No Wire Hangers Ever: A Look Back at Abortion in Movies

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It’s not easy to get a film about abortion made. Actually, scratch that. It’s hard to get a film about abortion made – in 2014.

Though there have been several films, particularly in the 1980s, that showed women undergoing abortions, we’re much less likely to see these depictions hit the big screen in the present day.  Honestly, films like Dirty Dancing and Fame probably wouldn’t make it all the way to the big screen in 2014. But with the new film Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre’s romantic comedy starring Jenny Slate as a twenty-something who unapologetically has an abortion, we’re taking a step in the right direction. With Obvious Child, abortion is actually part of the conversation. It’s creating a dialogue that has been intentionally faded out by movie studios and their executives in recent years. Abortion is once again a topic of discussion in film, and that’s vital.

The typical late-twenties/early-thirties urban woman we see on TV and in film has almost become a caricature of herself. She lives in a super-chic loft (huge, of course) in a big city where she walks to work in sky-high stilettos and sips fruity cocktails. She’s got a hot boyfriend with whom she has amazing sex, and her life is unstained by the annoyances normal women face on a daily basis. But in Obvious Child, we meet struggling twenty-something comedian Donna Stern, played by Slate. She has dance parties, messy one night stands, and a dwindling bank account. In fact, she’ll probably remind you of yourself. But Donna also finds herself pregnant, and that’s where the film really deviates from the norm. Donna wants an abortion and she’s going to get one. She’s not regretful or sad about her decision, and she doesn’t sit in her super-chic apartment staring out the big bay window into the rain thinking about it. In fact, it’s not even a hard decision for her to make. Donna knows what she wants, and a film that depicts an unwanted pregnancy in such a manner is rarity in this day and age.

Some 40 years ago, it was much more common to have films address abortion as a topic. In 1980’s Fame, we meet Hilary van Doren. One of the best ballet dancers at the High School of the Performing Arts, Hilary shows up sophomore years and cooks up trouble among her classmates, luring fellow dancer Leroy away from his girlfriend Coco. Later when the film zooms in on a hysterical Hilary, we think she’s talking to someone. But really she’s waiting at an abortion clinic, devastated by her situation and rambling to herself about how there’s “no room for a baby.” It’s a heartbreaking yet honest scene. Coincidentally, Fame was remade in 2009.  Do you think we saw a character in an abortion clinic waiting room in that version? Not a chance.

Another example of modern film sanitizing itself of abortion is in the 2004 Jude Law film Alfie. In the original 1960’s version, Michael Caine is a British cad who gets a friend’s wife pregnant, and sets up an illegal abortion for her. Flash forward to the 2004 remake starring Jude Law as Alfie, who impregnates his friend’s girlfriend. He brings her to the clinic for the procedure, and when she comes out and he asks how she feels, and she says “empty.” Later, we discover she never even went through with it.

Like Fame, 80s teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, shows a character who follows through with terminating a pregnancy. Just a high school freshman, Stacy Hamilton gets knocked up by the vile Vic Damone, who impregnated her during a 3-second lay in her parents’ pool house. When she waits for Vic to pick her up and bring her to the abortion clinic, he bails on her and she has to catch a ride with her brother Brad, to whom she lies and says she’s going bowling. If you watch the deleted scenes of the film, you can actually see a clip of Stacy as she lays on the table at the doctor’s office. Can you imagine a mainstream teen flick going there in 2014? Unlikely.

Of the several historical depictions of abortion in film, Dirty Dancing may be one of the most significant. After undergoing an illegal procedure, resort employee Penny is doubled over in pain, sweat dripping down her head. In 1963, her options were nothing more than a man who “had a dirty knife and a folding table.”  We see another botched abortion in Revolutionary Road, where Kate Winslet’s character takes it upon herself to perform the procedure at home, with devastating results. And in the film adaptation of John Irving’s classic novel The Cider House Rules, Tobey Maguire valiantly steps in to perform the procedure on a young orchard employee who became pregnant as the result of incest. All of these examples are noteworthy, yet it’s very telling that they all take place in the past. In some ways, we’ve taken steps backwards to revert to a time when women had barely any options at all. This is why we need films like Obvious Child to exist.

Obvious Child’s Donna Stern is a modern woman who unapologetically chooses to have an abortion. And no matter your personal feelings on the issue, honestly depicting controversial situations like these on TV and in movies is a step forward for all of us.  It points out that ultimately, polarizing topics like this one can’t be hidden away from society because they’re messy, or because they can cause an uproar. By weaving controversial issues into art, the public is forced to start a discussion, a discussion we should have had years ago.