Abortion & Television: The Good, the Bad, and the Truly Terrible
Our news feed is flooded with messages about COVID-19—the upcoming economic crisis, the frontline and essential workers who put their wellbeing and their loved ones at risk to respond to this crisis, and the many links between this pandemic and our issue areas, like abortion access. We launched #AbortionActually last year to challenge shameful narratives about abortion and the people who have them.
While many of us at NWLC work to respond to these issues, we’re also trying to ground ourselves during this crisis by catching up on old and new TV series and movies. And, of course, we can’t help but connect gender justice issues to the shows we watch, particularly abortion. Here’s our take—the good, the bad, and the truly terrible—on abortion messaging on the big screen.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Erin)
It’s the 1800s, your two lesbian moms take you to a witch doctor to get an abortion, and one of them is so moved by the whole thing she paints a portrait. That’s the quick summary of how abortion is dealt with in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a movie that’s not about abortion, but contains one of my now favorite depictions of abortion on screen. The scene is surprising, given that we don’t generally see much air time given to bodily function in period pieces. However not only is a literal period (very on the nose) depicted, we also get a touching plot on abortion in a time when women’s sexuality was a taboo subject. Marianne and Heloise, the main characters, immediately commiserate with and support Sophie, the house maid, when she confides that she’s missed her period. They go with her to the island’s medicine woman who performs an abortion, and afterwards Marianne has Heloise and Sophie reenact the scene so she can paint it. In a time when media still depicts abortion as a negative experience, Portrait of a Lady on Fire offers a vision of abortion as something both normal and tender, representative of the human experience and beautiful enough to make art.
Jane the Virgin (Hilary)
Jane the Virgin—originally a show about having a kid, even when you mostly certainly didn’t plan on it—seems an unlikely choice for a list of TV episodes with good abortion stories. But in its third season, Jane’s mother, Xiomara, had a medication abortion after finding out she was pregnant. Xiomara, in her 40s, was clear she didn’t want another kid, and so her decision to have an abortion was clear. What was less clear was how her family, including her very Catholic mother Alba (Jane’s abuela), would react. Alba wasn’t thrilled, but she and Xiomara talked it out, and Alba acknowledged it was her daughter’s choice to make. There’s been a lot written about this storyline, which was ultimately very straightforward—especially for a telenovela! But that’s because while many abortions are pretty straightforward, they’re rarely depicted that way. I’m still grateful for this groundbreakingly simple depiction of abortion on TV.
Downton Abbey (LySaundra)
If you think life was tough for Jan Brady to live in the shadow of her sister, Marsha (remember “Marsha! Marsha! Marsha!), folks, meet Lady Edith Crawley of Downton Abbey. Lady Edith receives a telegram from her doctor and learns that she’s pregnant. She contemplates having an abortion but doesn’t go through with it. She gives birth to a daughter, Marigold, places her in the care of a local couple, and regularly checks in on her. After tensions about Lady Edith’s visits, a kidnapping, and revealing Marigold’s identity to Edith’s mother, they decide to have Marigold stay with Lady Edith at Downton under the guise that she’s an orphan. For this period series—set in early 1900s England—context is everything. Lady Edith is the daughter of an Earl, an elite member of the aristocracy. The ink is barely dry on England’s first law granting some women over the age of 30 the right to vote. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act prohibits abortion and at this time, according to UK abortion rights activists, 15 percent of abortions resulted in maternal death. On the surface and apart from historical context, Downton Abbey’s conversation about abortion can come off as an anti-abortion campaign. But I think it opens the door for meaningful conversation. Lady Edith had to consider the consequences of either scenario—death, scandal, and incredible shame. And then I wonder, how far have we come?
Upon finding out that Andre’s & Teri’s baby may not make it from an accident, Tiana takes to IG and says something along the lines that every life is precious. Her statement is twisted to be a “pro-life” stance, becomes a PR nightmare, and Andre’s assistant, Maya, asks her to go back on IG and clarify. But Tiana tells Maya that she said what she said. Tiana also tells Maya that she was pressured to get an abortion to save her career—sounds like a Lauryn Hill song lowkey—but she refused and loves her child much. Treasure—fellow Empire records singer who executives keep trying to mold into the next Tiana—later posts something to IG taking a “pro-choice” stance. It sparks a brief feud between her and Tiana. It’s all performative activism if you ask me. But Maya comes through to squash the beef and reminds both popstars that she was the product of her mother’s rape by a corrections officer while she was incarcerated. Maya is grateful for the life she has, but also recognizes her mother didn’t have bodily autonomy. While I don’t think the storyline did a great job at addressing abortion—including Becky’s abortion story in the previous season—Maya admonishing Tiana and Treasure for thinking they can solve a complex issue through IG stories was my favorite part.
Dirty Dancing (Selina)
This movie is a classic and I love almost everything about the coming-of-age story of one girl’s growth from daddy’s girl to dirty dancer. I love that Baby isn’t put in a corner. I love that scene where Patrick Swayze (does his character even have a name this movie?) and Baby lip sync to “love is strange.” And of course, I love the legendary dance number and lift at the end of the movie. Who could resist a dance training montage to “Hungry Eyes?” Not I. What I don’t love, is the abortion story line. Baby lies to her parents to get money to help Penny pay for an illegal abortion that goes awry. It doesn’t show abortion in the best light, but it shows what can happen when abortions are out of reach and the lengths people will go when abortions aren’t treated as part of health care. This movie was based in 1963, where abortions were illegal in the U.S. I dislike this abortion story line not because it’s a bad story but because it is portrayed realistically in a world where abortions, even in 2020, are treated as fraught. Penny wants an abortion, so she finds a way to get one, but then her abortion is botched. The scene is bloody and Penny and her friends feel like she can’t go to anyone to help her because what she did was “wrong” in the eyes of many around her. Penny finally gets the care she needs but it took a botched abortion to get her there. Abortions shouldn’t be shameful or dangerous. But what happens to Penny still happens today. For many, even though abortion is legal in the US, it’s fraught with negative stigma and out of reach for so many.
What this movie especially does right? There’s no drawn-out scenes of Penny being tortured over her decision. She knows exactly what she wants and chooses what is best for her.
This movie’s abortion story line shows why abortions should be accessible, safe, and legal.
Grey’s Anatomy (LySaundra)
Just let her be a surgeon! If you aren’t familiar with Grey’s Anatomy, I’m referring to Dr. Christina Yang portrayed by Sandra Oh. Dr. Yang had two abortions—season one while she was dating (or not dating, ‘cause commitment) Dr. Burke and season 7, carried into the season 8 premiere, while married to Owen. Owen tried to talk about the decision as a compromise, which Christina beautifully refutes—choosing to have a child is not the same thing as deciding between pizza or Thai for dinner. He even kicks her out of their home because of her decision. Their home. Her decision. There are many one-liners in all the conversations about Christina’s body, but one of the best lines came from her “person,” bestie, and fellow surgeon, Meredith Grey. “Trying to pretend to love a kid as much as she loves surgery will kill her… my mother was a Christina… the guilt of resenting her own kid will eat her alive.” Meredith said these words to Owen as he wrestled with his male ego and tried to comprehend why Christina didn’t want his opinion about her body choices. This episode also includes the backdrop of Meredith beginning the adoption process for a daughter. The storyline challenges the idea that there’s a character flaw within people who choose not to have children. It also shows two dope women, successful surgeons, and their different, but valid, choices—one wants children, the other doesn’t. And I think it decently tries to break down the walls of shame around abortion and choosing when to become a parent, if at all.
“I don’t hate children. I respect children. I think they should have parents who want them.” –Christina Yang.
Binge these television shows and learn more about #AbortionActually. Have a hot take on a TV series or movie about abortion? Use the #AbortionActually hashtag on social media to share your thoughts.