The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Images have long played a role in the movement against abortion rights. In April 1965 the cover story of Life magazine proclaimed to show the “Drama of Life Before Birth,” with a multi-page spread by Swedish photojournalist Lennart Nilsson that included the first published image of a living fetus inside the womb, as well as other photos of fetal development. Those other images, however, were taken of miscarried or terminated fetuses, arranged in various positions outside the mothers’ bodies.
Nevertheless, this one image of a living fetus persists in being co-opted by the anti-abortion contingent, embellishing all sorts of materials to emphasize a belief that abortion is tantamount to murder. This side has to their benefit a single image—or at least the single basis of an image, from which others have derived—where abortion-rights supporters do not. There’s no one image, not even the wire hanger nor the handmaid, that can succinctly encompass all the issues at play in believing that people have the right to do with their bodies as they choose; no one image that shows the fear, the relief, the sadness, the composure, the confusion, even the happiness involved in terminating a pregnancy.
It’s in moving images that a birthing person’s story has mostly—and most recently—been allowed that sort of nuance. This is not universally true, of course; the anti-abortion movement has also utilized film to galvanize their base, and there are many films, especially during the years of the Hays Code, where abortion isn’t necessarily politicized but is condemned as the result of unscrupulous behavior. But the advantages of cinema have been invaluable in amplifying the lived experiences of those seeking the procedure, as watching movies allows spectators to vicariously bear a shared emotional affinity.
This Primer (in which I endeavored to be as comprehensive as possible but which may, either intentionally or not, omit films from a variety of genres in an attempt to be as compendiary as possible) looks at the history of abortion in film since its beginnings, considering arguments that might be termed “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” both in films made in the United States and abroad. This is a history that has evolved alongside legislation and societal attitudes themselves, and movies have prevailed in recent years as being the primary media that elaborates the myriad complexities involved in having an abortion.
THE SILENT ERA
The first abortion laws in the United States were established in Connecticut in 1821, outlawing in particular those who provided or took “other noxious and destructive substances” resulting in “the miscarriage of any woman, then being quick with child.” Until then, and for a few decades thereafter, abortion was legal and even socially acceptable before “quickening,” that nebulous, non-scientific point when a woman could feel the fetus beginning to move in her stomach.
Even that aforementioned law was intended to curtail the use of dangerous substances marketed as but not necessarily guaranteed to be safe abortifacients. Soon, however, laws came into place with the intent of controlling women’s bodies. Thus in 1857, Horatio Storer, a gynecologist, endeavored to convince the American Medical Association that abortion was a crime rather than a mere medical procedure.
It follows, then, that cinema’s formative years coincided with the spread of anti-abortion legislation across the country. By 1910, every state had laws limiting the circumstances under which abortions could be performed.
Though it’s often reported that Lois Weber’s Where Are My Children? (1916) is the first US film to portray abortion onscreen, a biography of silent film star Margarita Fischer includes mention of two films—a one- and a four-reeler—that came before: The Divinity of Motherhood (1914) and The Miracle of Life (1915), both directed by her husband, Progressive-era filmmaker Harry Pollard. The former invokes anti-abortion sentiment when its reluctant protagonist accepts that she’s fated to bring new life into the world. The latter is about a married woman who consumes an abortifacient to end her pregnancy; afterward, her husband leaves her, going on to marry again and start a family while the woman lives a life of empty luxury and loneliness.
Though it’s possible that among those silent films lost to time, others exist that also incorporate abortion, Weber’s films have not only survived but have enjoyed a revival in recent years. Because of this, Where Are My Children? has become more widely available, whereas these two, and likely many others, are lost. The first woman filmmaker to make a feature-length film (The Merchant of Venice , which, like many of her films, she co-directed with her husband, Phillips Smalley), Weber was a prolific filmmaker who grappled with various then-verboten topics in her oeuvre.
Birth control was one of these, and Where Are My Children? seems to advocate for it; abortion, however, it does not. District Attorney Richard Walton (Tyrone Power, Sr.) longs for children, believing that his wife has trouble getting pregnant. Still, as he yearns for children for himself, he is likewise “a great believer in eugenics,” exclaiming that “[i]f the mystery of birth were understood, crime would be wiped out.”
The film opens with an impressionistic sequence that explains the hierarchy of children waiting to be born up in heaven. There is a top class of angel babies “sent forth only on prayer” and “marked with the approval of the Almighty.” Weber suggests that the children of Walton and his wife would fall under this category, except that she’s disinterested in having them. Later, the wife consoles a friend who’s upset she’ll miss out on various social activities because she’s pregnant. Mrs. Walton introduces her friend to an abortionist, who terminates the pregnancy. Neither husband is any wiser, until Mrs. Walton’s brother comes to visit and impregnates the Waltons’ housekeeper, whom Mrs. Walton persuades to seek an abortion. The maid dies from complications, and Walton learns that his wife isn’t unable to have children, but rather unwilling. And so he exclaims, in the titular cry, “Where are my children?”
“Progressive” is something of a loaded term with regard to this era of filmmakers. While Weber was ahead of her time and took a bold stance on issues such as poverty, addiction, and capital punishment, it’s clear from this film (or maybe not so much) that she supported birth control measures—though from the shadowy standpoint of eugenics—and opposed abortion.
The film was wildly successful in spite of its perplexing message. Later, in 1917, inspired by Margaret Sanger’s arrest for distributing birth control, Weber wrote, directed, and starred in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which Weber’s biographer, film professor and historian Shelley Stamp, writes is “a clear call for legal contraception less clouded by eugenics than its predecessor.” But films with anti-abortion messages similar to Where Are My Children?, including The Valley of Decision (1916) and Ivan Abramson’s Enlighten Thy Daughter (1917, and remade again by Abramson in 1934), followed soon after.
In Germany at the onset of the Weimar Republic in 1918, a handful of sexual enlightenment films with storylines tangentially involving abortion were released. In 1926, Martin Berger co-wrote and directed The Woman’s Crusade, a film made in opposition to Germany’s abortion laws under its criminal code. Interweaving the stories of three women from different socioeconomic backgrounds, Berger highlights the necessity of abortion in each situation. Conrad Veidt stars as a prosecutor for whom abortion becomes a personal matter after his girlfriend is raped and becomes pregnant as a result.
In 1920, Soviet Russia became the first country to fully legalize abortion via medical intervention. An almost glib attitude toward abortion is on display in Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (1927). Liuda is disenchanted with her lug of a husband, and this leads to an affair with his friend, who’s staying with them. Her husband initially agrees to let them carry on in peace, though he soon becomes the houseguest, and an affair between him and his estranged wife follows. When she becomes pregnant the men ask that she get an abortion; she decides against it at the last minute, after which she leaves both her husband and boyfriend behind.
Per scholar Denise J. Youngblood, “Room had intended not only to make a picture exploring the social problems of urban life during the last years of the New Economic Policy (1921–28), but specifically to support the state's campaign against the sexual freedom of the revolutionary years and against abortion on demand.” Still, the film was later banned when abortion was re-criminalized in 1936.
Unapologetically in favor of abortion is Soviet cinematographer Eduard Tisse’s Misery and Fortune of Women (1929), a partial-sound film made in Switzerland whose production was overseen by Sergei Eisenstein, for whom Tisse was a regular cinematographer. Its first half is unmistakably influenced by Eisenstein in its montage; it sympathetically interweaves stories of three women in predicaments related to unwanted pregnancies. The second half takes a documentary-like approach as it explores the abortions sought by two women, one well-to-do and with “reason,” the other poor and without. This section highlights the proper medical care that goes into safe abortions.
A late silent from the US, Norton S. Parker’s The Road to Ruin (1928) takes a broad, sensationalized approach to juvenile delinquency that culminates with the protagonist dying as a result of a botched illegal abortion. In his book Film and Sexual Politics, Kylo-Patrick R. Hart notes of the film’s rather mysterious approach to the procedure that “[m]uch like unseen monsters in horror movies, viewers do not know the unspeakable horrors that await behind the abortionist’s door. As such, their imaginations do the work of creating fear.” It was remade as a sound film in 1934.
PRE-CODE AND THE HAYS CODE
In 1930, nearly one-fifth of maternal deaths recorded were attributable to illegal abortions—almost 2,700 women. Sound film had been established by then, and with it came what’s now known as the pre-Code era.
Abortion wasn’t included in the censorious Motion Picture Production Code adopted that same year, but films nevertheless had to operate under what scholar Ruth Vasey termed a “principle of deniability.” This obliged viewers to unriddle “contradictory cinematic evidence,” thus letting filmmakers and studios off the hook for how viewers interpreted such intentionally ambiguous innuendo. In Alfred E. Green’s Smart Money (1931), for example, Edward G. Robinson (opposite James Cagney) plays a gambler who nonchalantly gives $100 to a lady friend for an unspecified yet highly insinuated reason.
A similar proposition is implied in Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy (1931), based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, after a social-climber (Phillips Holmes) impregnates a worker (Sylvia Sidney) at the factory where he’s a foreman. She doesn’t go through with it, however, which results in the man instead contemplating murder. Yet it was the allusion to abortion that resulted in the film being banned in several countries.
John Cromwell’s Ann Vickers (1933), based on Sinclair Lewis’s novel from the same year, finds the title character (played by Irene Dunne) pregnant by a soldier who’s eventually revealed to be a louse. A doctor friend whisks her away to Havana, where she acknowledges that the baby—a daughter she names Pride—has died, a fact she seems to regret. It isn’t explicitly revealed to have happened as the result of an abortion, but it’s certainly the only explanation considering various factors. The film was carefully crafted, however, so that it would be possible to deny such a deduction.
The Hays Code, the common name for the guidelines put forth by the trade association now known as the Motion Picture Association, was adopted in 1930, but it didn’t go seriously into effect until 1934. In June of that year, an amendment was added to the already existing code that required films to obtain a certificate of approval from the Production Code Administration (PCA) (a successor to the Studio Relations Committee [SRC]) before they could be released. This significantly constrained the way abortion could be broached in films released in the United States. But there was no mention of abortion in the 1930 version of the Code; it was only explicitly written in later, in 1951.
Some attempted to exploit this loophole. In 1949, for example, MGM challenged the Code after the script for the film The Doctor and the Girl was rejected due to its inclusion of abortion. In a letter to another association employee, Eric Johnston (who would later liberalize the Code when he became president), PCA head Joseph Breen wrote, “We have taken the stand that this one subject, which while not specifically mentioned in the Code, is not suited for screen dramatization, before mixed audiences, in theatres [sic].”
Ryszard Bolesławski’s Men in White (1934) is adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s popular Broadway play of the same name. Clark Gable stars as a doctor torn between his love of medicine and the affections of his socialite fiancée (Myrna Loy). He has a brief affair with a nurse who’s as passionate as he is; she becomes pregnant and must be hospitalized after a botched back-alley abortion. Though the SRC initially raised the flag over the film’s implication of abortion, the studio largely rejected their suggestions, recognizing that any ambiguity worked in their favor.
Upon its release, Men in White was one of the first films condemned by the Legion of Decency (established in 1933), which sought to identify content offensive to American Catholics. The religious outcry contributed to the formation of the PCA, its predecessor seeming lax in comparison to what was to come. Countries abroad similarly indulged in various forms of censorship. For Germany, in example, there was the Lichtspielgesetz (Cinema Act) passed by the Weimar government in 1920. Per the book Silencing Cinema: Film Censorship around the World, the attendant review and certification process was “a flexible instrument for ‘repelling’ supposed ‘threats to the state’ from German screens—threats that were consistently located in the leftist political camp.”
A staunchly pro-abortion film, Hans Tintner’s Cyanide, was released in 1930. It follows a young working-class woman who is denied a therapeutic abortion by a physician (though viewers see one granted to a wealthy woman). She seeks it instead from an illegal abortionist who gives her poison, which results in her excruciating death. (A 1929 German silent film, Madame Lu, the Woman for Discreet Advice, is surprisingly sympathetic toward its illegal abortionist, eventually revealing that the woman seeks to provide good, clean service because her own daughter died from a shoddy illegal abortion.)
Because of Germany's regional censorship practices, Cyanide was both approved and denied for exhibition by various boards, though largely because its negative depiction of law enforcement could have a demoralizing impact on public perception. With regard to the abortion itself, censors were less concerned about morality and more worried about the brutality of the depiction, including a possible distrust in doctors that could be imparted by the initial scene with the physician.
An adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novella, Amok (1934) is a French film directed by Russian émigré Fyodor Otsep that explicitly broaches the topic of abortion. Set in a Dutch colony, the story centers on an alcoholic doctor who refuses to perform an abortion on a fellow Westerner, who had become pregnant as a result of an affair. She seeks the procedure through less reputable means and dies as a result. The film was controversial in France, and when it came to the US twelve years later, it was prohibited from screening in New York state (even though foreign films were not beholden to the Production Code).
The 1940s found abortion in the realm of exploitation cinema back in the US, where so-called cautionary films circumvented censorship under the guise of being educational. Albert H. Kelley’s Street Corner (1948), for example, features a high school girl who almost dies from an illegal abortion. It ends with a lecture to students and their parents about issues related to sexual hygiene.
In contrast to such a ghoulishly utilitarian method of evasion, actress and filmmaker Ida Lupino started to make films around this time that were similar in mission to Weber’s over 30 years prior, albeit in a more genuinely progressive manner. To go about this, she and then-husband Collier Young co-founded the independent production company The Filmakers Inc. Though abortion is not presented as an option for its young protagonist, Not Wanted (1949)—which Lupino co-wrote and produced, and was the first film she directed after its original director, Elmer Clifton, fell ill three days into shooting—exudes an uncommon level of empathy toward Sally, a young woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and puts her child up for adoption. Rather than pity or scorn, the film’s ending suggests that a future with love and happiness is still possible for Sally, reflecting a shift from the industry mandate that characters who go against societal mores must languish in misery.
Foreshadowing what was to come with regard to the era’s prevailing censorship laws, two late ’40s films—Curtis Bernhardt’s The Doctor and the Girl (co-starring Nancy Reagan) and King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest, both 1949—make veiled references to the procedure. The second of these came back to haunt Breen, as the Legion of Decency saw right through attempts to obscure this element of the plot.
Thus when William Wyler’s 1951 noir Detective Story came to the PCA, Breen wanted to lay down the law. Centered on a cop (Kirk Douglas) who’s obsessed with apprehending an illegal abortionist—and who later discovers that his own wife had been one of the doctor’s patients—the film has a suggestion of the verboten act at its very core. Wyler had been adamant about this particular plot point, going so far as to say in an interview with the New York Times that the Code was old-fashioned. He asked, “Why not discuss reality?” especially as his film roundly condemned the taboo topic in question; though the issue was obfuscated to placate the censors, it’s nevertheless hard to imagine it being anything else. That same year, another adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun, broached the topic more subtly.
In France in 1955, two films with plots involving illegal abortion came out when the procedure was still illegal in the country: Henri Verneuil’s People of No Importance and one-time film critic Alexandre Astruc’s Les mauvaises rencontres. The first, starring Jean Gabin, once again involves the death of a young woman after being compelled to undergo an illegal abortion. Astruc’s film features Anouk Aimée as a journalist who recounts in flashback the events that led to her undergoing an illegal abortion as she’s being interrogated by police.
The Hays Code wasn’t officially abandoned until the ratings system was instituted in 1968, yet the late ’50s and early-to-mid-’60s saw the release and subsequent success of films that blatantly opposed the Code and were even disavowed by the Legion of Decency. There are many reasons for this: as one example, the 1948 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Paramount weakened the Motion Picture Association of America’s control over the industry after studios were forced to divest their ownership of movie theater chains.
Furthermore, “[s]ocial changes in public opinion unleashed by the war’s end, coupled with the strains that often accompany social and economic fluctuations, would soon find expression in Hollywood films,” writes Tom Pollard in his book Sex and Violence: The Hollywood Censorship Wars. Pollard then goes on to cite television and the newfound ability of audiences to enjoy entertainment from the comfort of their own homes as another reason for filmmakers’ heightened incentivization to flout the Code’s constraints. “Much of [the] fifties’ censorship wars represented reactions against increasingly daring strategies to woo and entice lost audiences,” he continues.
In Philip Dunne’s 1959 film adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s Broadway play Blue Denim, for example, the word abortion isn’t mentioned by the teenage girl and boy who seek the procedure after she gets pregnant. Still, there is no equivocation as to what they’re doing. The film was a rather popular, commercial success.
THE SIXTIES AND SEVENTIES
Films made abroad took distinct approaches to abortion during this era. In Karel Reisz’s British kitchen-sink drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Albert Finney’s angry young man impregnates an older married woman, who initially asks for money for an abortion but later decides to keep the baby and raise it with her husband. By contrast, in Lewis Gilbert’s 1966 film Alfie, one of the title character’s (Michael Caine) conquests undergoes an abortion; seeing the fetus makes him want to reform his ways, albiet to little avail. In both films, abortion is more a social concern broached, though via different registers, in the characters’ private spheres.
Two luminaries of 1960s Japanese cinema, Nagisa Ōshima and Shōhei Imamura, made films with incidents of abortion: Cruel Story of Youth (1960) and Pigs and Battleships (1961), respectively. Following a population boom after World War II, Japan legalized abortion under various contexts, including economic hardship, which many of their films focus on. Abortion is thus symptomatic of larger political ailments that force these films’ characters into oftentimes unsafe and illegal, but still not morally condemned, circumstances.
Leo A. Handel’s little-seen American exploitation film The Shame of Patty Smith (1962) is remarkably progressive considering the era and genre in which it was made. The title character becomes pregnant after she’s gang-raped by three men while on a date with her boyfriend. The film follows her increasingly unsafe attempts to get an abortion as she’s consistently denied access to the procedure, even by well-meaning people she encounters. A medical doctor’s lament that women in her situation aren’t able to legally obtain an abortion is significantly ahead of its time, although he refuses to perform one from fear of being prosecuted.
It’s around this time of this film’s release that citizens started posing challenges to abortion laws in the United States. Also in 1962, a woman named Sherri Chessen learned that a sedative she had been taking while pregnant brought with it a high risk of birth defects. Originally approved for a therapeutic abortion at an Arizona hospital, the procedure was canceled after media attention put too much of a spotlight on the doctors. Chessen eventually traveled to Sweden to get an abortion, where she learned that her fetus had no legs and only one arm and wouldn’t have survived childbirth.
Two years later, in 1964, the first abortion story depicted on television occurred on an episode of the soap opera Another World, its entry into that most popular of media another turning point (even if the plotline in question wasn’t quite as enlightened). In British filmmaker Jack Clayton’s Pumpkin Eater that same year, adapted by playwright Harold Pinter from a semi-autobiographical novel by Penelope Mortimer, Anne Bancroft plays a woman who undergoes both an abortion and sterilization at the request of her husband and psychiatrist based on her pathological propensity for childrearing.
Another ahead-of-its-time exploitation film is the German-Swiss co-production Wages of Sin (1966). It takes place inside a women’s clinic where patients deal with various issues related to reproductive care. The film advocates for birth control and legal abortion, and it contains stories of real-life women who underwent the procedure illegally; yet, “[w]eary of repackaging the creaky melodramas of the 1930s and ’40s, exploitation distributors in the 1960s began importing European films, which were more frank in their depictions of sexual matters,” notes the description on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of the film, whose original title Der Arzt stellt fest… translates to The Doctor notes…“Any integrity the original films may have possessed was obliterated by the sensational titles and ad campaigns employed to market them to the American grindhouse.”
That same year, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that the right of married couples to buy and use contraceptives without government interference was protected by the Constitution. Herschell Gordon Lewis later dipped his toe into the birth control debate with The Girl, the Body, and the Pill (1967), about a high school teacher under fire for teaching sex education; it wasn’t until 1972 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird that unmarried people were legally allowed access to birth control.
Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) represents an early intersection of several political issues, among them race and abortion. Here abortion is merely incidental, as Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs discovers the murderer of a wealthy businessman is a local ne’er-do-well who was looking to secure funds for his girlfriend’s abortion. Though it doesn’t depict the subject in political terms, the film nevertheless signaled abortion’s emerging status as a hot-button talking point.
Two years after he made Valley of the Dolls (1967), which also involves abortion, Mark Robson directed Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1969) from a script by Larry Cohen and Lorenzo Semple Jr. In the film a mentally unstable man begins stalking a woman who aborted their child. When she has a baby with her husband some years later, the man reappears and demands that she kill the child in retribution for her previous abortion. Allegedly, Cohen and Semple Jr.’s script found its way to Hitchcock, who was at first excited to direct it but later changed his mind.
Stephanie Rothman’s depiction of abortion in the softcore cult classic The Student Nurses (1970) is remarkably empathetic, and at the time of its release was among just a few feature films involving abortion that was directed by a woman. One of the four title characters becomes pregnant and seeks to terminate, with her friends helping her to find someone to do the procedure. “It allowed me to have a dramatized discussion about issues that were then being ignored in big-budget major studio films,” Rothman later said. “I have always wondered why the major studios were not making films about these topics. What kind of constraints were at work on them? My guess is that it was nothing but the over-privileged lives, limited curiosity and narrow minds of the men, and in those days they were always men, who decided which films would be made.”
Several years later, Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978), though not produced by a major studio (it was the first independent film to be funded in part by grants), broached the topic in a matter-of-fact way. Centered on two friends in New York City, the film involves one of them eventually terminating a pregnancy, but the film’s perspective subverted clichés; it’s not the single friend who has an abortion but rather the one who’s gotten married and already had a child, not wanting another after struggling with the first.
Abortion as fodder for horror—a subject that necessitates its own primer—emerges during this era. Richard Fleischer’s crime film 10 Rillington Place (1971) recounts the story of real-life British serial killer John Christie, played by Richard Attenborough, who pretends to be an illegal abortionist to kill one of his victims. In Massimo Dallamano’s giallo What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), a father takes revenge on a group of college girls who invited his daughter into a sex club, then compelled her to have an illegal abortion after she got pregnant. His method of killing the girls is to impale them through their genitals, mimicking what happened to his daughter.
British director Ken Loach had previously directed stories involving abortion for television; in 1971 he remade one such episode as Family Life, about a young woman who is traumatized by her abortion (and other trials in her unhappy life) but whose family continues to disparage her as she’s struggling. Though not a horror film, it’s not too far off in the mental cruelty exhibited toward the woman by both her parents and society at large. Although societal perspectives around abortion were broadening at the time, Family Life negotiates the obstacles that are often presented by those to whom a person is closest.
On the other hand, relaxed attitudes toward abortion sometimes yielded comic results. In John Erman’s Making It (1971), an over-confident young man is put in his place when he’s inexplicably called upon to assist with his own mother’s abortion. The poster for Buzz Kulik’s 1971 film To Find a Man features the tag line, “For a change… the story of a boy who got a girl out of trouble.” To that end it’s about a teenage boy who tries to raise money for his friend’s abortion.
Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), the plucky protagonist of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), even has an abortion, and her reaction epitomizes a theretofore unexplored perspective on the procedure. When her boyfriend asks, “In God’s name, why?”, she replies, “One of my whims?” Her comment is delightfully glib and appropriately timed, as the next year would bring the landmark Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which recognized a person’s right to abortion under the US Constitution. This technically allowed for most pregnant people to obtain the procedure “on a whim,” if they so chose, at least during the first trimester.
As abortion became more commonplace in American cinema, it was often as a mere plot point rather than a political statement about the procedure. In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II (1974), for example, Diane Keaton’s Kay Adams-Corleone has an abortion; while it angers Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, his outsized response derives from personal feelings rather than moral retribution.
West Germany eased restrictions on abortions in 1974 to allow the procedure within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy; East Germany had already done so two years prior. The new West German law was struck down in 1975 and later reintroduced, albeit in a limited capacity, in 1976. A 1971 West German film, In Trouble, chronicles the stories of several women seeking abortions for various reasons; later, in 1975, Helma Sanders-Brahms’s Under the Pavement Lies the Strand involves a couple rallying support against a new abortion bill, only to find out later they’re pregnant.
Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) is a pro-abortion musical in which two friends bond over one’s abortion at the beginning, then reconnect while demonstrating for abortion rights ten years later in 1972. (Abortion in France was only legalized up to the tenth week in 1975; Varda herself had signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, declaring that she’d had an abortion.) It’s as audacious as it is inventive, a singular entry in this sprawling compendium. “Not only did Varda make her subject the most crucial and vexed issue of the feminist movement, at that time as it is today—a woman’s right to control her body, specifically her reproductive system,” writes critic Amy Taubin in her essay for the film’s Criterion Collection release, “she also fashioned a narrative that is as rife with contradictions and reversals as freedom struggles always are.”
THE EIGHTIES AND NINETIES
John Waters once said, “Sometimes I wish I was a woman, just so I could have an abortion.” It’s no surprise, then, that his 1981 film Polyester features abortion, even including the scenario by which women seeking an abortion often go to a clinic to find it surrounded by anti-abortion protestors. Immensely quotable in the tradition of most Waters’ films, Polyester features the pregnant character declaring, “I’m getting an abortion, and I can’t wait!” Though determinedly provocative, the sentiment nevertheless hints at the more defiant ways abortion was coming to be acknowledged in society.
More commercial but still groundbreaking, Amy Heckerling’s teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) takes a nonchalant attitude toward a character terminating her pregnancy. Fifteen-year-old Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is unceremoniously impregnated by a high-school classmate, who then can’t come up with his half of the fee and abandons her on the day of the procedure. Perhaps it’s such a definitive depiction of abortion because that’s the extent of the drama; as Parley Ann Boswell notes in her 2014 book Pregnancy in Literature and Film, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High represents the only American film in which we experience an entire pregnancy-abortion sequence from beginning to end and in which that abortion sequence does not consume the entire focus of the film.”
Even the historical romance wasn’t spared from this newfound liberalism. In the 1983 Merchant-Ivory film Heat and Dust, Julie Christie plays a present-day woman examining the life of her great aunt (Greta Scacchi), who had lived in India during the British Raj. Her aunt got an abortion after she wasn’t sure if she had gotten pregnant by her husband or the Nawab with whom she was having an affair. The niece also contemplates an abortion but decides against it after learning of her aunt’s solitude following her elopement with the Nawab. Though the decision of whether or not to have an abortion is heavy with emotional consequences for both women, it’s exhibited without judgment and more so as the personal choice it is.
The documentary has long been a forum for considerations of abortion in cinema, with the trend beginning in the ’70s. Amalie R. Rothschild’s It Happens to Us (1972) explores the experience of obtaining an abortion among a variety of women, including those whose backgrounds had not typically been considered in movies. In 1976, the London Women’s Film Group made the documentary-fiction hybrid Whose Choice?; 1984 saw the release of two Canadian documentaries, Gail Singer’s Abortion: Stories from North and South and Democracy on Trial: The Morgentaler Affair; and in 1989, We Won’t Go Back detailed the plight of pro-choice activists as they took on anti-abortion protesters seeking to shut down women’s health clinics in San Francisco.
The year 1984 was significant for the anti-abortion movement, which came to feel redeemed by the release of the film equivalent of the 1965 Life magazine photo spread. Directed by Jack Duane Dabner and produced in partnership with the National Right to Life Committee, The Silent Scream purports to document an abortion “from the victim’s point-of-view.” It was inspired by President Ronald Reagan’s claim from earlier that year that the fetus suffers “long and agonizing pain” during the procedure. It ends with what looks to be an open-mouthed fetus, appearing to scream into the void.
Though many of the film’s claims have been disputed and debunked, The Silent Scream still succeeded in galvanizing the anti-choice contingent just a decade after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. Televangelist and Moral Majority president Jerry Falwell showed it on his television show, and it was distributed to high schools and colleges around the country. A headline in the Christian Science Monitor declared, “Graphic film raises intensity level of US abortion controversy”; Time magazine summarized it as starting “New Heat Over an Old Issue.” In 1987 doctor and anti-abortion activist Bernard Nathanson, who narrated the previous film, made a follow-up called Eclipse of Reason, which depicts a dilation and evacuation procedure occurring during late pregnancy. Charlton Heston recorded an introduction for it.
Released the same year as Eclipse of Reason was another soon-to-be-canonized contemporary film involving abortion: Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing, starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Grey’s Baby helps a dancer at the summer resort where her family is staying by lending her the money for a termination. She also agrees to take the woman’s place in a lucrative dance competition, which unites her with Swayze’s Johnny Castle. Unfortunately the abortion—an illegal one, as the film takes place in 1963—doesn’t go well, so Baby asks her doctor father (Jerry Orbach), who had unknowingly loaned her the money in the first place, for help.
The film’s screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, not only fought to keep the illegal abortion subplot but also made sure it was realistic. She later said, “When I made the movie in 1987, about 1963, I put in the illegal abortion and everyone said, ‘Why? There was Roe v. Wade―what are you doing this for?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know that we will always have Roe v. Wade.’”
In the mid-’90s, Chicago’s Jane Collective, now a hot topic in both documentary and narrative cinema, first received the cinematic treatment. Kate Kirtz and Nell Lundy’s documentary Jane: An Abortion Service (1995) detailed the revolutionary group that went beyond just providing access to safe abortions, going so far as to learn the procedure themselves. Dorothy Fadiman’s From Danger to Dignity: The Fight for Safe Abortion, released the same year, provided an overview of the underground networks and spotlighted those who worked through official channels to legalize it.
Alexander Payne’s dark comedy Citizen Ruth (1996), starring Laura Dern, attempted to satirize fanatics on both sides of the abortion debate. When a judge tells Ruth Stoops (Dern) that he’ll lessen her drug charges if she has an abortion, she becomes the center of an ideological war beween pro-choice and anti-abortion radicals. The film avoids taking a firm stance on the actual issue, but it remains refreshing to see abortion handled glibly, as if it were just one more inconsequential issue that people get too riled up about.
The eve of the millennium saw two films with abortion as central elements. In Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999), an abortion clinic worker is tasked with saving the world from the Askewniverse’s fallen angels. Abortion also factors heavily into Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules from that same year. Set during World War II, Michael Caine stars as a doctor and orphanage director who performs illegal abortions on the side, and several characters utilize his service in the film. It won two Oscars at that year’s Academy Awards, proving that a shift in attitudes toward abortion in cinema had occurred.
THE 21st CENTURY
On IMDb, there are 419 films released between 2000 and 2022 that are tagged with the keyword “abortion.” Add in short films and videos with that same tag, and the number jumps to 589. The ubiquity of abortion in movies during this period signals that the subject has gone from being a distinguishing factor to becoming instead a relatively standard narrative device.
That wasn’t always the case, however, especially abroad. In Jafar Panahi’s film The Circle (2000), one of the female ex-convict protagonists seeks an abortion yet faces difficulty because the procedure was illegal in Iran, with exceptions to save the life of the mother and in cases where genetic screening reveals that there’s an issue with the fetus. The current law in Iran is that only therapeutic abortions, decided upon by a panel of professionals excluding the mother, are legal, with the penalties for illegal procedures being severe.
In John Singleton’s Baby Boy (2001), the issue of the title character’s maturity (or lack thereof) is exhibited in how he handles his girlfriend’s abortion at the beginning of the film. A value judgment is not placed on the act itself, but rather the way Tyrese Gibson’s Jody fails to emotionally care for Taraji P. Henson’s Yvette following the procedure. It’s a subtle yet evocative example not only of shifting cultural norms around abortion, but the reframing of it as something for which the inseminating partner is also responsible.
British writer-director Mike Leigh’s 2004 film Vera Drake addresses the issue of illegal abortion from the perspective of an unusual participant, an older female abortionist (played by Imelda Staunton) who performs the procedure for free, in the 1950s, seeing it as a much-needed act of charity. She’s eventually arrested and goes to jail, as abortion was illegal in the UK at the time. Leigh reveals the reality of Drake’s experience to be as dire as that of the women seeking her services. On release, critics praised Leigh’s handling of the “controversial” subject matter, though some midwives took issue with the method of abortion used in the film, which is apparently fatal.
Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) centers on two friends as they attempt to procure an illegal abortion for one of them. The film takes place in 1987, 20 years after Romanian Communist Party General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu enacted Decree 770, which outlawed abortion except in extremely limited circumstances.
Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s 2013 documentary After Tiller profiles the only four doctors in the United States who were performing third-trimester abortions at the time of its release; the title refers to George Tiller, the doctor murdered in 2019 by an anti-abortion extremist. Another documentary, Diana Whitten’s Vessel (2020), follows the Dutch NGO Women on Waves as they sail around providing abortion access to birthing people who live in countries where the procedure is otherwise unavailable. Women on Waves founder Rebecca Gomperts also founded Aid Access in 2018, an organization that provides abortion medication via mail.
Obvious Child (2014), directed by Gillian Robespierre and starring Jenny Slate, is a romantic comedy where abortion is the thematic unifier. Down-on-her-luck comedian Donna (Slate) gets pregnant by a one-night stand, Max (Jake Lacy), with whom she falls into a quasi-relationship. She goes through with an abortion, accompanied by Max, and it’s heavily implied at the end that their relationship is on its way to becoming serious. The film depicts abortion not as a forlorn event, but as one that might result in something good.
Anti-abortion media has since become more niche, confined to exhibition and distribution models that make them less visible than the aforementioned films from this era (most of which―including the international films―received more traditional releases). Still, something occasionally pierces the popular consciousness, à la The Silent Scream. Unplanned (2019), for example―about former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson, who became an anti-abortion activist after allegedly seeing a fetus fight for its life during the procedure―was controversial both for its dishonest approach and backlash from conservative pundits who believed Twitter was unfairly censoring the film after its account was temporarily suspended. Vice President Mike Pence even Tweeted that it was “[s]o good to see movie theaters across the country showing @UnplannedMovie … More & more Americans are embracing the sanctity of life because of powerful stories like this one.”
Nevertheless, the past several years have ushered in a renaissance of films that address abortion progressively, thereby helping to destigmatize the common medical procedure. These films include Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019); various narrative and documentary films about Chicago’s Jane Collective, including Rachel Carey’s Ask for Jane (2018), Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane (2022), and Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’s HBO Max documentary The Janes (2022); Alex Thompson’s Saint Frances (2019); Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020); Audrey Diwan’s Happening (2021), based on the real-life experiences of the source material’s author, French writer Annie Ernaux, who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature; and Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui, The Sacred Bonds (2021).
These recent films appear at a time when abortion rights are under attack in the United States. Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court on June 24, immediately setting off trigger laws in many states that effectively (and quickly) outlawed the procedure. But the majority of Americans still think abortion should be legal in all or most cases; this reality is reflected in the numerous films of the past couple decades that convey a sense of societal acceptance about the subject.
Anti-abortion advocates have on their side images of an idea, of a belief not universally held. Many films similarly contain compelling images of the impact abortion can have—positively when allowed and negatively when not—on undeniably living, breathing people whose screams are not silent.