By Kaiya Lyons
“The key to good parenting is control,” according to the tagline of “Arkangel,” the second episode in the newest installment of the Netflix anthology series Black Mirror. It’s a darkly ironic statement to accompany the season 4 episode, which attempts to demonstrate the lengths to which modern mothers will go to protect their daughters, but instead highlights a common and harmful misunderstanding of the mechanics of birth control.
Directed by Jodie Foster and starring Rosemarie DeWitt and Brenna Harding, “Arkangel” premiered on the streaming service January 1, 2018, demonstrates the potential human hazards that come with modern parenting conveniences. After nearly losing her daughter Sara (Harding) in a nearby park, Marie (DeWitt) invests in a new chip to track the three-year-old’s every movement through an ominous white tablet. Unlike the pet microchips that preceded it, this new product, called Arkangel, also includes a monitoring system that allows the parent to access the child’s vision, filter out violent, disturbing, or offensive images, and monitor their bodily functions.
While this technology provided clear advantages to Marie during Sara’s youth, as any seasoned Black Mirror viewer could have predicted, it’s myriad disadvantages would eventually have disastrous results for both. When Sara is fifteen, in a futuristic twist on the spying mother trope, Marie turns on the Arkangel tablet for the first time in years, only to discover her daughter is having sex . . . through her own eyes. To make matters worse, the system’s body monitor reveals Sara is pregnant.
Taking “control” of the situation, Marie immediately drives to the pharmacy, buys emergency contraception (EC), and blends the pills into Sara’s breakfast shake. It’s only later, when Sara gets suddenly ill at school, that she learns what her mother has done. In a particularly confusing string of dialogue, the school nurse informs Sara that the “EC” she ingested made her sick, explaining in no uncertain terms that EC is “emergency contraception, for terminating your pregnancy.”
As many members of the reproductive justice community have pointed out, the inclusion of this scene in a widely consumed and critically acclaimed television show is hugely problematic. Characterizing emergency contraception as an abortifacient more than just lazy writing, it’s irresponsible for two reasons.
First, any form of contraception necessarily prevents the sperm and egg from meeting and, therefore, can only work before a woman conceives. Specifically, emergency contraception can generally be used up to 72 hours after intercourse to delay ovulation and, in turn, prevent conception. In contrast, terminating a pregnancy (otherwise known as abortion) requires that a pregnancy exists in the first place. Overly protective parents can do a lot of things, but they cannot abort their teenager’s fetus using emergency contraception.
While it is true that both procedures may involve pills, such as the ones seen in “Arkangel,” they are used to effect entirely different medical outcomes. Several types of EC pills exist on the market today, but all American over-the-counter options, such as Plan B, are progestin-only pills, which contain the hormonal medication levonorgestrel. On the other hand, since 2000, American women have been able to terminate their first-trimester pregnancies through the administration of medication abortion drugs. However, neither of these drugs is associated with contraception in America. In contrast, a medication abortion is commonly conducted using a combination of two prescription drugs, mifepristone (also known as RU-486) and misopristol.
Second, America suffers from a severe lack of public education about the difference between contraceptives and abortifacients that has led to the restriction of cis-women and trans men’s reproductive health choices. Moreover, this deep misunderstanding of basic reproductive anatomy and health care has been heavily documented and featured in mainstream news media throughout at least the last five years.
Most notably, in 2014, the for-profit corporation Hobby Lobby successfully argued in the Supreme Court that they had the right to sidestep the ACA’s contraceptive mandate because of their religious belief that contraception has “the potential to destroy an embryo.” A deeply divisive, 5-4 opinion, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. was a monumental case that opened the door for private employers to deny their employees access to contraception under their group health care plans because of their scientifically false religious beliefs. Women affected by this loophole may be required to pay out of pocket or even acquire additional insurance to access birth control—exclusively due to a fundamental misunderstanding and perpetuation of the wholly incorrect belief that contraception is an abortifacient.
Furthermore, America suffers from a deficit of comprehensive, evidence-based sex education that adversely affects women’s health even outside the employment context. Ever since federal support for abstinence-only education surged during the George W. Bush administration, American teens have received increasingly reduced birth control education in school. According to the New York Times, by 2014, half of all middle schools and more than three-quarters of high schools in America employed sex education centered around abstinence.
This lack of education has resulted in a profound lack of patient awareness about the proper use of emergency contraception. When taken in conjunction with the consistent use of other birth control methods (i.e., condoms, pills, IUDs, etc.), emergency contraception could greatly reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and, thus, the need for abortions. However, emergency contraceptives continue to be underutilized (even where they are offered over-the-counter), prohibitively expensive, or inaccessible.
With each new season, Black Mirror endeavors to examine the ethical challenges posed by technological innovations in the contexts of privacy rights, civil liberties, and human interaction. But this thesis statement makes the show’s glaring disregard for the ethical implications of using “emergency contraception” to refer to abortifacients even more disappointing and confusing. Carelessly misclassifying a vital piece of healthcare information is uncharacteristic of the show’s attention to detail.
Still, many fans have come to the defense of the Black Mirror creative team, pointing to the fact that nearly all of the show’s episodes take place in the future to support their contention that, in the sci-fi universe of “Arkangel,” emergency contraception has the added ability to terminate a fetus. But even considering the possibility that reproductive health science in the future could advance to such a point, the episode’s failure to address such innovations head-on is problematic.
Even more than medically, a lot would need to change societally for an American mother to obtain a magical “emergency contraception” pill that also terminates pregnancies for her teenager over the counter. This includes vast legislative and political transformations and years of litigation, all of which could have been creatively and thoughtfully explained by the “Arkangel” writers. Indeed, Black Mirror has never shied away from detailing the legal process behind its technological innovations. Episodes “Black Museum” and “Crocodile” from this most recent season are prime examples of their infatuation with process. Without further explanation of the scientific and legal advancements which would have led to such a medical miracle, the episode only perpetuates a common misunderstanding of women’s reproductive anatomy, health, and rights.
So what reason would they have for neglecting to treat reproductive health technology innovations with the same level of care and attention? The answer, unfortunately, is likely that the Black Mirror creative team suffers from the same lack of awareness and education that plagues so much of American society and has been perpetuated through the sexist political rhetoric of the last decade.
Ultimately, the stories we tell have the ability to change ideas, perspectives, and lives, and artists should not take that responsibility lightly. In a perfect world, the Black Mirror writers should have done a better job of clarifying whether the science of family planning had significantly improved in the time of “Arkangel,” including changing the name of the drug. Otherwise, they should have used and named the proper drug and demonstrated how reproductive rights law evolved to allow a mother to procure an abortion pill from a pharmacy, without a prescription, for a third party who is a minor.
Such an examination of the intersections of scientific innovations, health care, and the legislative process could have been an intriguing and edifying addition to the Black Mirror cannon. Instead, “Arkangel” only provides audiences a shallow cautionary tale about helicopter parenting that negligently reinforces widespread misunderstandings of basic reproductive anatomy that continue to harm real women every day.