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Depicting Choice: Pregnancy and Abortion in Film

January 22, 2010

Courtesy of Women Make Movies,

Quick: Name a movie from the past ten years that tells a story about pregnancy.

There are probably quite a few films that spring to mind. Knocked Up, Juno, Waitress, Saved! — there is no shortage of movies depicting pregnancy. Some of these films are better than others — of those listed above, my favorite is Waitress, which, coincidentally, is the only one on the list that was both written and directed by a woman. But there are some interesting common traits that all of these films share: first, all of the lead female characters are young, white, educated and relatively affluent. And second, in all of these films, the lead female character makes the choice to keep an unplanned pregnancy.

Okay, next challenge: Name a movie from the past ten years that tells a story about abortion.

It’s harder to think of one, isn’t it?

The truth is, there simply aren’t as many films about abortion as there are about pregnancy. Perhaps it’s because the arc of a woman’s nine-month gestation provides an easier storytelling structure, or perhaps it’s because abortion has been deemed too controversial to sell at the box office. And there certainly are some movies that tackle abortion in a serious, interesting way — a recent favorite of mine is the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But abortion is simply not as popular a subject matter as pregnancy is in mainstream U.S. film. Moreover, it’s rare for a film about pregnancy to even address the option of abortion. Eve Kushner writes about this phenomenon in an essay for Bright Lights Film Journal:

In spite of the facts — 82 percent of Americans think abortion should stay legal, and 43 percent of American women will end at least one pregnancy by age 45 — the issue remains highly controversial, with anti-choice groups garnering disproportionate visibility and wielding significant political influence. Against this backdrop, unplanned pregnancy on film plays out in an alarmingly oversimplified manner. Procreation becomes every woman’s destiny and every man’s responsibility, regardless of circumstances. Abortion exists only as a faux option — something to choose against.

There are a lot of good, entertaining, well-made films about pregnancy. For what they are attempting to do, there is nothing inherently wrong with them. But all of them feature women who choose to carry out the pregnancy, and none of them really explore the option of abortion as a viable alternative. Therefore, the media that does exist about abortion (or that discusses abortion even peripherally, like in Dirty Dancing) is extremely limited. And I can’t think of a good enough reason why that should be the case.

Last week, I attended a film screening, titled “Knocked Up: Feminist Filmmakers Celebrate Roe.” The screening featured Obvious Child, a narrative short directed by Gillian Robespierre, and clips from I Had an Abortion, a documentary by Gillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner. The two films are vastly different in content and style, but both address the topic of abortion in honest and interesting ways.

What makes Obvious Child unique is that it’s a comedy — a romantic comedy, actually. Its writing style is not all that different from Knocked Up and Juno; there are quirky pop culture references and fart jokes galore. But this film is actually believable. It tells the story of a young woman who, the night after being dumped by her boyfriend, sleeps with a man she hardly knows and becomes pregnant. She decides to have an abortion, and on her way to the clinic, she runs into her one-night stand. I won’t ruin the film for you — you can watch it online — but needless to say, hilarity ensues, and ultimately the film has a sweet and happy ending.

That last part is key. At the screening, Robespierre stated that she and her collaborators intentionally wanted to make a film about abortion that depicts abortion as being a responsible choice and also features a happy ending. I think this is a very important message to get across, and it’s not one that most films about abortion choose to acknowledge. While abortion is certainly a serious decision — and all serious decisions in life are accompanied by emotions — it’s important to remember that severe psychological reactions after abortions are not common and that, often, the decision to abort is a positive decision for the woman involved. That reality is depicted well in Obvious Child.

I Had an Abortion is another fascinating film, particularly in the way it personalizes abortion. The documentary features ten women telling their personal stories about abortion, half of which take place prior to Roe v. Wade. During Baumgardner’s introduction during the screening, she made a point of highlighting the fact that she did not set out to editorialize or to make any specific statements about abortion. Instead, she wants the personal stories to speak for themselves. Having seen several of the film’s segments, I can say that Baumgardner was successful in her aim. The film never places judgment on its subjects, all of whom come from vastly different racial, economic, religious and political backgrounds, and all of whom have different feelings about their abortions. The film simply lets women tell their stories and evaluate what abortion means in their lives. The openness of it all is radical, unexpected, and even uncomfortable — just like the “I Had an Abortion” slogan. And that’s why that openness is so important. It may not deliver the same entertainment value as Juno, Knocked Up or even Obvious Child, but it does deliver a dose of reality and a glimpse into the lives and decisions of real women.

Watching Obvious Child and I Had an Abortion made me wish that more films about abortion could be available for mainstream audiences. Not because stories about abortion are more important or valid than stories about pregnancy, but because both types of stories are equally necessary. To me, the notion of “Trust Women” means that we need to recognize and validate all reproductive experiences that women choose. So the answer isn’t that we should have fewer films about pregnancy, or that Juno and Knocked Up should have been about abortions. Instead, the answer is simply to advocate for more voices of women to be featured in media and to promote the value of diverse experiences. If more women make films, or if more films are made about women, naturally we will begin to have more films that cover the scope of the female reproductive experience. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll eventually reach the point where it will be just as easy to name films about abortion as it is to name films about pregnancy now.

  1. January 22, 2010 6:17 pm

    Nice post! And what a nice surprise for me to see my name and work mentioned here. Thanks! Before writing the essay you cited (which I first published in Bitch, before reprinting it on the Bright Lights site), I spent 7 years writing my book “Experiencing Abortion.” I know how difficult it usually is to find the right tone/voice with which to write about this topic. It’s hard to strike a balance between saying what you feel passionately and making sure to be inclusive of others’ experiences, feelings, and perspectives. You did a terrific job with the tone here. Congrats!

  2. femspotter permalink
    February 1, 2010 7:12 pm

    I love Waitress!

    I remember a friend and I discussing how irresponsible we found both Juno and Knocked Up for not at least talking seriously about abortion as a responsible choice. Even when babies are kept, abortion shouldn’t be reduced to a joke about fingernails.

  3. Artemis permalink
    March 9, 2010 12:00 pm

    The thing that pisses me off about Waitress is that the main character spends the entire film- the ENTIRE film- going on about how she doesn’t want children. Independently of the abuse she suffers at the hands of her husband, she just doesn’t want children. I was rooting for her to get an abortion or to give up the child for adoption b/c I can relate to the complete lack of mothering instincts in her. Then, BAM!, she’s suddenly in love with the kid, and the deux ex machina of the old man leaving her boatloads of money makes her financially stable enough to support the child. It was as if someone else wrote the last 10 minutes of the film, or something. Why can’t we see more films in which the female protagonist who doesn’t like/want children stays that way through the end? Instead, we get all these gooey “the mothering instinct is a part of womanhood” type endings in which they all find their inner moms (see Baby Boom).

  4. March 9, 2010 12:32 pm

    Hear, hear, Artemis!!! You said it beautifully!

  5. sherri permalink
    March 30, 2010 1:32 pm

    Hello. I ad an abortion (And I’m very happy I did), and I know a lot of other people who have. Myself, and many others who I have spoken with in an attempt to open up the issue and discussion and reality of abortion have had very intense reactions. My own I would definitely say was severely psychological. The reasons for this are complex, and range from personal to the undeniable fact that abortion is so taboo in our culture that when I went to the abortion clinic the doctors, nurses, and assistants were cold and disengaged, adding to the psychological and bodily fear that I already felt. It has taken me years to process the experience. I think there is a wide continuum of reaction, with absolute ease at one end, and utter darkness at the other. I think most people fall somewhere in between. But with abortion being so utterly misunderstood and looked down upon by large segments of the population, I think that there is an inherent lean toward having a negative experience. And that is why forums like this are so important, as you probably know having created it, so we can communicate, become more open, and connect with one another- shedding more awareness so to work to make abortion not taboo and terrifying. But I would disagree with the statement that severe psychological reactions after abortions are uncommon. Depending on where you are and who you are they will be more or less common, but everyone is going to react differently to such an emotionally charged experience that comes with the baggage of an entire culture’s ignorance. I read about all of those studies, and I think that studies do not speak for everyone, and that many women (post-abortion) having a hard time do not seek out or psychological help. I did not. Thanks for this forum!

  6. March 30, 2010 5:41 pm

    Thanks for sharing your very nuanced experience, Sherri. I’m sorry to hear about the negative parts–and glad to hear you’ve worked through them over the years.

    I wanted to let people know that in the new movie “Greenberg,” there’s a refreshingly different depiction of an abortion experience. (Hope I didn’t spoil the plot for anyone!) I was pleasantly surprised by this aspect.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      April 13, 2010 3:47 pm


      On your recommendation, I went to see Greenberg last week. I didn’t love the film as a whole, but I agree that the abortion subplot was handled extremely well. Very refreshing indeed. Hopefully Hollywood (and other independent filmmakers, for that matter) will follow suit. Thank you for bringing that suggestion to our attention!

      • April 13, 2010 5:09 pm

        Glad we felt the same way about that part of the plot! Thanks for letting me know. Sorry you had to sit through a movie you didn’t love! Hope it wasn’t unbearable.

        I actually have an exciting update about all this abortion-in-the-movies stuff. I’m going to be on TV in an interview. It’s part of a show about this very topic! I haven’t done the interview yet, so I don’t want to jinx anything with too many details just yet. But I’ll try to remember to mention it, just in case you’re interested in the whole show.


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