It’s not hard to find pro-life movies. As much as Hollywood progressives don’t want them to be made or seen, films like Gosnell (2018), October Baby (2011), Bella (2006), and the soon-to-release Unplanned (in theaters March 28)—to name just a few—are pretty common. Even more common are more mainstream, better-quality films that contain subtler but undeniably powerful pro-life themes: Children of Men (2006), Juno (2007), Knocked Up (2007), Waitress (2007), or last year’s Creed II, Roma, and A Quiet Place.
It’s much harder to find pro-choice movies. Why? Given the politically liberal hegemony that is Hollywood—where films advocating other progressive causes like LGBTQ rights are a dime a dozen—why is advocacy for abortion rights so little seen in mainstream movies? As central as abortion is in the political left’s political program, you’d think it would show up often in Hollywood movies.
But it doesn’t. Why not?
Framing Abortion Rights as Justice Issue
Almost all the examples of pro-choice themes in movies concern depictions of the harrowing nature of “underground” abortions in contexts and eras where legal (and “safer,” at least for the mother) abortion is not possible.
Probably the most popular film in this category is Dirty Dancing (1987). Set in 1963—a decade before abortion became legalized nationally following Roe v. Wade—the film includes a subplot where Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) has to borrow money from Baby (Jennifer Grey) to pay for an illegal abortion that almost kills her. Other films in this vein include HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk (1996), Revolutionary Road (2008)—a bleak drama depicting a self-performed abortion that ends up killing Kate Winslet’s character—and the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), which follows college roommates as they try to arrange a secret, illegal abortion in communist-era Romania.
Other pro-choice films have valorized abortion-performing doctors who operated covertly in contexts where the practice was illegal and stigmatized. Michael Caine won an Oscar for his portrayal, in The Cider House Rules (1999), of a lovable old doctor who performs abortions out of the World War II-era Maine orphanage he operates. Similarly, Imelda Staunton was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal, in Vera Drake (2004), of a sweet woman who secretly performs abortions in 1950s London.
More movies like this appear to be on the horizon, with no less than three (!) films in the works about the Jane Collective—an underground abortion service that operated in Chicago from 1969 to 1973. Call Jane will star Elisabeth Moss and Susan Sarandon, Amazon Studios’ This Is Jane will star Michelle Williams, and Ask for Jane stars Planned Parenthood activist Cait Cortelyou.
Because “safe, legal, and rare” has been a common talking point for the pro-choice cause, it makes sense that pro-choice films would focus on depicting the bleak circumstances surrounding abortion when it was forced underground. Films like these want to convince audiences that the post-Roe era is much better than pre-Roe in terms of women’s health, and that outlawing abortion again would take us back to the self-mutilating horrors of Revolutionary Road. It frames the abortion issue as a justice cause within a victim-oppressor paradigm, where dissenters like Vera Drake and the Jane Collective are positioned as righteous advocates for the marginalized, on par with the heroes of the American civil-rights movement.
Shout Your Abortion?
But is this the only possible tactic for pro-choice cinema? Why aren’t there more films about abortions that take place in the post-Roe era, when it is legal? Where are the “shout your abortion!” movies celebrating stories of present-day women who choose to get an abortion? Why are films like this so conspicuously rare?
Because few people want to see such films. When recent movies have attempted to celebrate abortion stories through lighthearted comedy, they have been awkward and little seen. In Obvious Child (2014), Jenny Slate stars as a 20-something who has an abortion on Valentine’s Day, followed by a cosy evening watching Gone with the Wind with the aborted baby’s father. How romantic. In Grandma (2015), Lily Tomlin plays an aging lesbian poet who happily helps her teenage granddaughter collect money to pay for an abortion. Both films were critically acclaimed (91 percent and 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively) but commercially underwhelming ($3.1 million and $6.9 million at the box office, respectively).
Just this month a new TV show, Hulu’s Shrill—based on the memoir by #ShoutYourAbortion co-founder Lindy West—attempted another relaxed, lighthearted abortion depiction. In the first episode, lead character Annie (Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant) is shown having an abortion at Planned Parenthood (which served as a script consultant on the episode). Following the abortion, Annie is shown with her lesbian roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope), who asks her how she’s feeling. Annie responds, “Really, really good . . . I made a decision, only for me, for myself . . . I feel very f*****g powerful right now.”
However desirable it may be for the pro-choice cause to see more indie comedies like these being made—portraying abortion as an easy and empowering thing—it seems unlikely to happen. Why? Because making light of abortion just doesn’t work. There’s no getting around the heaviness and cruelty of it, both for the child who will never get a chance at life and also the mother (and father) who cannot undo and must live with the decision. It simply doesn’t work to make a “feel good” film or TV show about abortion. When attempts are made, it’s just disturbing.
Making light of abortion just doesn’t work. There’s no getting around the heaviness and cruelty of it.
You cannot celebrate the pro-choice cause without celebrating the harm of another. In a culture where “don’t harm others” is the lowest common denominator of moral imperatives, abortion advocates cannot even clear that low moral bar. Abortion advocates cannot even appeal to the base principle of various progressive sexual ethics—that anything is permissible as long as it is consensual and does no harm. Abortion by nature inflicts harm by one party on another, without their consent.
Even a liberal, pro-abortion feminist like Camille Paglia has admitted that the pro-life movement “has the moral high ground” over the pro-choice cause. Writing for Salon, Paglia said, “Although I am an atheist who worships only great nature, I recognize the superior moral beauty of religious doctrine that defends the sanctity of life.”
Nothing to See Here!
In the same article, Paglia describes the “abundant contradictions” of a liberal feminism that opposes capital punishment and fights to protect endangered species like the sage grouse or spotted owl, and yet supports the killing of unborn children.
“The violence intrinsic to abortion cannot be wished away by magical thinking,” she writes.
Indeed. The intrinsic, fundamental nature of violence in the abortive act is a big reason why pro-choice films are so rare. There is no way to depict abortion on screen, or even suggest it as something that happened offscreen, without reminding audiences of the ugly, “doing harm to another” violence of the practice. That’s why attempts at “feel good” abortion movies are so outrageous. No matter how you try to spin an abortion, there is no getting around its moral ugliness.
There is no way to depict or even suggest abortion on screen without reminding audiences of the ugly, ‘doing harm to another’ violence of the practice.
This is why the pro-choice movement’s main tactics involve diverting attention away from abortion itself. They want us to focus on the mother exclusively (her rights, her body, her health, her “I feel very powerful!” autonomy), but not the baby (his or her rights, his or her body, his or her health, his or her lack of power). They call supporters to fight the patriarchy and defend against a supposed “war on women,” but there is little mention of the actual thing being defended (killing babies by sucking them out of their mother’s womb). The rhetoric itself shifts away from the truth of abortion in a “nothing to see here!” sort of way: It’s “pro-choice” (a term Paglia calls “a cowardly euphemism”) instead of “pro-abortion.” It’s about planning a better future for the parents (“Planned Parenthood”) rather than removing the future, and all its possibility, from an innocent living human.
If abortion were a morally neutral thing, there would be no need to divert attention away from it. There would be no need to swap “pro-choice” for “pro-abortion.” There would be no fear of vivid, visual depictions of what abortion is and does. There would be no curious lack of abortion in mainstream Hollywood films. But abortion is not morally neutral, and abortion-rights proponents know it. That’s why—aside from occasional indie films and fringe shows like Shrill—abortion will probably remain a rarity on screen. To shine any light on abortion—even the softest and most rosy-colored light—is to remind people of its inherent moral ugliness and draw attention to its unavoidably disturbing reality. And that’s the last thing abortion defenders want.