A History of Onscreen Women and Abortion

The heated political and religious discourse on the issue of whether or not abortion should be legal has made it taboo in films and TV, so it's not often that we see the issue honestly approached on screen.
Publish date:
April 25, 2014
television, abortion, house of cards, popsugar

Abortion is a taboo subject to talk about, much less show onscreen. POPSUGAR has compiled a list of the best portrayals of abortion in television and film.

The heated political and religious discourse on the issue of whether or not abortion should be legal has made it taboo in films and TV, so it's not often that we see the issue honestly approached on screen. However, there have been some exceptions (even if they have a tendency to portray abortion as more dangerous than it is).

It looks like this Summer's Obvious Child will be one of them. In fact, it may be the first ever romantic comedy to tackle abortion in a positive way. Let's look back at some of the memorable female characters who've wrestled with the decision to end a pregnancy on screen.

Maude, 1972

On the sitcom Maude, Bea Arthur played the first character to have an abortion on TV in the euphemistically titled episode "Maude's Dilemma." Yet she was not some young girl in a bind: Maude was a 47-year-old "liberal" on her fourth husband. The episode aired two months before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1972.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982

An unwanted teen pregnancy and subsequent abortion is handled surprisingly maturely in Fast Times at Ridgemont High when Damone gets Stacy pregnant after they have sex once and he bails on paying half and driving her to the clinic. She does get a ride to the clinic and has the abortion, and we find out at the end she's in a new, healthy relationship and that they haven't "gone all the way" yet.

Dirty Dancing, 1987

The subplot of the film Dirty Dancing centers around Penny's illegal abortion, which almost kills her if not for Baby's doctor dad saving her life. While there are plenty of issues between the family members, friends, and romantic partners in the movie, the conflicts don't center on whether or not it's "right" to end a pregnancy. Instead we see Penny's friend support her in her decision, and Jake is angry at Baby for lying to him and paying for an illegal abortion; he's not upset about abortions in general. This commendable example of a movie tackling an abortion is thanks to writer Eleanor Bergstein, who lost Clearasil as a corporate sponsor when she refused to take out the controversial subplot.

Prime Suspect, 1995

In the British crime drama series Prime Suspect, single detective Jane Tennison unapologetically decides to terminate her unwanted pregnancy in an honest portrayal of how a modern woman would come to that decision. We see her make the decision at the close of season three and go through with the abortion at the start of season four in the episode titled "The Lost Child."

Sex and the City, 2001

In season four's episode "Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda," we see how three of the leading ladies handle the abortion issue. Workaholic Miranda decides to have an abortion when her ex gets her pregnant but changes her mind in the waiting room at the abortion clinic. Samantha flippantly states, "It's less than a desirable situation, but it happens. We've all been there. I've had two!" And Carrie opens up about her own abortion at 22 after a one-night stand, saying she doesn't regret it, but she's never felt the same since.

Vera Drake, 2004

In the 2004 drama Vera Drake, set in 1950 London, Imelda Staunton stars as the titular character — a kind-hearted woman who takes care of her family and performs illegal abortions free of charge to those in need. When one of her patients almost dies, she ends up arrested and sentenced to jail for being a backroom abortionist.

Juno, 2007

When 16-year-old Juno gets pregnant after sleeping with a friend, she decides to get an abortion, but she has such a terrible experience at the abortion clinic that she changes her mind and decides to give up the baby for adoption. While adoption is a viable and commendable option for some, it's sad that the combination of a stereotypically awful abortion clinic coupled with a sweet-looking abortion protester would cause Juno to feel frightened about having the procedure.

Revolutionary Road, 2008

In the very sad film Revolutionary Road (based on the 1961 novel by Richard Yates), Kate Winslet plays an unhappy wife and mother in the 1940s who has a chance to start fresh with her husband, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, until she finds herself pregnant. After he screams at her for wanting an illegal abortion and admits he's had an affair with a coworker, she performs a vacuum aspiration abortion on herself and dies of blood loss.

Friday Night Lights, 2010

It's rare to see a pregnant teenager go through with an abortion on a major network show, so when 15-year-old Becky made the difficult decision to have one in the Friday Night Lights episode "I Can't," it was a big deal. Becky struggled with the decision, talking it out with peers and a mentor and making some poignant realizations along the way, like "how awful it would be if I had a baby and I spent the rest of my life resenting him or her." The show really did a quality job of portraying the real-world realities of unwanted teen pregnancy.

Girls, 2012

It was a ballsy move for HBO's Girls to take on abortion in its inaugural season (in its second episode, no less), but Lena Dunham is one ballsy lady. In the episode, aptly titled "Vagina Panic," Jessa matter-of-factly decides to end her pregnancy, and her friends all rally around her by meeting at the clinic to throw her a "beautiful abortion." As it turns out, it's a false alarm, but the show handled the issue honestly and with appropriate humor — a big step in the right direction, in our opinion.

Bachelorette, 2012

The dark comedy Bachelorette stars Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan as high school BFFs reuniting for a girlfriend's wedding. Lizzy's Gena was traumatized by an abortion she had in high school and during the prewedding activities has to face the ex-boyfriend who got her pregnant and never showed up to take her to the clinic. She even references one of the most iconic films about the same scenario, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Afternoon Delight, 2013

People were upset over the "abortion joke" in last year's indie dramedy Afternoon Delight when Kathryn Hahn's character asks her friends if they ever wonder what their aborted babies would look like. The actress defended the joke in her interview with Vulture, saying, "It just seemed so like what women talk about, what moms would talk about and say when you're approaching 40. . . . It just felt like women sitting around, talking about their sex lives, the life that they had before children. Now they have these responsibilities and dying marriages and all those things."

Parenthood, 2013

While we often get the perspective of the girl in an onscreen teen pregnancy, in Parenthood's episode "Small Victories," it was more about the guy. The teenage boy in question, Drew, wants to have the baby and figure out a way to work it out, but his girlfriend (who is already pulling away from him) doesn't want to have it. He supports her by helping pay for the procedure and accompanying her at Planned Parenthood, but then later admits (tearfully) to his family how upset he is. It's an emotional example of a how an unwanted teenage pregnancy can be treated with honesty and respect.

House of Cards, 2014

As with the groundbreaking Maude episode, the abortion subplot in season two of House of Cards stands out because it involves a married, middle-aged woman. But rather than confront a modern-day abortion scenario, the political drama confronts the aftermath of a past abortion — and an attempted cover-up.

Obvious Child, 2014

Jenny Slate stars in Obvious Child, a romantic comedy (out in June) about a comedian who ends up pregnant after rebounding with a nice guy trying to get over a bad breakup. A sweet, funny, smart movie about abortion? Crazy.

Reprinted with permission from POPSUGAR Love & Sex. Want more?

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