Why Hollywood is afraid of abortion

Real women have abortions, but not in the movies. Helen Scott asks why.

WAITRESS JENNA is dismayed to find herself pregnant, fearing this will thwart her ambition to leave her loathsome husband, Earl. Alison, a budding journalist with no thoughts of marriage or children, is shocked when she finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand with an unemployed stoner, Ben. Sixteen-year-old Juno looks in dismayed disbelief at her third positive pregnancy test.

Before Roe v. Wade, the real-world equivalents of these movie characters were caught between the rock and a hard place of either having the unwanted baby or seeking an expensive and potentially dangerous "backstreet" abortion. The legalization of abortion in 1973 provided women with a way out: a safe, painless procedure to end unwanted pregnancies.

This tremendous advance for women's rights was passed in the context of a movement whose slogans included "Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide!" and "Free abortion on demand and without apology!" And yet the vast majority of movies seem unaware of this.

Adrienne Shelley's Waitress gestures to a feminist consciousness: the diner's female coworkers share a supportive camaraderie; pregnant Jenna has sex with her doctor and bakes an "I don't want Earl's baby pie." Yet she doesn't for one moment consider a termination.

What else to read

For a 10-year-old look at how Hollywood portrays reproductive rights, see Eve Kushner Experiencing Abortion: A Weaving of Women's Words.

Several recent films, including Lasse Hallström's Cider House Rules, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, have provided an honest and wrenching view of the abortion issue by focusing on women's lack of access.

Nobody could seriously claim liberating gender politics for the "guy-centered comedy" Knocked Up, where we are encouraged to laugh along with the puerile sexism of Ben and his buddies. New York Times critic A.O. Scott notes the film's "funny, knowing riff on the reluctance of movie and television shows even to use the word 'abortion'" (Ben's friend says "shmabortion"). But the film is utterly conventional in its own refusal to present this as a real option.

In making her way to an abortion clinic, the title character in Jason Reitman's Juno is the exception. But the only thing remotely feasible about this scene is the presence of an anti-abortion protester outside. (Even here, it is far less credible that the single protester is an Asian-American schoolgirl.)

When this character tells Juno that her "baby" wants to be "borned" and has fingernails, the film lampoons her. But what follows nonetheless gives credence to anti-abortion propaganda. Inside, Juno faces an obnoxious punk-goth receptionist, and is rattled by the other women in the waiting room. The camera zooms in on these women's fingernails, as they are variously being drummed, filed and painted (what?) and then Juno flees, resolved to carry the baby to full term and have it adopted.

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NOT ONLY do these otherwise variously well-made, funny and clever films discount abortion, they also represent pregnancy and childbirth as redemptive for the women despite their initial reservations; indeed, the new babies spread comfort and joy to all and sundry.

Procreation is salvation; parenthood is maturity; abortion is taboo. These have been familiar themes in Hollywood in the last two decades of privatization, the erosion of the welfare state, the evisceration of health care, and the accompanying ideology of the family.

Eve Kushner, author of Experiencing Abortion: A Weaving of Women's Words, argued this in a 2000 review of movies such as Parenthood, Opposite of Sex, Nine Months, and Look Who's Talking which "keep abortion out of plots and even out of dialogue, ensuring that movies end with a heartwarming birth."

The pivotal context is the rollback of abortion rights. Since the peak in 1982 abortion provision in the U.S. has steadily declined: by 2000 87 percent of counties in the U.S. had none, while restrictions such as compulsory "counseling," waiting periods and parental consent for minors curtail access elsewhere.

Since the 1977 Hyde Amendment, Medicaid only covers abortion in cases of life-endangerment, incest, or rape, while many states restrict public and private insurance coverage. The misnamed 2003 "Partial Birth Abortion Ban" outlaws extremely rare late term procedures (0.17 percent of total in 2000), but discredits all abortions. A recent Guttmacher Institute report finds that abortion rates in the U.S. are at their lowest since 1974.

Anti-abortionists claim these rollbacks as a victory for their cause. In a Connecticut Post review of Juno and similar films, a leading member of the anti-choice "Operation Save America" said the trend is "heartening and shows that people are more aware of the risks and effects of abortion."

The vocal anti-choice minority has had a disproportionate political and legislative influence, while the abortion rights movement has collapsed. Worryingly, polls show that anti-abortion sentiment is increasing among the younger generation.

But despite this, public support overall has stayed remarkably consistent since the 1970s. A 2008 Washington Post poll finds 57 percent favor legal abortion in all or most circumstances as compared to 59 percent in 1995, while the number for illegalization has stayed around 40 percent. Furthermore, almost half of American women have had an abortion, and for most of us this choice was grounds for profound relief, not angst.

The reality is that legal, safe abortion is a fundamental and necessary human right, but one that is increasingly denied to the women who most need it. Recent films that address this, such as Lasse Hallström's Cider House Rules, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, and Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or prize-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, are wrenching realist dramas about the physical and emotional trauma caused when abortion is illegal.

Not until "free abortion on demand and without apology" is once more a proud slogan on the streets will we see romantic comedies celebrating the empowering choice of abortion for young women facing unwanted pregnancies.