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Best Movies & TV Shows About Abortion

Maeve in Sex Education.
(Netflix)

The treatment of abortion in American media is frequently to mention it, but to quickly disregard it in favor of the more dramatic plotlines of adoption or raising the baby despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. This is despite the fact that many unwanted pregnancies do end in abortion (as many as 61%), and we shouldn’t stigmatize that.

As such, here are some movies/shows that don’t shy away from the A-word and treat it with the respect it deserves. Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault, incest, and abuse.

Subplots:

Dirty Dancing

Honestly, pop culture seems to have largely forgotten that one of the greatest Hollywood romances’ plot happens because Johnny’s dance partner (no euphemism, his literal dance partner) needs an abortion.

The 1987 classic’s look at a summer in 1963 shows the pre-Roe world of backroom abortions, where women risked their health and lives to get the procedures they needed, while also having to deal with a legal system that would punish them but let the deadbeat fathers off scot-free. It also highlights the difference class can make in access to healthcare, with Baby being able to ask her father for $250, no questions asked, to pay for Penny’s procedure, since Penny does not have that kind of cash on-hand and the wealthier father refuses to help in any way.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
(Universal Studios)

Another ’80s movie that people forget had an abortion subplot. Stacy Hamilton, after truly disappointing sex with a so-called “worldly ladies’ man” Mike Damone, gets pregnant and immediately asks the father for help with abortion money and a ride to the clinic. Mike can’t even do that right, so Stacy has to get her brother, Brad, to drive her to the bowling alley across the street from the clinic. Thankfully, her brother is a decent person and agrees to keep the secret, and her friend, Linda, avenges her by spray-painting “little prick” on Mike’s locker and car. Despite a brief moment when Stacy flinches away from an autopsy due to it apparently reminding her of her procedure, she otherwise gets a happy ending, dating a nice guy, and is able to move on with her life and still be a teenager.

Black Christmas

Keir Dullea and Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas (1974), as Olivia's character Jess tells her boyfriend about her pregnancy and intention to get an abortion
(Canadian Film Development Corporation. Film Funding Ltd, Warner Bros.)

Yes, before you accuse slasher movies of being formulaic schlock where the final girl is always a virgin, it’s important to note that perhaps the first final girl, Jess, is a pregnant college student seeking to have an abortion. Jess is also a standout for refusing to give in to her boyfriend’s pressure to marry him and keep the baby (and presumably drop out of school). It gets to the point where her boyfriend’s constant pressuring, stalking, and outright controlling behavior makes her think he’s the killer of the movie, and as such, she kills him after he breaks into her sorority home.

Unfortunately, the two more recent adaptations of Black Christmas disregard this plotline in favor of some rather baffling additions (the 2019 Blumhouse version focuses on college campus rape culture with all the subtlety of a hammer, and the 2006 version focuses on a bizarre incest plotline between Billy and his mother).

Law & Order and Law & Order SVU

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- Pictured: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" Key Art -- (Photo by: NBCUniversal)
(NBC)

Law & Order and Law & Order SVU are controversial shows when it comes to the criminal justice system and its treatment of women’s rights, and rightfully so. In many ways, the show’s pro-police narrative has undercut the massive flaws in our judicial system that fail victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other gendered crimes. However, the show has also frequently shown support for pro-choice practices and safe, legal, accessible abortions, showing the lengths many clinics have to go to in order to protect both doctors and patients from supposedly “pro-life” individuals who threaten them with violence. (Also, they’ve been doing this since the ’90s, so they get a little credit for being pro-choice longer than many “top” Democrats).

Main plots:

The abortion roadtrip

Lily Tomlin and Julia Garner as a grandmother and granddaughter on an abortion roadtrip in Grandma 2015.
(Sony Pictures)

There’s been a rise in “abortion roadtrip” movies that show the hurdles in the way to access, even when Roe v. Wade supposedly secured the right to an abortion. Grandma, Little Woods, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and Unpregnant all feature this plotline, with Grandma being a particular standout as a story about both a girl and her grandmother’s abortions, and the differences and similarities in their stories.

For Colored Girls

The cast of For Colored Girls Janet Jackson as Joanna "Jo" Bradmore ("Lady in Red") Thandiwe Newton as Tangie Adrose ("Lady in Orange") (as Thandie Newton) Anika Noni Rose as Yasmine ("Lady in Yellow") Loretta Devine as Juanita Sims ("Lady in Green") Kerry Washington as Kelly Watkins ("Lady in Blue") Tessa Thompson as Nyla Adrose ("Lady in Purple") Kimberly Elise as Crystal Wallace ("Lady in Brown") Whoopi Goldberg as Alice Adrose ("Lady in White") Phylicia Rashad as Gilda ("Lady in Black")
(34th Street Films, Tyler Perry Studios, Lionsgate)

One unfortunate reality of abortion in media is that it is almost always only shown as an option for white women and girls, despite the fact that a majority of women who have abortions are women of color. For Colored Girls is a movie that corrects that narrative, going deeply into the personal and tragic lives of a group of black women and girls, dealing with college dreams and abuse and pregnancy and abortion. (Also, look at this cast: Janet Jackson, Thandiwe Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Kimberly Elise and Whoopi Goldberg? How have I not heard of this movie until now?!)

Sex Education

Emma Mackey as Maeve Wiley on Sex Education
(Netflix)

Netflix’s Sex Education has done a wonderful job at exploring many supposedly taboo topics in a genuine and realistic way, such as sexual assault, non-binary POC representation, asexual representation, and sex positivity, but perhaps their crowning achievement is Maeve’s abortion story. In some ways, they treat it like any other surgery or procedure with professional but gentle medical staff, a balance between the sterile and the warmth of any other doctor’s office. In others, they talk about how personal it is, with Maeve sharing a room with an older woman who has had multiple abortions and saying that she feels much more guilty about her three living children than the ones she didn’t have. The fact that Maeve’s love interest meets her in the waiting room with flowers is the cherry on top.

Abortion is a deeply personal and varied topic, especially amongst those who have actually had one. But that also means the media surrounding it should be varied and not just write it off as the “easy way out” or as a “last resort.” Abortion is health care, is childcare, is financial freedom and stability, is a path to leaving a bad relationship or home life. Abortion is all that and more and deserves to be treated as such.

For more movies: Category:Films about abortion – Wikipedia.

(featured image: Sony Pictures)

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Kimberly Terasaki is a Creative Writing graduate, fanfiction author, and intersectional feminist. She liked Ahsoka Tano before it was cool, will fight you about Rey being a “Mary Sue,” and is a Kamala Khan stan. She appreciates all constructive criticism and genuine discussion.