science of us

Black Mirror Does Not Appear to Know What the Morning-After Pill Is

Still from “Arkangel,” the second episode of the new season of Black Mirror. Photo: Netflix

The fourth season of Black Mirror is out on Netflix, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve already binged all the episodes; the sooner you finish, the sooner you can curl into a sweaty ball of dread. I would have enjoyed this season, at least as much as you can enjoy a show that gives you the anxiety shits, if not for an infuriating error in episode two. (Warning: Lots of spoilers ahead.)

In “Arkangel” — directed by the Jodie Foster, no less — a helicopter mom decides to implant a monitoring device (created by a company called Arkangel) in her young daughter Sarah’s brain. Through the use of a tablet, the mother is able to see what her daughter sees, track her location, turn on a filter for stressful situations (which turns stuff like barking dogs and violent TV shows into unrecognizable blurs), rewind through her memories, and receive notifications if her cortisol increases or she ingests narcotics. As you might’ve guessed, this doesn’t go well. Sarah is unable to recognize danger or certain human emotions, and eventually, with a therapist’s guidance, her mom decides to turn off the tablet monitor. The implant, however, can’t be removed.

Fast-forward to 15-year-old Sarah, a seemingly well-adjusted high-schooler who’s been without the Arkangel for several years now. Sarah lies to her mom about having a movie night with friends so she can do normal teenager stuff like sneaking out to a bonfire, smoking weed, and messing around with her drug-dealing crush. Unbeknownst to Sarah, her mom realizes she’s not at movie night and turns on the long-buried tablet in a moment of panic — only to see (and hear) her daughter having sex. Instead of, you know, sitting her daughter down for a healthy conversation about safe sex and birth control options, she buys emergency contraception and secretly crushes it up in Sarah’s morning smoothie. Later, Sarah barfs at school and visits the nurse.

“Honey, it was the EC pill that made you sick,” the nurse says.

“EC?” Sarah asks, confused.

“Emergency contraception. For terminating your pregnancy,” the nurse says. “You’re not pregnant anymore.”

I’m sorry … what? I was with this show through the grief clone that expands, for whatever reason, in the bathtub. I was with it through the murderous hashtag-controlled bees. I was even with it through the politician fucking a pig on live television. But this was different. This crossed a line, and I’m not the only one who felt that way. A reminder to show creator and lead writer Charlie Brooker: The “morning-after pill” and the “abortion pill,” as they’re colloquially known, are not the same thing.

There are two pill forms of emergency contraception, a.k.a. the morning-after pill: One kind contains ulipristal acetate, which blocks progesterone and prevents the release of an egg from the ovary. The other contains levonorgestrel, a hormone that stops the release of an egg from the ovary and prevents a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus. The former can be taken within five days after unprotected sex and requires a prescription, while the latter is recommended within three days of unprotected sex and is available over-the-counter and without age restriction in the U.S.

Or, put it this way: Emergency contraception can do three things. It can stop ovulation, it can stop a released egg from connecting with sperm, or it can stop a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. What it can’t do, however, is terminate a pregnancy. (It can cause nausea and vomiting, so Black Mirror got that bit right.)

Medical abortion, on the other hand, requires two pills: The first contains mifepristone, which stops a pregnancy from growing. The second pill contains misoprostol, which expels a pregnancy, much like a miscarriage. You can get a medical abortion up to 70 days, or about ten weeks, after the first day of your last period, and it requires a trip to your health-care provider or clinic. Depending on which state you live in, there can be waiting periods and age restrictions. (Planned Parenthood provides a thorough state-by-state guide here.)

It’s tempting to argue that Black Mirror doesn’t have any responsibility to get real-life details right. This is, after all, a show that routinely twists mundane truths into nightmarish fictions. (Consider, to name just one example from the latest season, the pain orgasm bonnet thingy in “Black Museum.”) But the show is so disturbing precisely because of the way it’s rooted in reality; it’s easy to envision even its darkest, most far-fetched plot points happening in real life.

For that matter, this conflation already does happen in real life, because many right-wing politicians and pundits would very much like to have the public believe that the two are interchangeable. Already, the Federalist published “‘Black Mirror’ Is Right: ‘Emergency Contraception’ Can Cause Abortion.” Pop culture, for better or worse, informs and shapes public opinion, which is why this error made so many of us so angry. A suggestion for Brooker: Hire more women writers. And maybe learn to Google.

Black Mirror Does Not Know What the Morning-After Pill Is