In the 1973 landmark decision known as Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant person’s liberty to choose to have an abortion – without excessive governmental restrictions. The first recorded abortion was in 1550 and has been a fact of life since ancient times. However, it took that decision in 1973 to reinforce that this health service was a right in this country. According to The Atlantic, the year after the decision the maternal mortality rate in New York State dropped by 45 percent. And yet this public health right has been a hotbed of debate ever since.
Most recently Texas introduced a bill that bans access after six weeks and also allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps a pregnant person attain one. While this is a clear attack on women’s bodily autonomy and medical privacy the Supreme Court refused to block the law. However, a federal judge has now issued an order blocking the law. In his decision, US District Judge Robert Pitman said the law, “unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution.” Unfortunately, two weeks ago Rep. Webster Barnaby of Florida also introduced a similarly atrocious law.
Let’s get this straight: abortions happen whether a state recognizes a person’s right to have one or not. What these bills do is cause a public health crisis. They limit a person’s access to safe and equitable abortion care. They will not stop abortions from happening.
As we continue to fight for true bodily autonomy in the United States, here’s a look at some of the best depictions of abortion in film and television post-Roe v. Wade.
“Girlfriends,” 1978 (dir. Claudia Weill)
In Claudia Weill’s groundbreaking independent film, Melanie Mayron stars as Susan Weinblatt, a photographer whose life is turned upside down when her best friend and roommate Anne (Anita Skinner), an aspiring poet, moves out to get married. After Anne has a child with her husband (Bob Balaban) it is not only a further strain on their relationship but also drains Anne of her creativity. When she becomes pregnant a second time Anne makes the choice that’s right for her. Weill’s nonjudgemental portrait of Anne fits nicely with the themes of “Joyce at 34,” a 1974 film she co-directed with Joyce Chopra.
“Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” 1982 (dir. Amy Heckerling)
Based on a book by Cameron Crowe, Heckerling’s debut feature film follows a group of students from the titular Ridgemont High over the course of one school year. Among them is Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who becomes pregnant after having sex with her crush Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). When Mike refuses to cover his half of the abortion, Stacy finds support from her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates) and brother Brad (Judge Reinhold). Crowe told Variety the subtle way the film handles this subplot was due to Heckerling, who reportedly said, “‘You know what, this is life. I want to shoot this like life.”
“Dirty Dancing,” 1987 (dir. Emile Ardolino)
Set in 1963 – a full decade before Roe v. Wade – this ultimate summer flick was inspired by screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s own childhood memories. While vacationing with her parents at Kellerman’s, an upscale Catskills, Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) falls for a working-class dancer (Patrick Swayze). When his fellow dancer Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) undergoes a botched back-alley abortion, paid for by money Baby’s borrowed from her doctor father (Jerry Orbach), he later helps save her life. The film remains one of the earliest empathetic depictions of abortion.
“Citizen Ruth,” 1996 (dir. Alexander Payne)
Using black comedy, writer-director Alexander Payne’s film stars Laura Dern as a feckless young woman named Ruth, who unexpectedly finds herself in the middle of America’s heated abortion debate. Written with frequent collaborator Jim Taylor, the picaresque satire was actually inspired by a real 1992 headline.
“The Cider House Rules,” 1999 (dir. Lasse Hallström)
Adapting his own novel, John Irving wrote this film set pre-Roe V. Wade. Growing up in a Maine orphanage, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) learns how to practice obstetrics and abortions from the orphanage’s director Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine). At first, Homer disapproves of abortion, but as the film progresses he comes to realize the importance of bodily autonomy.
“Obvious Child,” 2014 (dir. Gillian Robespierre)
Adapted from her own short film, Robespierre hoped to destigmatize abortion and dispel misrepresentations of unplanned pregnancies. Jenny Slate stars as Donna Stern, a standup comic who has a one-night stand with a yuppie named Max (Jake Lacy). When she discovers she is pregnant she visits Planned Parenthood to set up an abortion, which ends up being scheduled on Valentine’s Day. Aside from its a step-by-step depiction of Donna’s procedure, the film also features stories from Donna’s roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) who had an abortion in high school, and her mother (Polly Draper), who shares her pre-Roe v. Wade story.
“Grandma,” 2015 (dir. Paul Weitz)
Set over the course of one day, Weitz’s feminist comedy-drama stars Lily Tomlin as Elle, a widowed lesbian poet whose teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) needs her help coming up with $630 for an abortion scheduled later that afternoon. Like “Obvious Child” the year before, Weitz’s film shows how even in a city like Los Angeles, economic inequality can be a hurdle when it comes to abortion access.
“Scandal” – “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” 2015 (dir. Tom Verica)
Written by Mark Wilding, this episode of the wildly popular show starring Kerry Washington as White House fixer Olivia Pope, took on the battle cry to stop the government from defunding Planned Parenthood. Shocking in that viewers didn’t even know Pope was pregnant until after she had the operation, ABC wanted to cut the scene. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes told Refinery29 she replied, “’Go ahead, alter the scene. We’ll just have a lot of articles about how you altered the scene.”
“Jane The Virgin” – “Chapter Forty-Six,” 2016 (dir. Brad Silberling)
In its third season, the CW’s telenovella-inspired “Jane The Virgin” tackled the subject as Jane’s (Gina Rodriguez) mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) becomes pregnant after a one-night stand. Afraid to share her secret with her Catholic mother Alba (Ivonne Coll), Xo learns the power of a supportive family, no matter what. Showrunner Jennie Snyder-Urman explained she had seen “a lot of the torment and the torture of making that choice or considering that choice, but what I hadn’t seen is that some women who make that choice are relieved.” Xo’s confident decision about her reproductive health gave her the opportunity to show it.
“Dear White People” – “Volume Two – Chapter IV,” 2018 (dir. Kimberly Peirce)
Developed by Justin Simien from his feature film of the same name, this episode of the show’s second season written Njeri Brown and directed Kimberly Pierce centers around 20-year-old college student Colandrea “Coco” Conner (Antoinette Robertson) as sits in a clinic waiting room debating what do about her pregnancy. According to ThinkProgress, at the time about 80% of abortions depicted on screen were older affluent characters, while in reality, about 60% of those who get abortions are actually in their twenties.
“Little Woods,” 2018 (dir. Nia DaCosta)
DaCosta’s breakout drama stars Tessa Thompson as Ollie, a runner on probation for illegally crossing the Canadian-American border. When Ollie’s estranged sister Deb (Lily James), already a single mom, discovers she is pregnant again Ollie helps her get a fake ID and cross the border in order to get a subsidized abortion in Canada. DaCosta wanted to highlight how rural poverty affects “women in particular” when it comes to women’s reproductive rights and access, as well as our nation’s current opioid crisis.
“Shrill” – “Annie,” 2019 (dir. Jesse Peretz)
Developed by Aidy Bryant, Alexandra Rushfield, and Lindy West from West’s memoir of the same name, the pilot episode follows Annie (Bryant) as she learns the morning after pill is unreliable for women who weigh more than 175 pounds. After this discovery, she’s accompanied by her roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) to a clinic for an abortion. Co-creator of the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign, West said the writers of the episode consulted with Planned Parenthood early on which helped in “making sure that scene is not sensationalized at all.”
“The Bold Type” – “The Deep End,” 2019 (dir. Jamie Travis)
In a third season episode of the Freeform show written by Becky Hartman Edwards, the queer, Black biracial social media director at Scarlet magazine Kat (Aisha Dee) plans to run for office, but has a setback when a political consultant shares that an abortion she had when she was 20 could affect her chances. The episode was praised for its rare depiction of queer Black women discussing their experiences with abortion, as well as its critique of crisis pregnancy centers – which often attempt to dissuade women from having the procedure.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” 2020 (dir. Eliza Hittman)
Crisis pregnancy centers are shown again in this searing drama from Eliza Hittman. Sidney Flanigan stars as Autumn Callaghan, a teenager in rural Pennsylvanian who finds herself pregnant. Attempting to get help at the local crisis pregnancy center, she is only given propaganda, after which Autumn attempts to induce a miscarriage by punching herself in the abdomen. When this fails she disclose the situation to her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). The two steal money from the grocery store where they both work and head to the nearest Planned Parenthood – all the way in New York City. Hittman told Women and Hollywood that she thought it “was essential to making a film about the very real barriers that a woman encounters in trying to get a legal abortion.”
“Unpregnant,” 2020 (dir. Rachel Lee Goldenberg)
After discovering that she cannot get an abortion in her home state of Missouri without her parents’ permission, Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) enlists her estranged former best friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) to drive her to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the nearest clinic that will perform the procedure without parental permission is located. Goldenberg shared she is “proud to contribute to a destigmatization or normalizing abortion, I’ve had one and it feels right to put that feeling of comfort out into the world.
“Plan B,” 2021 (dir. Natalie Morales)
Written by Prathi Srinivasan and Joshua Levy, this road trip comedy stars Kuhoo Verma as Sunny, a sheltered first-generation Indian-American teenager who impulsively has sex, then discovers the next day the condom wasn’t used properly. She then sets out with her best friend Lupe (Victoria Moroles) to find a pharmacy that will give them the Plan B pill, since the one in their small town denied them on “moral” grounds. While the film is not about abortion access per se, it sits firmly with the recent batch of films about teenage girls and their fight for bodily autonomy.