As I sit home in lockdown in Buffalo, New York, I’m following the news like everybody else. I’m watching with alarm and anger as a number of conservative leaders in states like Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Oklahoma are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to halt access to safe, legal abortions. Under the pretense of public health, politicians are issuing executive orders that classify abortion as an elective procedure that isn’t time sensitive. What they’re really doing is preventing access to reproductive care.
Planned Parenthood and other partner groups, including the ACLU and Center for Reproductive Rights, have filed lawsuits in seven states challenging the bans, but it’s impossible to know how this will all play out. For now, at least some access remains available in every state, but a divided three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has taken that access away twice. In early April, the Texas Attorney General said he was committed to defending the ban all the way to the Supreme Court, and local abortion providers submitted a Supreme Court filing that weekend. Meanwhile other states continue appealing to courts to reinstate bans, meaning that abortion access in these times remains in peril.
This is a cruel and recklessly shortsighted move. For some people, the clock is already ticking on a first-trimester abortion, and the only way to ensure a safe procedure is to travel out of state—during a deadly pandemic.
A majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal and accessible. But abortion foes are relentless, and they have only gotten bolder since Donald Trump became president. The Supreme Court has already heard one abortion-related case this year, and it’s entirely possible that the conservative majority will further chip away at the constitutional right to privacy recognized in Roe v. Wade. If Trump is re-elected, we could see the end of legal abortion as we know it, whether the decision is overturned outright or killed with a thousand cuts.
I’m 21 years old. Millennials, Gen Z-ers, and those who come after us will bear the brunt of actions being taken by conservative politicians today. Reproductive rights and women’s rights have always been important to me. That’s why I signed on to play a 17-year-old girl facing an unintended pregnancy in writer and director Eliza Hittman’s film Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
I had never acted before, but Eliza reached out because she’d seen videos of me playing music, something I’ve done since my early teens. (Though I don’t remember it, we met briefly when her partner made a documentary in Buffalo in 2012). I had never really considered acting, but the story Eliza wanted to tell, and the way she envisioned telling it, changed my mind.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is centered on the experience of my character, Autumn, who lives in rural Pennsylvania. Because Pennsylvania requires minors to get parental consent for an abortion, Autumn’s only option for a safe, legal, and confidential procedure is to travel out of state. She takes a bus to New York City with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), and they have no idea of what to expect or how to navigate a landscape so different from their own. These two teenagers stick together and support one another, and their relationship resonated with me and my Talia. It’s an intimate, female, teenage story that moved us both to tears.
We don’t learn much about Autumn’s history, but from what we see of her life, we can understand why she wouldn’t want to tell her mother about the pregnancy. Once Autumn finds out herself, a sense of panic, then powerlessness, sets in. She had her whole future in front of her, then suddenly, everything was out of her control. Initially, she does what many might do: Log onto the internet to search for ways to self-induce an abortion. If you’re terrified or desperate enough, you’re going to do whatever it takes. And if you lack connections or financial resources, there’s a chance you could put yourself in danger. That’s how it’s always been.
A scene in which Autumn is interviewed by a social worker before scheduling her abortion was one of the most challenging for me. The social worker asks a series of increasingly intimate questions about Autumn’s sexual history and current circumstances; Autumn is told she can answer “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes” or “always.” As painful as the questions are, the intention behind them is pure: The social worker is trying to determine if Autumn is in a dangerous situation. We filmed that scene at a Planned Parenthood health center, and Eliza had me play opposite a real-life social worker (Kelly Chapman). Kelly has asked women and girls these same questions many, many times before—that really helped me get into character and go to a deep and vulnerable place. The character of Autumn evolves a lot throughout the film, and what begins as a journey of desperation becomes a portrait of a young girl determined to do whatever it takes to reclaim her body.
This film meant so much to everyone involved. The experience helped me gain a deeper understanding of the obstacles so many have faced, and instilled in me a desire to speak out. I want all the real-life Autumns to know they are not alone, and I want all the people trying to block access to reproductive care to know there is a generation of young people prepared to stand up and fight for their rights.
With Never Rarely Sometimes Always coming out in an election year, we hoped it would start conversations and build empathy—that it would get people thinking about what it might be like to be in Autumn’s shoes. The movie happened to open in New York and Los Angeles the weekend of March 13, just as it was becoming clear that COVID-19 was spreading. A few days later, movie theaters closed nationwide. Thankfully, our film is now available via at home on-demand for everyone to see during this critical time. We hope it will find a wide audience and spark important conversations. Who knows how many people are dealing with unintended pregnancies in states with limited abortion access right now. There could be an Autumn in rural Pennsylvania, or an overwhelmed, financially strapped woman in Texas. These women have a scary road ahead of them, and we must do everything in our power to help change that narrative.