Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, CRIMINOLOGY AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 26 August 2019

Abortion in American Film since 2001

Abstract and Keywords

In American cinema from 1916 to 2000, two main archetypes emerge in portrayals of women seeking abortion: prima donnas and martyrs/victims. While the prima donna category faded over the course of the 20th century, study of abortion in American cinema from 2001 to 2016 shows that the victim archetype persists in many films. Women who have abortions are cast as victims in films across a variety of genres: Christian, thriller, horror, and historical. Some recent films, however, namely, Obvious Child (2014) and Grandma (2015), reject this hundred-year-old tendency to portray abortion as regrettable and tragic—especially for the women choosing it—and instead show it as a liberating experience that brings women together, breaking new ground for the depiction of abortion in American film.

Keywords: abortion, pregnancy, criminal abortion, film, Hollywood, genre

Abortion in Films before 2001

While providing counseling at an abortion clinic in New York in 1999, Heather MacGibbon encountered a woman who told her: “I am not a victim or hero. I am just pregnant and can’t be right now. … I saw this movie the other night—the girl got to keep her baby … but my life is definitely not like that.”1 Many women she spoke with at the abortion clinic looked to cinematic depictions of abortion to better understand and communicate their experiences, even if these depictions have rarely done justice to the complexity of women’s lives. It becomes all the more pressing, then, to understand how abortion has been portrayed in film.

MacGibbon went on to write a book entitled Screening Choice: The Abortion Issue in American Film, 1900–2000 in which she focuses on the main stereotypes of women seeking abortion: prima donnas and martyrs/victims. The earliest known film to touch on the subject, the silent film Where Are My Children? (1916) by the female director Lois Weber, provides an excellent example of each of these roles. Early in the film, after viewers are informed that the District Attorney is sad at his wife’s childlessness, his wife is seen playing with her pet dog: she clearly does not share his sorrow. The viewer learns over the course of the film that the wife has not only procured abortions for her friends but has had some herself; the film portrays these women as “social butterflies” who reject the sacred responsibility of motherhood and selfishly enjoy themselves instead. They have access to expensive doctors who are willing to give them abortions, even though these secret operations are technically crimes. The “martyr/victim” role is played by the housekeeper’s daughter, who is seduced by the wife’s scheming brother, has an abortion, and dies. Her vulnerability as an innocent, inexperience girl is stressed, making her a clear contrast to the wealthy prima donnas having abortion so that they can have fun.

The prima donna role fades over the course of the 20th century. One reason is the weakening hold of eugenics—the ideology that the population can be improved by encouraging those with more desirable characteristics to reproduce while discouraging or even preventing those deemed “unfit” from having children. As eugenics wanes in influence, prima donna characters—respectable married white women—are no longer so clearly exhorted to reproduce for America. Another reason the prima donna role fades is that childbearing is no longer seen as the primary purpose of marriage, so a married woman who does not want to have children is no longer such a morally problematic character. If the prima donna role almost vanishes, however, the victim stereotype does not. The idea that women, and sometimes men, are the victims of abortion persists in post–2000 films, both when a woman obtains an abortion and—often even more powerfully—when that supposed crisis is averted. A few representative films in a variety of genres—Christian, thriller, horror, and historical—will highlight continuities in this victim archetype.

Only in the last few years have a few abortion films begun to break out of the near-universal tendency to depict abortion as tragic. These films (all two of them) are groundbreaking in many ways. They show young women making a clear decision to have an abortion, not agonizing about it for the entire plot. They depict some of the barriers to obtaining abortion that many American women face, even if they do make these barriers seem more easily surmountable than they actually are. After decades of censorship and then reluctance to show abortion procedures onscreen, these films accompany their protagonists into the doctor’s office. Most radically, perhaps, whereas past abortion films have made the experience out to be a stigmatized secret that a woman cannot discuss with either her parents or closest friends, these films use the abortion plot as a way of creating, not destroying, female community. When the protagonists of these movies discuss their abortions, they learn that their mothers, grandmothers, and friends have also had them—some back when abortion was a crime—and that their family and friends, and sometimes even their boyfriends, are willing to support them. While these films do represent a major advance in the history of reproductive rights onscreen, they also belabor the immaturity of their protagonists to demonstrate why these 20-something women need abortions and to preserve sympathy for these women.

Victims in Christian, Thriller, Horror, and Historical Abortion Films

There has been a shift recently in feature films financed and/or promoted by Christian groups that depict the evils of abortion. Films produced by Christian groups in earlier decades tend to be more didactic; in Deadly Choice (1982), for example, a teenager attempts suicide after she has a secret abortion, only to be saved by the prayers of her father—a born-again Christian doctor who has threatened to resign from his hospital unless it stops offering abortions. More recent examples such as Come What May (2009), Sarah’s Choice (2009), and October Baby (2011) have higher production values and take more subtle approaches in an attempt to entertain while pushing the same anti-abortion message. October Baby enjoyed surprising success, opening at Number 8 in the box office, even though it had to compete with the release of Hunger Games. October Baby tells its story from the viewpoint of an “abortion survivor,” a young woman who finds the nurse who delivered her after a botched procedure—an experience that apparently explains her asthma and suicidal thoughts. The film’s soft-focus cinematography and moody emo soundtrack belie its political aggressiveness: its evangelical directors scheduled test screenings in Mississippi just as the state was considering a ban on abortion. Even though abortion is no longer a legal crime, the protagonist of October Baby is advised to “hate the crime, not the criminal,” suggesting that abortion is still a moral crime.

Deadly Choice and October Baby both make women victims in connecting abortion and suicide, a connection also made in films that are far from evangelical tracts: mainstream thrillers such as The Ides of March (2011), which uses the double scandal to juice up its plot. Its protagonist, the campaign manager for a Democratic presidential candidate, learns that an intern he is sleeping with is pregnant with the candidate’s baby. The intern is told to have an abortion and then commits suicide. Her abortion–suicide is then turned into a plot device, as the campaign manager, who’s been fired, uses the threat of scandal to blackmail the would-be president. In the thriller The Air I Breathe (2007), after a singer is told by her jealous manager that she must abort the child of her lover, she tries to kill herself.

Thrillers link abortion not only to suicide, but also to murder, reinforcing the ideas of women as victims. In All Good Things (2010), based on the story of Robert Durst, the wife of an infertile real-estate tycoon is pressured into aborting another man’s baby; the husband starts abusing her, and she ultimately disappears and is presumed dead. The Ides of March, The Air I Breathe, and All Good Things all depict abortion as a tragedy that women are pushed into, and murder or suicide is used to compound that tragedy. Other thrillers link the abortions that women choose with murder, but instead of killing off a woman who contemplates the procedure, they, like October Baby, attempt to appeal to a broader audience and evade criticism by connecting the two in more subtle ways. In The Life Before Her Eyes (2007), a professor trying to raise her troubled daughter has frequent flashbacks both to a traumatic high school abortion and a mass shooting at her high school. We ultimately learn that she died in that shooting and that the entire plot of the film was the life that flashed before her eyes before she died; the troubled daughter she imagined was the fetus she aborted, making this another abortion–survivor narrative. In Nocturnal Animals (2016), a gallery owner’s ex-husband gives her a manuscript about a man who dies in the attempt to avenge his wife and daughter, who have been raped and murdered; she interprets the story as symbolic revenge for the pain she caused him in aborting their child during their divorce.

Horror films often link abortion and murder more explicitly. For example, in Sacrifice (2000), a serial killer targets women who have had abortions; the killer turns out to be a nurse at an abortion clinic who performs occult rituals with the fetuses. In Blessed Are the Children (2016), a young woman who has had an abortion is hunted down and murdered, along with her friend, by religious anti-abortion zealots.

A disturbing linkage between abortion and death, even when the abortion is not the immediate cause of that death, has been found in a study of almost a hundred years of abortion narratives of all genres in American film and TV. In a 2014 study, sociologists Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport identified every abortion plotline they could find from 1916 to 2013. Out of the 310 plotlines they found, 14% (42 plotlines) ended with the death of the woman who considered abortion, whether or not she obtained one. In 10 of those plotlines, the pregnant character died before she could make a decision; nine of those deaths were murders. Sisson and Kimport write: “this association of death with the contemplation of abortion contributes to the ongoing production of abortion stigma, narratively linking the consideration of pregnancy termination with violence and death” (p. 417).

In 60% of those 42 plotlines, characters died as a direct result of their abortions. Sisson and Kimport, while noting that many of these plots are set in a time when abortion was a crime, argue that these depictions show abortion to be riskier than it is in reality—unlike most medical procedures, which miraculously work far more often in fictional depictions. Fiction, films, and TV shows created after the legalization of abortion, but set in a past in which abortion was a crime, often depict abortion as potentially fatal. While these plots may be read as reminders of the death toll of illegal abortion and thus as arguments for keeping abortion legal and making it more accessible, they also reinforce the idea that abortion is dangerous.

In Revolutionary Road (2008), an adaptation of Richard Yates’s 1961 novel, April, a miserable suburban housewife and mother of two, convinces her husband Frank that the family should move to Paris. While he initially agrees, he is comfortable with the dull safety of his life, so he is relieved when his wife’s unexpected pregnancy gives him an easy out. She refuses to be trapped again by pregnancy, though. Since she cannot easily procure an abortion—the story is set at a time when abortion is illegal—and because Frank won’t help her, April dies of a self-induced abortion. Yates commented that the novel was “built on a series of abortions of all kinds—an aborted play, several aborted careers, any number of aborted ambitions and aborted plans and aborted dreams—all leading up to a real, physical abortion, and a death at the end.”2 Abortion is thus depicted as a failure, a literal dead end, instead of a possible new beginning. The film is sympathetic to April, who is shown to possess an authenticity that Frank lacks and who finds no expression in her life: in many shots, she is trapped between people, doorways, or window frames. Yet the film’s sympathy for April, and the abortion plot overall, serve a larger purpose: an indictment of Frank’s pathetic attempts to seem masculine, especially when that fragile masculinity is threatened by April’s refusal to bear another of his children. As in many narratives, here a story of abortion is used to tell a male story.

Alfie, a 2004 remake of a 1966 British film of the same name, is another example of an abortion story about a man: here, the man is a cocky young Don Juan for whom abortion serves as a moral turning point. The original Alfie knocks up his friend’s wife and reluctantly arranges an illegal abortion for her in his flat. The abortionist, a dodgy figure, lectures the pair but performs an abortion in any case in exchange for cash. Alfie flees the scene and wanders around London, ultimately running into an ex-girlfriend who is the mother of his toddler son. Alfie loved visiting his son and bringing him gifts, but he refused to marry his girlfriend, so she remarried to give the son a real father. That Alfie’s poignant encounter with his lost son occurs during Lily’s abortion connects the two lost children with each other, compounding Alfie’s grief at his missed opportunities to be a father. It also equates the aborted fetus with a little boy, suggesting that abortion is problematic to men because it murders a potential son. After this traumatic experience, Alfie attempts to settle down with his middle-aged lover, but she rejects him for a younger man. This rejection, along with Alfie’s horror at abortion, is designed to win him audience sympathy.

Instead of being structured around an abortion that is the moral turning point of the film, the 2004 remake is structured around an abortion that does not occur. This Alfie, played by Jude Law as a Brit in Manhattan, also brags about his many girlfriends, including his most regular: a woman with a small son to whom Alfie has grown attached. This unrelated boy is an updated version of Alfie’s biological son in the original, but today, biological ties are considered so important that if Alfie were to neglect his own son, he could no longer remain sympathetic.

This Alfie also sleeps with his best friend’s woman, his co-worker Marlon’s girlfriend Lonnette, after the two break up. Lonnette, who immediately gets back together with Marlon, shows up later to tell Alfie she is pregnant. Alfie takes her (though both of them are reluctant) to an abortion clinic, and then she vanishes. The film problematically turns race into a clue: Lonnette and Marlon are black, so that if Lonnette gave birth to Alfie’s child, Marlon would know it wasn’t his. This racial typing rests on the assumption that if Lonnette and Marlon were white, Lonnette would simply pass the child off as Marlon’s.

Alfie muses, “I find myself having regrets. Thinking thoughts like, ‘Here’s another kid you’ll never get a chance to know. Your own.’” Again, a living child—his ex-lover’s son—is tied to a fetus slated for abortion. Yet, toward the end of the film, Alfie goes to visit Lonnette and Marlon at their new house in upstate New York, and we learn that she did not actually have an abortion. After Lonnette reluctantly lets Alfie in and leads him to her baby’s crib, viewers are shown a close-up of a baby that, given Lonnette’s doleful expression, we are meant to see as biracial. The idea that the baby’s skin tone is an immediate visual cue that the baby is Alfie’s rests on the racist assumption that a darker-skinned African American couple like Marlon and Lonnette would necessarily have a baby with dark skin. That assumption denies the material history of slavery: due to the rape of many black slave women by white masters, African Americans today have diverse genomes, meaning that two darker-skinned individuals could produce a lighter-skinned child. The Alfie remake takes a problematic, essentialist view of race, proving its lack of commitment to the stories of Marlon and Lonnette and reinforcing Alfie’s role as the only important character of the film.

Despite an earlier insistence on the importance of biogenetic relationships, we assume that Alfie won’t be allowed to have a relationship with Lonnette’s child (also a boy, compounding Alfie’s loss). Lonnette explains that she thought the child might have been Marlon’s, so she could not bring herself to have an abortion. Here, abortion is represented as a tragedy best avoided, and the result is the same; Alfie loses his chance to be a father.

Aborted Abortions

The year 2007 saw three films in which abortion is presented as a bad choice: Waitress, Knocked Up, and Juno. The title character of Waitress is planning to escape her abusive husband when she gets unexpectedly pregnant. She says she doesn’t want the baby, calling it an “alien and a parasite” and herself “the anti-mother,” but she has it anyway. Her husband thinks about making her “get rid of it” but says he doesn’t want her to go to Hell. Abortion, again, is associated with the villains. The plot demands that she have the child because far from stymying her plans, becoming a mother gives her the courage to finally leave her husband and start a new business, (named after her daughter). As she gazes at her newborn, everything else goes out of focus, and dreamy pop music drowns out the voice of her husband, who is disappointed the baby is a girl and who threatens to get violent in the recovery room. Its producer said that Adrienne Shelly, the film’s late writer and director, thought about abortion but decided, “It’s a story about the power of motherhood.”

In Knocked Up, as in Waitress, “abortion” is not even speakable. Even though its title refers to a woman, the film opens with a shot of its true protagonist, the schlubby slacker Ben, who is partying with his friends, clearly unprepared for fatherhood. Some miscommunication during a (rather implausible) drunken one-night stand with ambitious TV journalist Alison leaves her accidentally pregnant. She, unbelievably, does not consider an abortion. Her mother, who hisses that she should “take care of it,” is shown to be on the wrong side of morality; she mentions Alison’s stepsister, who had an abortion and then later “a real baby,” showing that she does not think the product of a one-night stand is socially acceptable. When one of Ben’s friend’s, reluctant to say the word, coins the euphemism “shmashmortion,” another friend is horrified and calls the idea monstrous.

As in The Ides of March and both versions of Alfie, an abortion plotline is used to tell a male story. Here, abortion must be rejected because fatherhood is necessary here to catalyze Ben’s maturation into a real adult and full-fledged member of society. By the end of the film, he knows more about Alison’s body than she does herself and starts mansplaining to her about the “bloody show,” a bloody mucusy discharge: because it hasn’t come yet, he patronizingly tells her, they have time to get to the hospital. He has also quit smoking weed and gotten a job and apartment so the two can be together. At the same time, gross-out humor at Alison’s expense has taken her, the career woman, down a peg: she realizes that not everything can be planned and she loosens up, making her a more appropriate match for Ben. Kelly Oliver demonstrates in Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films (2012) that many recent accidental-pregnancy films glamorize baby-making by insisting that pregnancy doesn’t make men leave but rather makes them stay—or even attracts them. In such films, abortion must be forcibly rejected as a threat not just to the pregnancy and the ensuing romance, but to the narrative itself.

Juno at least attempts to explore why its eponymous protagonist does not have an abortion, perhaps because her reasons are assumed to be more socially acceptable: she is a high school student. With its unknown, quirky, wise-cracking, nonblonde protagonist (Ellen Page), financing through Fox Searchlight (tasked with creating independent films), and edgy script, Juno also has an indie identity. Perhaps the filmmakers believed that mentioning abortion—a pressing social issue—instead of ignoring it in a Hollywoodized fashion would enhance the film’s indie nature. Yet the film’s glib treatment of abortion is disappointing.

After unprotected sex with her boyfriend, Juno seems to know what she wants to do about the resulting pregnancy: she calls a clinic to procure “a hasty abortion.” Yet Juno begins to change her mind when she arrives at the clinic and a classmate tells her—inaccurately—that “your baby has fingernails.” After Juno enters the clinic, a jitter-inducing montage of women tapping, biting, and clicking their fingernails links the preborn fetus to these postborn adults while making the clinic seem repugnant. Juno is also offended by the blasé receptionist, who offers her boysenberry condoms. The rest of the film, like Knocked Up and Waitress, is a heartwarming story about pregnancy as personal growth experience. While there are some hurdles along the way—Juno isn’t able to go to the prom, and Mark and Vanessa, the middle-class couple she’s chosen to adopt her baby, get a divorce—at the end of the film, she gives her baby to Vanessa, her family supports her, and the experience brings her closer to her boyfriend. She says, “I know that people are supposed to fall in love before they reproduce, but I guess normalcy isn't really our style.” Juno pretends to be edgy while actually reinforcing romanticized notions about miraculous motherhood.

The fact that the characters did not choose abortion is not in itself problematic; the protagonists of these films could have considered abortion more realistically and concluded that abortion was not the right decision for them. The problem lies in how firmly abortion must be disavowed when it is considered and how often it is not even considered at all. The creators of these films claim to be pro-choice, but the women in their films are still expected to make the right choice, which is to have the baby, and they are rewarded for it. These creators want feel-good films that don’t risk the audience’s sympathy by depicting characters who have abortions. Furthermore, abortion must be forcefully rejected (or never mentioned) by a pregnant woman—in order for her to stay sympathetic.

The New Abortion Film

Two more recent films, Obvious Child (2014) and Grandma (2015), establish that women can have abortions and remain sympathetic. Obvious Child has been dubbed the first “abortion rom-com”; its heroine, Donna, is a 20-something Brooklyn comedian pregnant after a post-breakup one-night stand. She even cracks jokes about the situation: when a friend encourages her before a show, saying “you’re going to kill it,” she replies “no, that happens tomorrow.” In the films just discussed—and in films in general—women are often depicted as humorless rule-followers compared to fun-loving men, as in Knocked Up and Juno (in which the adoptive mother is a control freak who also has to learn to loosen up). Obvious Child and Grandma are radical departures: they show women making jokes, not just being the butt of them—and they make jokes about abortion instead of pregnancy.

Donna doesn’t ignore the existence of abortion, nor does she recoil when a friend or her mother tentatively, euphemistically, brings it up. She doesn’t agonize about whether to have one. Instead, the film highlights other issues involved in abortion, like the cost—about $500: Donna laments, “That’s, like, my whole rent almost.” (We never learn, however, how Donna pays for it.) The film follows Donna into the procedure room, showing a close-up of her relaxed, sedated face at the beginning of the abortion. There is a cut to the recovery room, and then there is a similarly framed shot of her relaxed face, stressing that the experience was not traumatic. Another woman smiles at her, and she smiles back.

This mutual smile epitomizes another radical element. Instead of showing abortion as an issue that divides people, Obvious Child shows abortion as an experience that brings people together. Donna learns that her friend has had an abortion, too. Her friend expresses a fully rounded relationship to her own experience, which acknowledges difficulty without turning that difficulty into trauma: she says: “I think about it sometimes. Once in a while. And then I get really sad for my little teenage self. But I never regret it.”

Donna is clearly closer to her dad, who, ironically, has much more of a sense of humor than her mother: he’s a puppeteer, while her mother teaches business. Donna is intimidated by her mother, who wants her daughter to do more than part-time bookselling and stand-up comedy. The abortion is a bonding experience for them. When Donna tells her mother that she was afraid she would be angry and disappointed, her mother says that she is neither, continuing: “I can't believe I never told you this, but when I was in college, I had an abortion.” Her mother then describes her illegal abortion: her own mother (continuing the women-bonding theme) drove her to a stranger’s apartment, were there were other women “in some kind of stupor.” This somewhat didactically contrasts the bad old days of illegal abortion with the freedom some women enjoy today—if they can afford abortions and/or live in an area where they are accessible—but it also reverses the trope of abortion as isolating by allowing women to tell each other their stories. Abortion does not bring Donna closer just to her mother, but also to Max, who supports her throughout: in the final scene, they are cuddling. This is also a reversal of the idea that pregnancy brings a couple together, as in Knocked Up and Juno.

Grandma also shows women being funny—the title character is played by comedian Lily Tomlin—and focuses even more explicitly on intergenerational bonding. Tomlin’s granddaughter Sage, a college student with no interest in feminism, asks her grandmother for help getting an abortion because—again—she is afraid of her hard-as-nails mother. Tomlin plays Elle, an aging lesbian hippie who doesn’t even have a valid credit card, so the two set off on a road trip to try to collect the $600 cost of the abortion. Elle does not minimize the experience of abortion; in fact, the filmmakers probably have her overstress the potential fallout when she says Sage will probably think about it every day, which may or may not be true for all women. After all, in Obvious Child, Donna’s friend thinks about it “sometimes,” not daily. Perhaps Elle is speaking from her own experience. Sage learns that Elle once had an abortion too—like Donna’s mother, illegally. Elle said it was done by a man who “claimed to have gone to medical school. I don’t believe he ever did.” In this film, again, a woman’s contemporary abortion narrative uncovers the illegal abortion story of a mother or grandmother, showing that the need for abortion remains constant across generations even as the laws change. These plots may overemphasize the trauma of illegal abortion: after all, many were done safely and through feminist organizations like Jane, an underground service that operated in Chicago from 1969 to 1973 and provided women not just with abortions, but also with counseling and follow-up care. Narratives that stress the horrors of illegal abortion, however, serve as a reminder to younger viewers that they should never take their right to abortion for granted. Women like their mother and grandmother had to risk their lives to end unwanted pregnancies.

Elle and Sage ultimately give up trying to raise the money themselves and are forced to visit Sage’s mom, Judy. If Elle personifies second-wave feminism and Sage the threat of postfeminism (although the abortion is clearly awakening a feminist consciousness), Judy is the incarnation of 1980s corporate feminism in her pink power suit. The way the three women verge on caricature suggests their differences. Yet because both mother and grandmother care deeply about Sage, her situation brings her somewhat estranged mother and grandmother together. In Grandma, an abortion narrative is powerful enough to bridge three generations of women and, by extension, three feminist eras. Abortion, here, unites women around a common need and a feminist sense of outrage at the difficulty accessing abortion and the stigma it still carries.

Limitations and Liberation in the New Abortion Film

In its rejection of anti-abortion ideology, Grandma offers an explicit rejoinder to Juno: when a protestor at the clinic yells “Your baby has fingernails!” Elle retorts, “Not until 22 weeks, genius!” This rewriting of earlier films on abortion happens on a broader level; both Obvious Child and Grandma rewrite their predecessors by showing abortion not as a tragedy but as an experience that, while not without its difficulties, can prove liberating. The women getting abortions in these films are not prima donnas, victims, or martyrs. However, the films do take pains to establish, and even exaggerate, how unprepared both Donna and Sage are for motherhood, both financially and psychologically. Sage is portrayed as somewhat unrealistically childlike and dependent; her grandmother has to teach her how to be tougher and more mature and educate her in the ways of feminism. Donna drinks a lot, does stand-up, works at an independent bookstore, and is generally goofy. Although the film seems to view them as such, these are not disqualifications for parenthood. It would be even more positive if these films could have shown confident, even successful, women who say they are not ready to have children without dramatizing and exaggerating that unreadiness in the interest of preserving audience sympathy and reinforcing restrictive and harmful norms of what maternal “readiness” might mean. After all, the idea that teen mothers cannot possibly be “ready” contributes to the stigmatization of adolescent pregnancy, which a film like Juno is designed to combat. Overall, however, these are powerful, groundbreaking films that challenge a century of tired tropes by showing that abortion, instead of being a tragic, fatal, regrettable, isolating, traumatic experience, can liberate women and even bring women together.

Review of the Literature and Primary Sources

Heather MacGibbon’s Screening Choice: The Abortion Issue in American Film, 1900–2000 (2009), the most comprehensive book available on the subject, argues that representations in American cinema of women seeking abortion fall into two main archetypes: prima donnas and martyrs/victims. MacGibbon traces these archetypes across the 20th century, along with patterns in the depiction of abortion providers, who are sometimes shown as criminal and incompetent, even monstrous, and other times as heroic. She also demonstrates that the male partners of women seeking abortions are subject to similar binaries: some are portrayed as controlling and others supportive. Her book draws on work by communication studies scholars such as Celeste Michelle Condit, whose Decoding Abortion Rhetoric: Communicating Social Change (1990), shows how this rhetoric shaped the development of public policy and private practice, and Andrea Press and Elizabeth Cole, whose Speaking of Abortion: Television and Authority in the Lives of Women (1999) tracks how American female spectators see the role of class in media depictions of the abortion debate. MacGibbon’s book also includes a helpful list of American films that deal with abortion; many such lists exist online, and using can also be a useful way of locating such movies.

Karen Weingarten’s Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880–1940 (2014) focuses primarily on novels and short fiction but also discusses the censorship of interwar films such as Kitty Foyle (1940), adapted from a bestselling 1939 novel by Christopher Morley in which the title character has an abortion; in the film, the character does not have an abortion but instead gives birth to a stillborn boy. This avoidance of abortion was necessitated by censorship, but the pattern of resolving an abortion plot without recourse to abortion continued long after this censorship ceased to operate. For example, the 1999 film Citizen Ruth, which satirizes both sides of the debate, ends when the title character has a miscarriage and flees the abortion clinic to which she has been taken by pro-choice supporters.

The sociologists Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport have published multiple articles in the last few years identifying persistent tropes in the depiction of abortion in American film and television. For example, in “Telling Stories about Abortion: Abortion-Related Plots in American Film and Television, 1916–2013,” they show that a disproportionate percentage of women who even consider abortion end up dead—many not by the procedure itself, but rather by murder or suicide. In their work on television, including “Facts and Fictions: Characters Seeking Abortion on American Television, 2005–2014” (2015), they point out that most such characters are white, young, affluent nonparents, which fails to reflect the range of women seeking abortions in real life. Their 2016 article, “Doctors and Witches, Conscience and Violence: Abortion Provision on American Television,” shows that characters who provide care legally using established medical methods are depicted as effective and compassionate, while—as in the case of Obvious Child and Grandma—anyone providing an abortion illegally is shown as potentially unsafe. The patterns they identify in recent television narratives likely apply to films as well, but more research is necessary to demonstrate this.

Abortion narratives are, of course, also pregnancy narratives. Recognizing them as such challenges the teleological view of pregnancy as constructed by dominant medical, legal, and social discourses, which assume that pregnancy always ends in a baby. Academic texts that focus on pregnancy in film, such as Kelly Oliver’s Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films (2012) and Parley Ann Boswell’s Pregnancy in Literature and Film (2014) discuss how abortion is rejected and seen as a stigmatized option. Little work has been done on the depiction of pregnancy in women who are considering abortion or who obtain abortion in films or on new abortion films that challenge the tropes described in these books.

Further Reading

Boswell, P. (2014). Pregnancy in literature and film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press.Find this resource:

    Condit, C. (1990). Decoding abortion rhetoric: Communicating social change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

      MacGibbon, H. (2009). Screening choice: The abortion issue in American film, 1900–2000. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag.Find this resource:

        Oliver, K. (2012). Knock me up, knock me down: Images of pregnancy in Hollywood films. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

          Press, A., & Cole, E. (1999). Speaking of abortion: Television and authority in the lives of women. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

            Sisson, G., & Kimport, K. (2014). Telling stories about abortion: Abortion-related plots in American film and television, 1916–2013. Contraception, 89(5), 413–418.Find this resource:

              Sisson, G., & Kimport, K. (2016a). Doctors and witches, conscience and violence: Abortion provision on American television. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 48(4), 161–168.Find this resource:

                Sisson, G., & Kimport, K. (2016b). Facts and fictions: Characters seeking abortion on American television, 2005–2014. Contraception, 93(5), 446–451.Find this resource:

                  Weingarten, K. (2014). Abortion in the American imagination: Before life and choice, 1880–1940. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:


                    MacGibbon, H. (2009). Screening choice: The abortion issue in American film, 1900–2000. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag.Find this resource:

                      Oliver, K. (2012). Knock me up, knock me down: Images of pregnancy in Hollywood films. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                        Sisson, G., & Kimport, K. (2014). Telling stories about abortion: Abortion-related plots in American film and television, 1916–2013. Contraception, 89(5), 413–418.Find this resource: