For all the cultural and political debate around abortion, it remains a taboo topic of discussion. Studies show that 25% of women will have an abortion by the end of their childbearing years, which means you almost certainly know at least one person who has — but it is rarely talked about. Hell, the president is currently being criticised for not saying the word “abortion” while discussing the leaked draft opinion indicating the Supreme Court has voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, effectively bringing the era of safe, legal, and accessible abortion in America to a close. This lack of private and public discussion can lead to confusion and shame for those who are considering or have had an abortion, let alone those looking to educate themselves on the topic of reproductive rights. (Here’s a handy glossary of key abortion-related terms.)
Still, some television shows and movies have pushed to make abortion part of the cultural dialogue in a bigger way. The following films and shows include abortion in their storylines and tell the stories of people seeking or undergoing the procedure in a nuanced, thoughtful, and informative way.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Emile Ardolino’s iconic romantic hit Dirty Dancing was released in 1987, but the story takes place in 1963, a decade before Roe v Wade made abortion legal. Viewers can focus on the love story between Baby and Johnny, but should remember the two would never have become dance partners if Johnny’s original partner, Penny, hadn’t been injured by a botched abortion and rendered unable to dance. At no point in the film do any characters look down on Penny or blame her for what happened. Baby procures the money to fund the abortion from her father, a doctor who later tends to Penny — and is angry at the system that forced her to seek an illegal, unsafe abortion, not her.
If you haven’t seen Netflix’s hit show Bridgerton, you likely know it’s set in Regency-era England, so it may come as a surprise to hear that it features an abortion storyline. That’s the thing, though: Regardless of all the debate around abortion as a safe, legal medical procedure carried out in hospital settings, the demand for it has been around for centuries. By showing one character’s failed attempt at a self-managed abortion by drinking a tea that causes her to pass out, Bridgerton makes the point that the desires to manage reproduction and make decisions about when how to have a family will always exist, whether safe, accessible options also exist or not. Making abortion inaccessible will not stop pregnant people from seeking it out; it will only hamper the ability to do so safely.
Obvious Child (2014)
This movie caused a stir when it came out in 2014, proving that a film about abortion was still controversial, even some two decades after Dirty Dancing. Directed and written by Gillian Robespierre, the movie follows a woman named Donna through a breakup, some rebound sex, an unplanned pregnancy, and the series of events leading up to her eventual abortion. It shows a pretty realistic portrayal of what the average abortion-seeking woman in America looks like. For instance, Donna is a comedian who performs in local venues and works a day job at a bookstore. Numerous studies have shown that the average person getting an abortion is low-income. Others have shown that those who are denied abortion are more likely to experience lasting economic hardship and insecurity, and that 60% of those who get abortions are already mothers. We also know many who get abortions do go on to have kids. In Obvious Child, Donna’s mother tells her that she, too, had an abortion in the past.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
The debate around abortion is hot in America right now, but the quest for safe and legal procedures is globally understood. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a British-American drama that follows a 17-year-old girl named Autumn as she attempts to determine if she’s pregnant and then decides what to do. She’s counseled at one point in a crisis pregnancy centre, which is very true to life: CPCs are often operated by anti-abortion activists who offer women pregnancy tests or other small services, then try to convince them not to terminate their pregnancies. The movie also deals with the parental consent laws that exist in some states, and shows what those mean for the teenage girls who live in them, while touching on the realities of sexual and physical abuse.
You’re the Worst (2014-2019)
This FX show flew under the radar during its five-year run, but had some seriously dedicated fans. That’s because it told a more realistic story than most other romantic comedies do: The protagonists were imperfect people who did not try to fix or save each other and instead, embraced the facts that they sucked, life can suck, and good things can happen alongside the bad because existing isn’t a zero-sum game. The abortion storyline captures those themes well. In a 2016 episode, supporting character Lindsay sought an abortion, and it was hardly dramatic at all. She announces during a very low-key lunch she’s “eating for two for the last time,” then she and her best friend refer to the impending procedure as an “abobo.” There is no agonizing, no drama, and no message other than this is just one of the normal things that happens in a young adult’s life, and is no different from any other medical intervention or life event.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
This Romanian art film is harrowing, but makes a strong case for the necessity of legal, affordable, accessible abortion care. It takes place in 1987, three years before abortion was legalised in Romania, and follows two college roommates, Otilia and Găbița, as they try to secure an abortion for Găbița. They arrange to meet a man in a hotel for the procedure and Otilia borrows money to fund it, but the financial cost is only one barrier. The practitioner, who is worried about being charged with murder, pressures the women sexually. The experience stresses not only the women’s friendship, but Otilia’s relationship with her own boyfriend and his family. The movie is far from lighthearted, but shows clearly what a world without safe, legal access to abortion looks like.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019)
It’s rare to find a musical comedy-drama on television, but rarer for it to tackle serious topics like mental health, abortion, and career fulfillment — let alone do so responsibly. A character named Paula initially dismisses the idea of an abortion — ”I am a married mother of two, ok? Those options are for teenagers the month after winter formal” — before really considering that having another child would require her to drop out of law school, which she enrolled in later in life. What happens next touches on the reality that many who get abortions are already mothers, and Paula ends up feeling no guilt for prioritising her schooling, which will ultimately put her family in a better place financially and lead her to a more fulfilled, complete life. What’s more, she really does love her kids, and that’s never questioned.
The debate over abortion is not a new one. Prior to its nation-wide legalization, CBS sitcom Maude tackled the issue head-on in an episode where the titular character decides not to have another child when she finds out she’s pregnant at the age of 47. Her age plays a role in the choice, as does the fact she lives in a state where abortion is legal.
The two-part episode, “Maude’s Dilemma” was a sensation when it aired in 1972 (as evidenced by the fact it has its own Wikipedia article), and attracted a lot of protest. Some CBS affiliates even refused to air it. It was groundbreaking, though, and paved the way for other mentions of abortion in works of fiction. The plot is notable, too, for the realistic storyline afforded to Maude’s husband: He vows to support her decision and even says he’ll get a vasectomy… but ends up hesitant to do so. Reproductive health care impacts people of all genders, but the burdens so often fall on women, which made his journey notable in its own way.
This movie has major star power: Lily Tomlin plays a grandmother determined to help her granddaughter Julia raise the $US630 ($875) she needs for an abortion in Los Angeles. While the film is funny, it’s also pretty frank: Raising the money in a single day is hard for the two women, who have to confront people from their past to borrow — or extort — it. The themes of low income and past abortions come into play here, as does angry dissent from at least one man, so it’s as realistic as can be.
Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-2015)
Degrassi: The Next Generation had a simple tagline: “It goes there.” If you know anything about the Canadian teen drama — besides that it gave Drake his big break in the biz — you know that’s true. Degrassi tackled topics like school shootings, domestic abuse, child predation, gender identity, sexual assault, and teen pregnancies that resulted in young parenthood, adoption, and even abortion. All of those episodes were totally acceptable to The N, the American distributor that aired the show stateside, except one.
For two years, American audiences were denied the opportunity to see the two-part episode “Accidents Will Happen,” in which a character named Manny, a freshman in high school, defies her sort-of boyfriend’s wishes and procures an abortion. She does deliberate, and even considers going through with the pregnancy, but ultimately finds support from her mother when she decides she’s not ready for motherhood. The show depicts the conflicting forces in her life in a realistic way. Her best friend, for instance, is opposed to abortion because she herself was born to a teen mum — but ultimately defends Manny’s right to make the choice.
Plan B (2021)
No, this movie isn’t actually about abortion — but it highlights the onerous burdens that women can face in accessing basic reproductive health services, and how that lack of access can easily lead to them getting pregnant and possibly needing an abortion anyway. Two teens in South Dakota find throughout the film that accessing emergency contraception in their small, conservative town is a lot harder than they thought, so they set out on a road trip to find some. Sexual coercion, unsafe underground transactions, and sexual orientation also come into play here, making for a well-rounded and authentic story.
In case you can’t sense a major theme here, many movies depicting abortion or basic reproductive healthcare feature long roadtrips undertaken by the protagonists. Unpregnant, a 2020 movie from Rachel Lee Goldenberg, is no different. Parental consent is again a key element of the plot, as two teenage girls seek to circumvent the restriction imposed by their state and find their way to a place where one of them can get an abortion without letting her parents know. Stalking, coercion, and a lack of funds get in their way, as does an anti-abortion couple that attempts to stop them. Along the way, they also find support from unlikely allies. This movie gets bonus points for a later scene in which the main character decides to tell the truth about where she went.
Jane the Virgin (2014-2019)
While Jane the Virgin is largely based on the main character’s accidental artificial insemination and her perplexing, hilarious journey to navigate single motherhood before actually losing her virginity, an abortion storyline eventually comes into play to highlight the idea that every pregnant person can make their own choices. Xiomara, the mother of titular character Jane, is not interested in having more children. Jane was unplanned in the first place, and ended up making Xiomara a grandmother. She is decisive about her abortion, treating it with a no-nonsense approach that reaffirms her prior commitment to not having more kids.
Of course, in the interest of drama, the medication abortion takes place off-screen between the Season 2 finale and Season 3 premiere, but the impact of her choice sets the tone for Season 3 once it takes off. One notable theme here is religion: Xiomara’s mother Alba and her daughter are both deeply religious, and she has a frank, compassionate discussion with Alba that anyone from a religious home will relate to.
The way Scandal treats main character Olivia Pope’s decision to have an abortion is unique. While many of the other works on this list included deliberation, arguments, or clear depictions of the hurdles and concerns associated with terminating a pregnancy, Scandal’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” opted for something completely different: Olivia does not mention her decision at all. Viewers do not see the decision-making process in any way. The show simply cut to a one-minute sequence showing her undergoing the procedure. There was no dialogue; only “Silent Night” can be heard playing. The abortion is never mentioned again in the series. This poignant moment makes the point that though such a decision can be fraught, the choice and the unique reasons that led to it are no one’s business.