A Brief (Almost Silent) History of Abortion in the Movies

By  · Published on July 9th, 2013

“The subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned. It must never be treated lightly, or made the subject of comedy. Abortion shall never be shown explicitly or by inference, and a story must not indicate that an abortion has been performed, the word “abortion” shall not be used.”

No, that’s not an excerpt from Texas State Senate Bill 1. That’s a December 1956 amendment to the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC), the Hollywood studio system’s internal playbook for strictly regulating content until 1966. The amendment was a clarification of, and addition to, a prior amendment from March 1951 which was a bit more direct and concise in its stance about representing abortion in the movies: “Abortion, sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not proper subjects for theatrical motion pictures.” I find this older quote more interesting, for it not only tells us about what moral gatekeepers thought of the subject of abortion, but also betrays the MPPC’s perspective of the limited utility of movies as a whole: as both a means for light escapism and affirmative moral pedagogy, but not a forum for discussing serious (or, rather actual) issues and situations.

The history of abortion in American movies is, not surprisingly, largely a history of absence. But what is perhaps a bit surprising is how little American movies have referenced abortion since the quoted amendments descended into obsolescence. This despite the fact that the ratings system, New Hollywood, and the pro-choice movement all converged rather contemporaneously. And when abortion has been referenced, it’s often quickly dismissed or vilified.

Of course, a knee-jerk answer to any question of abortion’s conspicuous absence in American movies might remain along the lines of the MPPC’s own line of thinking: “nobody wants to see abortion at the movies.” But such an “answer” just generates a whole lot more questions. After all, “sex hygiene” and “venereal disease” have long been the stuff of network sitcoms, and abortion still remains relatively invisible.

To an extent, unlike some other hot-button political topics, the issue of abortion doesn’t need mass-distributed visual iconography available via motion pictures to be on the tips of people’s tongues. The legislative fight to make safe abortion a constitutional right, culminating in the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision 40 years ago, employed grisly images of illegal abortions gone awry in order to make the case for medically sound, legally protected, publicly regulated procedures. The pro-birth movement seemed to borrow this tactic, utilizing images of aborted fetuses as a recurring logo. And the religious right isn’t short on its own filmography of the subject: watching The Silent Scream has been credited as a rite of passage for members of this movement, signifying the culmination of abortion as the religious right’s central motivating issue since the rise of the “moral majority.”

More recently with the Wendy Davis filibuster, the pro-choice movement exhibited a more immediate, particularly 21st century embrace of the moving image as medium for social change, using streaming media outlets to live-feed the defeat of SB5 and render old media obsolete in the process.

But what of mainstream narrative cinema, of movies that aren’t used to overtly propagate a position or preach to the converted on a signature issue?

A history of representing abortion in American cinema likely begins with Where Are My Children?, a 1916 silent that follows a district attorney pursuing a doctor performing illegal abortions who finds out that many citizens of the town, including his own wife, have utilized the doctor’s services. While the film, in placing the doctor as its moral center, openly condemns and vilifies the town’s women for getting the procedure, Where Are My Children? also outlines the socioeconomic circumstances in which abortions typically occur.

A resolute anti-abortion project, the film also (like many films at the time) promotes birth control (showing some first-wave feminism consciousness; it’s probably worth mentioning here that the film was co-directed by Lois Weber) as a means to avoid abortion. In short, it exercises an ideological position particular to the early 20th century that is largely unrecognizable today.

Where Are My Children? was set to be remade in 1936, but this was cancelled when the MPPC reacted negatively to MGM’s 1934 Clark Cable/Myrna Loy film Men in White, in which an important illegal-abortion-related plot point from the source material was reduced to a more ambiguous circumstance regarding Loy’s character’s reaction to an unwanted pregnancy. As was typical for the practices of the MPPC, the abortion subplot is pretty clear to discerning viewers, and this informed the moralizing consequences that the Loy character endures. According to an unofficial website devoted to the MPPC, “The movie, though no one on the Production Code Administration admits this in any correspondence, catered to the Administration’s moral precepts by having Barbara die following the operation, a death that may be interpreted as divine retribution for her sexual transgressions.” Where the play that the film was based upon finds Loy’s character moving onto a happy life, the conservative standards of the MPPC saw abortion as a transgression that the lead character must suffer for.

But these films, made twenty years apart, each attended by notable controversy, evidence filmmakers’ interest in addressing the issue of illegal abortions in a multitude of ways despite institutional or social bulwarks.

For the following few decades, the issue of abortion remained virtually absent in American studio filmmaking, and it seems that the notion that such a subject was not fit for screen became largely internalized by filmmakers and suits alike. Besides Street Corner, a 1948 exploitation film posing as an educational film, and I Am a Camera, an English import based on the Christopher Isherwood novel and the John Van Druten play, abortion, as evidenced by American movie screens, was a word and an issue that did not exist.

Liberalized sensibilities accompanied by the dismantling of centralized film censorship prompted the presence of more challenging politics in American movies during the ’60s and ’70s. Sidney Lumet’s The Group (1966) perhaps illustrates these changes most directly in relation to women’s rights as a film about second-wave feminism posing as a film about first-wave feminism. But even during the heyday of women’s liberation, the Weimar Germany-set Cabaret emerges as one of very few high-profile films to deal matter-of-factly with the reality of abortion.

In the 1950s-set Godfather Part II (released one year after Roe), Kaye (Diane Keaton) mentions an abortion largely as a narrative device to further illustrate Michael’s (Al Pacino) descent, contribute to the film’s pitch-black tone, and demonstrate her interpersonal revenge against Michael’s moral vacuity.

During the decades that followed, films that dealt most directly with abortion looked to the past to examine the ongoing risk entailed in a society for which abortion is not a constitutional right. Dirty Dancing (1987), the Ireland-set Circle of Friends (1995), The Cider House Rules (1999) and Riding in Cars with Boys (2001) all take place during the mid-twentieth century or before, and illustrate abortion’s illegality as a severe medical risk to desperate young women.

These films, in short, make up for abortion’s conspicuous lack of representation since Men in White, showing the risky, compromising circumstances of past times that films avoided showing in their own time. Such films posit abortion’s illegality as a problem of the past; meanwhile, echoing the days of the MPPC, the legal era of abortion is almost as absent in American movies as the pre-Roe era was.

Of course, there is at least one notable exception. In 2000, Audrey Fisch made a case that High Fidelity, not The Cider House Rules, was the true pro-choice film of the year because of its purely interpersonal, moral-handwringing-free, contemporary-set depiction of abortion as a matter-of-fact circumstance involved in a couple’s otherwise long and complicated history. As stated by Fisch:

“High Fidelity, in a context free of dogma and high drama, represents Laura’s abortion as a brief moment of crisis that does not doom her to eternal unhappiness. In fact, the film gives Laura and Rob a happy ending. That is radical. When has a movie ever suggested that a woman can have an abortion and move on with her life?”

Based on the previous few paragraphs, Ms. Fisch, until High Fidelity, probably never.

The conspicuous absence of contemporary legal abortion as a relevant topic worth addressing in mainstream cinema became part of a larger cultural dialogue in 2007, with the release of Knocked Up and Juno. Both unexpected pregnancy comedies were criticized for not taking seriously the topic of abortion. In Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl’s Alison is a textbook example of a privileged woman who might seriously consider an abortion: she is an ambitious, young, seemingly progressive, sexually active and career-driven woman whose pregnancy, a result of a one-night stand, was the outcome of an encounter with a lazy, goal-free nobody whose failure to use protection was a consequence of his own moronic misunderstanding. (Also, does anybody know why Alison wasn’t on birth control? Plot holes, people.) Yet abortion is only mentioned through the mouths of men attempting to tell Alison what to do; Jonah Hill can’t even find the will to properly say the word. Alison seems strangely content to give up this life so that Seth Rogen finds redemption and purpose. (Judd Apatow received similar criticism for last year’s This is 40.)

While Juno faired better against feminist critiques (A.O. Scott referred to the film as the “feminist, girl-powered rejoinder and complement to Knocked Up”) and places the title character’s choice to initially pursue an abortion as a valid matter of her own choosing, Juno’s equally valid choice to keep the child is, oddly, motivated by the familiar protestations of a quirky pro-birth activist. Yes, “there wouldn’t have been either movie otherwise” and so forth, but it’s telling that even in the twenty-first century, even in lower-budget and supposedly worldly comedies, it’s unimaginable to have a protagonist that treats seriously, much less goes through with, her right to an abortion.

This is not to say that comedy and abortion are incompatible. Alexander Payne’s feature debut Citizen Ruth deals with the issue head-on in a screwball satire about a brain-dead substance abuser (the fantastic Laura Dern) who becomes an unlikely pawn in a game of ideological warfare between pro-birth and pro-choice activists. But Citizen Ruth is interested in abortion as an issue; namely, its depiction of two camps speaking absurdly over one another. By giving Ruth a secret miscarriage, Citizen Ruth delivers the point that its title character’s own private decision is hardly the point of such a debate. Yet by relinquishing itself from the responsibility of answering “will she or won’t she?,” Citizen Ruth can be rightly criticized for not actually confronting its own confrontational topic. While very funny, the film’s agnostic and false-equivalence-making satire has the insight of a 22-minute episode of South Park – that’s not a slam, but simply to say that it doesn’t ultimately contribute much to the conversation it depicts.

In N+1’s excellent article about the regrettable state of a contemporary feminist discourse (and gay rights activism) largely articulated in conservative terms, Mark Grief foregrounds the role of “sentimentalism” in the language of contemporary progressive politics in a way that may provide some insight into the depiction of abortion in movies:

“Same-sex marriage and the minimalist defense of abortion are both tactically sound for now. But the strain one begins to feel in public discussions is that people of good sense are being compromised by sentimental rhetoric originally adopted to convince bigots. Sentimentalization may be effective in a Hallmark regime, but it’s a bummer at home. Around the kitchen table, we ought to speak plainly…the point of abortion rights, in the ‘pro-choice’ position, should truly be abortions. Abortions need to occur concretely, readily, until the day contraception is magically universal and perfect; the idea that they’re inevitably tragic is just false.”

While the films discussed above hardly constitute a comprehensive survey of American films that depict the subject and/or practice of abortion (such an imaginary list would have to include this), one thing is perfectly clear: the mandate set by the MPPC is largely, albeit unofficially, still in effect. Contemporary legal abortion is not perceived to be a topic worth addressing in mainstream American cinema. High Fidelity’s notable exception proves the rule that abortion (as a matter-of-fact personal choice that in no way vilifies the person who makes that choice) is a social reality that mainstream American movies have failed to develop as part of their lexicon.

This is not to invalidate select films that evenhandedly address abortion as a complex, difficult, even regrettable scenario for the given individual (see Tony Kaye’s incredible documentary Lake of Fire), or the films that depict the horrors of a pre-Roe past. This is simply to say that, as far as movies go, we don’t know what a post-Roe society looks like in everyday terms. Perhaps such blindness has something to do with the terms of the current debate.