sex, waiting for an egg to show up to be fertilized, Clark adds. The morning-after pill works by temporarily stopping ovulation so the ovary doesn't release an egg.
Emergency contraception wont work if pregnancy has already occurred and cant interfere with a pregnancy that already exists.
Further, the drug is most effective the sooner it is taken after unprotected sex, thus its availability over the counter is helpful to women who dont want to waste precious hours for a doctors permission. It doesnt make any sense, even in the world of Black Mirror, for Marie to hold the pills overnight and casually drop them in her daughters smoothie the next morning; that diminishes the drugs effectiveness.
Does it matter if nobody in the team behind ArkangelBlack Mirror creator and writer Charlie Brooker, episode director Jodie Foster, star Rosemarie DeWitt, the rest of the cast and crew and production teamcould pass a detailed exam on how pregnancy works? Of course not. But whats unfortunate about this particular mass flub is that their misconception mirrors the misconception contraception opponents rely on to justify restricting womens access to reproductive options.
Contraception opponents like the Catholic Church, the March for Life, Susan B. Anthonys List (a group that aims to elect anti-abortion politicians, a sort of Bizarro World EMILYs List), and others use emergency contraception and the abortion pill interchangeably, and by design. Belief that life begins at the moment of conception and not the moment of implantation means that anything that might deliberately interfere with the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus is the same thing as murder.
Conflation of emergency contraception and the abortion pilltwo very different medicationsreinforces that belief. Im not sure thats what director Jodie Foster would have intended.
Black Mirror is far from the first show to get it wrong. Back in 2011, The Walking Dead flubbed a morning-after pill plotline in a nearly identical way. When audiences pointed out the flaw, the shows creator Glenn Mazzara issued a flippant dismissal of their concerns.
We exercised our artistic creative license to explore a storyline with one of our characters, not to make any pro-life or pro-choice political statement, he said. We sincerely hope that people are not turning to the fictional world of 'The Walking Dead' for accurate medical information.
Seven years later, TV writers are making the same mistake, Donald Trump is president, and the Department of Health and Human Services is stacked with people who believe that myth. But sure, its just television.
Film and television have a unique opportunity to portray sexual and reproductive health care in medically accurate and nonjudgmental ways for millions of viewers, PPFAs Elizabeth Clark adds. With access to health care and sex education under constant attack, its more important than ever for us to see accurate storylines when it comes to contraception, abortion, and other sexual health issuesas well as a whole range of peoples authentic experiences.
Netflix and Black Mirror have not returned a request for comment.