As a doctor providing illegal abortions in the 1960s, Robert Livingston was once so fearless that he performed hundreds of procedures in an office that overlooked the Englewood Cliffs police station. He even held a press conference in 1972 to out himself as an illegal abortion doctor because he so believed in a woman’s right to choose, an action that earned him an indictment.
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Robert Livingston made the front page of The Record twice in August 1972 when he and another doctor were indicted.
Now, 40 years later, times have changed.
Livingston, once a lightning rod in the North Jersey abortion debate, now avoids telling anyone about his role in that chapter of American history, even though he strongly maintains his belief that abortions ought to be legal. The issue, he says, has become so emotionally charged that he no longer feels comfortable talking about it — not to the colleagues of his grown children and not to the residents of what he described as a conservative retirement community where he now lives.
“I would be afraid,” he said, adding that he believes the stigma of being an abortion doctor is greater than it was in the 1960s, when it was illegal to perform the procedure. “The atmosphere is so ominous now. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
That it is now considered a more dangerous political climate for doctors who perform abortions than it was back when they were doing it illegally should tell us a great deal about how the right to a “legal” abortion has been cut off — mainly through intimidation, threats, and actual violence.
Abortion Eve used the stories of fictional girls and women to help real ones understand their options and the law. At the same time the comic explained how to access abortion, it also asserted that abortion was crucial to women's health and liberation.
“Can you picture a comic book on abortion on the stands next to Superman?”
In June 1973, Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli wrote to the National Organization for Women in Chicago, asking this question of their “dear sisters” and pushing them to envision a world where women’s experiences could be considered as valiant as the superhero’s adventures. They enclosed a copy of their new comic book, Abortion Eve.
Published mere months after the Supreme Court’s January 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, Abortion Eve was intended to be a cheap, effective way to inform women about the realities of abortion. Like the fewother contemporaneous comic books dealing with abortion, Abortion Eve‘s primary purpose was to educate. But for a comic dominated by technical information about surgical procedures and state laws, Abortion Eve nonetheless manages to be radical. Though abortion had so recently been illegal—and the stigma remained—the comic portrays abortion as a valid personal decision and women as moral agents fully capable of making that decision.
The comic follows five women, all named variations of “Eve,” as counselor Mary Multipary shepherds them through the process of obtaining abortions. Evelyn is an older white college professor, Eva a white dope-smoking hippie, Evie a white teenage Catholic, Eve a working Black woman, and Evita a Latina woman. Evelyn, Eve, and Evita are all married and mothers already.
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Their motivations for getting an abortion differ, too. Evita and Eve, for instance, wish to protect themselves and their loved ones by keeping their families smaller. Sixteen-year-old Evie is the poster child for sexual naiveté. Pregnant after her first time having sex, she spends most of the comic wrestling with guilt. “It’s all so ugly!” she exclaims. “I thought sex was supposed to be beautiful!”
Nonplussed, the older Eves talk her through her choices. As Eve reminds her, “Like it or not, you are a woman now, and you are going to have to decide.”
In an interview with Rewire, Farmer said that the plot of Abortion Eve was a direct outgrowth of her and Chevli’s experiences in the nascent women’s health movement. Both women had started working as birth control and “problem pregnancy” counselors at the Free Clinic in Laguna Beach, California, soon after it opened in 1970. Archival documents at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute show that Chevli and Farmer visited Los Angeles abortion providers in December 1972, on a business trip for the Free Clinic. According to Farmer, one of the doctors they met approached the pair with the idea of doing a comic about abortion to publicize his clinic.
Earlier that year, the women had produced one of the first U.S. comic books written, drawn, and published by women, Tits & Clits alpha(the “alpha” distinguished the comic from subsequent issues). So they took the doctor’s idea and ran with it. They decided to use their newly founded comics publishing company, Nanny Goat Productions, to educate women, particularly teenagers, about abortion.
At the Free Clinic, Chevli and Farmer had seen all kinds of women in all kinds of situations, and Abortion Eve attempts to reflect this diversity. As Farmer noted in an interview, she and Chevli made sure that the Eves were all different races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds in order to demonstrate that all kinds of women get abortions.
Farmer had made the choice to get an abortion herself, when her IUD failed in 1970. The mother—of a 12-year-old son—who wasputting herself through college at the University of California at Irvine, she decided that she couldn’t afford another child.
California had liberalized its abortion laws with the Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967, but the law was still far from truly liberal. Before Roe, California women seeking abortions needed doctors (a gynecologist and two “specialists in the field”) to submit recommendations on their behalf to the hospital where the abortion would take place. Then, a committee of physicians approved or denied the application. Only women who could pay for therapeutic abortions—those needed for medical reasons—could get them.
For Farmer, as for so many others, the process was onerous. After an hour, the psychiatrist who had interviewed her announced that she would not be eligible, as she was mentally fit to be a mother. Stunned, Farmer told the doctor that if he denied her an abortion, she would do it herself. Taking this as a suicide threat, her doctor quickly changed his mind. She wrote later that this experience began her political radicalization: “I was astounded that I had to prove to the state that I was suicidal, when all I wanted was an abortion, clean and safe.”
Farmer and Chevli began work on Abortion Eve before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was still illegal in many states. After the Supreme Court’s decision, they added a page for “more info” on the ruling. Yet even as they celebrated Roe, the women weren’t yet sure what would come of it.
The comic reflects a general confusion regarding abortion rights post-Roe, as well as women’s righteous anger over the fight to gain those rights. On the day of her abortion, for example, Evita tells Eve that, at five months pregnant, she just “slipped in” the gestational limits during which women could have abortions.
Eve explains that women now have the right to an abortion during the first three to six months of a pregnancy, but that the matter is far from settled in the courts. After all, Roe v. Wade said that states did have some interest in regulating abortion, particularly in the third trimester.
“I get mad when they control my body by their laws!” Eve says. “Bring in a woman, an’ if the problem is below her belly button and it ain’t her appendix, man—you got judges an’ lawyers an’ priests an’ assorted greybeards sniffin’ an’ fussin’ an’ tellin’ that woman what she gonna do an’ how she gonna do it!”
Abortion Eve confrontsthe reality that abortion is a necessity if women are to live full sexual lives. Writing to the underground sex magazine Screw in September 1973 to advertise the comic, Chevli noted, “Surely if [your readers] screw as much as we hope, they must have need for an occasional abortion—and our book tells all about it.”
Six months after they published the comic, in December 1973, Chevli and Farmer traveled to an Anaheim rally in support of Roe outside the American Medical Association conference. They were met by a much larger group of abortion opponents. Chevli described the scene in a letter to a friend:
300 to 8. We weren’t ready, but we were there. Bodies … acquiescing, vulnerable females, wanting to show our signs, wanting to be there, ready to learn. Oh, Christ. Did we learn. It was exhausting. It was exciting. We were enervated, draged [sic] around, brung up, made to feel like goddesses, depressed, enlightened … bunches of intangible things. I have rarely experienced HATE to such a massive extent.
That wasn’t the last feedback that Chevli and Farmer received about their views on abortion. In fact, during the course of Nanny Goat’s publishing stint, the majority of complaints that the independent press received had to do with Abortion Eve. Several self-identified Catholics objected to the “blasphemous” back cover, which featured MAD Magazine‘s Alfred E. Neuman as a visibly pregnant Virgin Mary with the caption: “What me worry?”
As archival documents at the Kinsey Institute show, other critics castigated Chevli and Farmer for setting a bad example for young women, failing to teach them right from wrong. One woman wrote them a letter in 1978, saying “You have not only wasted your paper, time, money, but you’ve probably aided in the decision of young impressionable girls and women who went and aborted their babies.”
Farmer and Chevli responded to such charges by first thanking their critics and then explaining their reasons for creating Abortion Eve. In another response, also in the Kinsey archives, Chevli wrote, “Whether abortion is right or wrong is not our concern because we do not want to dictate moral values to others. What we do want to do is educate others to the fact that abortion is legal, safe, and presents women with a choice which they can make.”
Today, abortion opponents like Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson (R) frame abortion as the “dismemberment” of unborn children, suggesting that women who seek abortions are, in essence, murderers. With Abortion Eve, Chevli and Farmer dared to suggest that abortion was and is an integral part of women’s social and sexual liberation. Abortion Eve is unapologetic in asserting that view. The idea that abortion could be a woman’s decision alone, made in consultation with herself, for the good of herself and of her loved ones, is as radical an idea today as it was in the 1970s.
Here are several films with breathtaking performances that portray illegal abortion, which you can watch to reflect on how far we’ve come, or on how far we still must go in the fight for abortion access.
January 22 marks 43 years since the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion in the United States. Prior to Roe, many people sought abortions from illegal providers, trained or untrained, who offered the service in secret.
In the generation since Roe was decided, some advocates have blamed young people’s complacency around abortion on fleeting historical memory. While we actively, emphatically dispute these claims of complacency, we acknowledge that—for some people in our generation—the reality of illegal abortion is, and hopefully will always be, secondhand. This makes listening to real women’s experiences with illegal abortion especially important.
It is in this context, and in honor of Roe, that we are providing several films with breathtaking performances that portray illegal abortion. While research has shown these abortion plot lines deviate from accuracy in important ways, we still recognize their potential to tell stories that allow the viewer to better understand, acknowledge, and remember the world before legal abortion.
You can watch these films to reflect on how far we’ve come, or on how far we still must go in the fight for abortion access. (And yes, there are spoilers below!)
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Michael Caine plays Alfie Elkins, a womanizing, mansplaining jerk who distastefully talks about the women he’s shagging all over London directly to the audience. First, Alfie impregnates his girlfriend Gilda, whom he refuses to marry. (Gilda ends up raising the child without Alfie.) After a short stint in a rest home for a lung infection and mental health break, Alfie befriends Harry, a fellow patient, and later has a one-night stand with Harry’s wife, Lily. To keep Harry from finding out, Alfie and Lily decide to schedule an abortion.
The abortion provider comes to Alfie’s home to perform the abortion on a nervous Lily. Prior to beginning the abortion, the provider suspiciously questions the two about their relationship (to which Alfie claims no responsibility) and informs them that an abortion after 28 days is a crime, both legally and “against the unborn child.” The provider induces the abortion and leaves Alfie to support Lily through the rest, which includes Alfie smacking her to stop her from crying during the pain. Alfie leaves Lily alone in the apartment to pass the pregnancy. Upon returning, Alfie sees the fetus and tears up, then runs to his downstairs neighbor’s apartment to make sense of what he’s experiencing.
“Come to think of it, I don’t rightly know what I was expecting to see,” he tells Murray Melvin, the neighbor. “Certainly not this perfectly formed being. I half-expected it to cry out. It didn’t, of course. It couldn’t have done. It could never have had any life in it. Not a proper life of its own. … And I thought to myself, You know what, Alfie? You know what you done? You murdered him.” He seems to come to terms with their decision and decides to change some of his ways.
Alfie was released in 1966 and the depiction of abortion takes place in London, where abortion became legal the following year, prior to Roe v. Wade. Feeling a little icky after watching Michael Caine call women “birds” for 90 minutes? We suggest watching The Cider House Rules in which Caine redeems himself (see below!).
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Dirty Dancing is probably the most famous and popular film with an abortion story, although most viewers seem to forget that an abortion is really what drives the entire plot of the film. At a summer resort, Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) vacations with her family and crushes hard on the dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). Johnny and his partner, Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), are scheduled to perform at another resort and risk losing their contract because Penny is pregnant and needs to be available for her abortion. In addition to the challenge of taking time off work, Penny is hard-pressed to find the money for it. Baby not only borrows money from her father, she volunteers to take Penny’s place as Johnny’s dance partner. After returning from their resort performance, Baby and Johnny find an extremely ill Penny, who is terrified to go to the hospital and possibly be interrogated by the police. Baby runs to get her father, who is a doctor, and saves Penny’s life. While you may have seen this film a thousand times, it highlights the need for paid sick leave, local abortion providers, and health insurance that covers abortion care, for all—all things we’re still fighting for.
If These Walls Could Talk (1996)
If These Walls Could Talk tells the story of three women in the same house, 22 years apart, all of whom are facing unexpected pregnancies: Claire (Demi Moore), Barbara (Sissy Spacek), and Christine (Anne Heche).
Claire is a widowed nurse in 1952, desperate to end a pregnancy that will shame her late husband’s family. She keeps her pregnancy secret and receives only outright disdain when she discloses it to her sister-in-law. Claire tries to induce an abortion both with pills and knitting needles, but these efforts are unsuccessful. She avoids one illegal provider who seems too dangerous, and rules out another who is too expensive. Finally, she finds an illegal provider who comes to her home. He ignores her suggestions to wash his hands or sterilize his equipment, and in her desperation she has no way to make him take these basic safety measures. Claire later hemorrhages on her kitchen floor, and dies while calling for help.
Barbara is a housewife, student, and mother of four in 1974, who believes another child will disrupt both her and her daughter’s educations. Though she later chooses to parent, Barbara is the only woman portrayed in the film as having support during her decision to possibly choose abortion.
In 1996, Christine is an architecture student who does not believe in abortion, but considers it anyway when she gets pregnant after an affair with her professor. Christine’s roommate reminds her of her anti-choice beliefs and says she agrees with the angry mob of protesters outside the clinic. Moments after the completion of her abortion, Christine is seen cradling the head of her dying doctor (played by Cher), after she was shot by an anti-choice fanatic. The gruesomeness of Claire’s illegal abortion is mirrored in the violence of the abortion provider’s murder. Only Barbara’s story, where she chooses to parent, is free of gore.
Two of the three women get an abortion, and both of those stories end with women dying on the floor. For the most part, these women are making their decisions alone, with little knowledge of their options, and viewers get the sense that they are tormented by the choice or trapped by any outcome. Indeed, none of the stories have happy endings: Claire dies, Barbara gives up her dreams, and Christine is traumatized. The movie adheres to the “safe, legal, and rare” mantra of the 1990s, with no sense that abortion can be valid, valuable, and stigma-free.
The Cider House Rules (1999)
The Cider House Rules thoughtfully depicts several situations in which women need abortions and the providers who offer them in 1943. The film is set at an orphanage in Maine, where women facing unintended pregnancies go to deliver their babies, who are raised there until they’re adopted. Michael Caine won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Dr. Wilbur Larch, the obstetrician who runs the orphanage and illegally provides abortions.
Dr. Larch teaches Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) about labor and delivery, as well as abortions, however Homer says he’s morally opposed to providing them. “How can you not feel obligated to help them when they can’t get help anywhere else?” Dr. Larch asks Homer. When a woman is found on the orphanage grounds, Dr. Larch takes her in and tries to save her life, but unfortunately she dies due to a punctured uterus by an untrained abortion provider. Dr. Larch forces Homer to look at the damage to her uterus, showing him the impact of refusing to offer care he is trained on. “If she had come to you four months ago and asked for a simple D and C [abortion procedure] what would you have done? Nothing!” he yells at Homer. “This is what doing nothing gets you. It means that somebody else is gonna do the job—some moron who doesn’t know how.”
While digging the woman’s grave, the pair discuss Homer’s reservations about abortion and the responsibility of doctors versus those seeking abortion care. After meeting Candy (Charlize Theron) and Wally (Paul Rudd), a couple seeking an abortion from Dr. Larch, Homer leaves the orphanage to explore the world and work on an apple orchard, where his refusal to perform abortions is tested by a young Black woman, Rose (Erykah Badu), who was raped and impregnated by her father, the orchard’s field manager.
One of the most powerful scenes is between Candy and Rose, when Candy discloses that she had an abortion as an act of truth to tell Rose that she supports whatever decision she wants to make. Rose then discloses that she does not want to continue the pregnancy which was a result of incest. Homer has a change of heart, realizes his calling to become an obstetrician, and returns to perform the full spectrum of reproductive care at the orphanage.
Vera Drake (2004)
In post-World War II London, Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a kind house cleaner by day, and a compassionate illegal abortion provider by night. She has been providing abortions safely for 20 years, and views her work as helping young women. Vera does not accept payment for her work—although, unbeknownst to her, her partner does charge money for arranging the abortions. When one of Vera’s patients nearly dies, she is arrested, tried, and sentenced to over two years in prison. In the last scene of the film, she meets other women incarcerated for performing abortions, and they share stories. In a parallel plot, the daughter of Vera’s employer is raped and becomes pregnant; she is referred to a psychiatrist who coaches her through the process of accessing a legal, medically recommended abortion. This subplot highlights the gap between poor women, who are dependent on Vera’s risky services, and women with resources, who can obtain safer, legally allowed procedures.
The film was publicly criticized by Jennifer Worth (whose memoir Call the Midwife was adapted into a television show, which itself features several stories of illegal abortion). Worth argued that the abortion method used in the film (flushing the uterus with soap and water) was extremely painful and often deadly—not the simple process shown onscreen. This challenge is a good reminder that, even in the hands of a well-intentioned provider, illegal abortion carried a great risk. However, Worth also asserted that “abortionists were in it for the money.” This claim is refuted by significant research, most notably Carole Joffe’s Doctors of Conscience, which reveals that many doctors who provided illegal abortions were frequently motivated by concerns for their patients’ health and well-being.
This Romanian film follows the daylong saga of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) supporting her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), a 22-year-old college student, through an illegal abortion. On the recommendation of a friend, the women book a hotel room after scheduling an appointment with Mr. Bebe, an illegal provider. To ensure he will perform her abortion, Gabita lies and says she’s two months along, but he realizes she’s closer to five months, hence the film’s title. Mr. Bebe is a misogynistic man who uses Gabita’s plight to extort money and sex, and tells them that if anyone finds out, they would all serve time in jail for murder. He performs the abortion by inserting a tube into Gabita, tells her to lay down until the abortion is complete, then leaves. Otilia leaves the hotel for a few hours to celebrate her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday, where she discloses to her partner what she’s been doing and they have a discussion about what they would do if she became pregnant. “You’re ashamed to talk about it, but not do it?” she asks her boyfriend about using the pull-out method. When she returns to the hotel, she finds that Gabita’s has passed the fetus and left it wrapped in a towel on the bathroom floor—in the film the fetus appears much older than 19 weeks.
While the film takes place more recently, it depicts what two friends must risk to obtain an illegal abortion.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Revolutionary Road tells the story of April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and her husband, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), who are living in the Connecticut suburbs in 1955. To their neighbors, they’re the perfect couple, but in reality, they’re trying to find their way back to the ecstatic relationship they had before their two children and ho-hum life. The couple is planning to leave their lives and move to Paris when April realizes she’s pregnant again. “There are things we can do … as long as we take care of it before 12 weeks it’s fine,” April tells Frank about her desire for an abortion. While Frank seems supportive of April at first, he becomes furious after finding the hidden instruments April was planning to use to induce her abortion. April tells Frank she’s having an abortion for him (and because she doesn’t want anymore children), but he tells her “the thought of it makes [his] stomach turn.” The couple cancels their dream move to Paris to remain in their suburban life, which proves to be too much for April. The morning after a huge fight, April, acting normal, proceeds to self-induce her abortion while Frank is at work. In a tragic turn of events, April senses she is dying and calls an ambulance. She dies at the hospital.
The performances in this film are poignant and are sure to make you tear up. There’s nothing more haunting than April’s final scene during which she’s bleeding out in her living room, which leaves the viewer questioning whether her death was due to suicide, her illegal abortion, or both.
While deaths like April’s were recurrent during the pre-Roe era, deaths from abortion are extremely rare (less than 1 percent) today. Conversely, deaths from abortion are common in media depictions: Research found that over 15 percent of abortion plot lines show a woman’s death after an abortion and of those almost 60 percent die from the procedure itself. This gives audiences the impression that abortion is unsafe and women having abortions are deserving of their imminent death.
For Colored Girls (2010)
Unfortunately, the legalization of abortion did not mean that the promise of Roe would be reality for everyone. Policies like the Hyde Amendment and parental involvement laws make low-income people, women of color, and young people disproportionately unable to access safe abortion care and can be forced to seek out untrained providers.
In For Colored Girls, Nyla/Purple (Tessa Thompson) is a 16-year-old dancer who just graduated high school and describes her excitement of having sex for the first time after graduation. Nyla realizes she’s pregnant and goes to her sister Tangie (Thandie Newton) for “college application money,” but it’s really for an abortion. “I remember the first time I got pregnant, I was so scared,” Tangie recalls and proceeds to tell her about an apartment she went to, and afterwards she “wasn’t pregnant anymore.” Out of jealousy, Tangie refuses to give Nyla any money and Nyla is left with no choice but to go to a literal back-alley apartment for an abortion. A negligee-clad woman (Macy Gray) drinks alcohol and smokes cigarettes while using dirty tools from a bucket to perform Nyla’s abortion.
After passing out in the street, Nyla is rushed to the hospital where she poetically recounts the grimy scene of her abortion to her overbearing mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), and a social worker (Kerry Washington). Upon hearing the story, Alice argues with Tangie about her previous abortion, which Tangie admits she didn’t want but was forced to have by Alice. During an emotional scene, both women come clean about their experiences of incest at the hand of their father/grandfather.
For Colored Girls is a tragic account of several Black women’s experiences with rape, abuse in many forms, suicide, various reproductive issues, and homophobic HIV-stigma. It carries many trigger warnings.