Abortion has been legal in the United States since 1971 – and people have been getting abortions, legal or not, for millennia. But for a long time, portrayals of abortion in pop culture have often been judgmental or dismissive (see: Juno), coy (remember “shmashmortion” from Knocked Up?) or just nonexistent (almost every movie or TV show where a woman gets pregnant). No matter how abortions have been portrayed, it’s often been light years away from the ways that real women experience having an abortion.
We’ve been noticing a lot more interesting, nuanced portrayals of abortion in pop culture lately, and we’re here for it! Pop culture abortions are a reflection of societal attitudes, but they also shape those attitudes. Here are a few TV and movie abortions that we thought were the most real.
Is this the best portrayal of abortion in the years before Roe vs. Wade in a mainstream movie? It may well be. It’s certainly the most famous.
This movie gets so much right. For starters, the dance instructor Penny’s decision to have an abortion is treated with respect. It’s clearly a difficult situation for her (the protagonist, Baby, finds her crying in the kitchen during off-hours), but no one questions her right to make this decision.
And of course, Dirty Dancing shows how dangerous it could be for women to seek an abortion before it became legal. Penny turns to an illegal abortion under unsafe conditions and develops a potentially life-threatening infection. Baby’s father, a physician, provides treatment and ultimately saves the day. Many women were not so lucky. She could have been one of the hundreds of women who died every year of unsafe abortions before Roe vs Wade.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is known for being incredibly frank (and funny!) about the realities of diverse women’s lives in 21st century America. So it’s no surprise the writers would handle abortion in such a realistic, nuanced, and even sometimes a funny way.
The character who has the abortion, Paula, is in her early forties and a working mom of two. So often the characters shown wrestling with the decision to get an abortion are young and unmarried – but the majority of women who have abortions are already mothers, and almost half are in committed partnerships.
Paula does wrestle with the decision and she dismisses it initially because, as she tells her husband, abortions “are for 16-year-olds after prom.” It’s also implied that her Catholicism makes this a difficult choice. But she’s on the verge of making some huge career moves for herself after years of putting everyone else first, and her decision to have an abortion is a powerful moment of choosing what’s right for her and her family.
Afterward, we see her recovering, and it’s clearly been an emotionally and physically draining experience for her – but we also see, over the rest of the season, that it was the right choice for her.
Jane the Virgin
It could be easy to mistake Jane the Virgin for an anti-choice show. The main character starts off the series keeping a pregnancy even though she was mistakenly inseminated!
But in the third season, her mother, Xiomara, had an abortion. She was actually the first Latina on television to have an abortion, even though 25% of real-life women who get abortions are Latinas. Not only that, they chose to show her getting a medication abortion, which is very rarely seen in pop culture.
The abortion does cause some conflict between Xiomara and her very devout mother, but the show handles this with a light touch, and Xiomara is allowed to be the only one whose opinion about this truly matters.
We love how Jane the Virgin shows that the right to choose is truly that – it’s the right for each woman to choose the best path for herself.
Obvious Child is a smart, charming independent comedy about two urban twentysomethings falling for each other – while one of them is getting ready to have an abortion.
Like many of the other shows and movies featured here, this portrayal does not spend a lot of time on Donna’s (the main character’s) decision. She knows it’s not the right time for her to have a baby.
What sets this film apart is the portrayal of many of the practical details people may face when choosing to have an abortion. Donna wonders if and how she should tell her love interest that she got pregnant and is having an abortion after they had a one-night stand. She wonders when she should schedule an abortion and how she is going to pay for it. These are all things that many people have to consider with when having an abortion, but we rarely see them portrayed in pop culture. Much less with so much humor!
We loved other shows and movies for their thoughtful, nuanced portrayals of abortion – but this one deserves mention for just being so bold and unapologetic.
Artist Mimi Rose matter-of-factly mentions to her new boyfriend Adam that she can’t have sex (or “go for a run, or take a bath, or use a tampon”) for the next week because she had an abortion the day before. Adam is upset that she didn’t tell him (he later reveals that he wished he could have supported her) but she is completely unapologetic – she didn’t want a baby, it’s her body, and her choice. (By the way, the restrictions that Mimi Rose mentions are now considered optional!)
While this approach is not going to work for every person or every couple, we love that the show was willing to show a woman with such confidence in her own decision.
Special thanks to our communities on Facebook and Instagram for suggesting some of these! Do you think we missed a good one? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook
And if you think you might need an abortion, we’re here for you. Chat with us here on our website, or give us a call at 855-SAY-CARA.