Culture & Conversation Media

Illegal Abortions Onscreen: Depictions of a Pre-‘Roe’ World

Renee Bracey Sherman & Gretchen Sisson

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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Alfie (1966)

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.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007) Available on Hulu

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.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Analysis Law and Policy

Indiana Court of Appeals Tosses Patel Feticide Conviction, Still Defers to Junk Science

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled patients cannot be prosecuted for self-inducing an abortion under the feticide statute, but left open the possibility other criminal charges could apply.

The Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday vacated the feticide conviction of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman who faced 20 years in prison for what state attorneys argued was a self-induced abortion. The good news is the court decided Patel and others in the state could not be charged and convicted for feticide after experiencing failed pregnancies. The bad news is that the court still deferred to junk science at trial that claimed Patel’s fetus was on the cusp of viability and had taken a breath outside the womb, and largely upheld Patel’s conviction of felony neglect of a dependent. This leaves the door open for similar prosecutions in the state in the future.

As Rewire previously reported, “In July 2013 … Purvi Patel sought treatment at a hospital emergency room for heavy vaginal bleeding, telling doctors she’d had a miscarriage. That set off a chain of events, which eventually led to a jury convicting Patel of one count of feticide and one count of felony neglect of a dependent in February 2015.”

To charge Patel with feticide under Indiana’s law, the state at trial was required to prove she “knowingly or intentionally” terminated her pregnancy “with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.”

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, attorneys for the State of Indiana failed to show the legislature had originally passed the feticide statute with the intention of criminally charging patients like Patel for terminating their own pregnancies. Patel’s case, the court said, marked an “abrupt departure” from the normal course of prosecutions under the statute.

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“This is the first case that we are aware of in which the State has used the feticide statute to prosecute a pregnant woman (or anyone else) for performing an illegal abortion, as that term is commonly understood,” the decision reads. “[T]he wording of the statute as a whole indicate[s] that the legislature intended for any criminal liability to be imposed on medical personnel, not on women who perform their own abortions,” the court continued.

“[W]e conclude that the legislature never intended the feticide statute to apply to pregnant women in the first place,” it said.

This is an important holding, because Patel was not actually the first woman Indiana prosecutors tried to jail for a failed pregnancy outcome. In 2011, state prosecutors brought an attempted feticide charge against Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Chinese woman suffering from depression who tried to commit suicide. She survived, but the fetus did not.

Shuai was held in prison for a year until a plea agreement was reached in her case.

The Indiana Court of Appeals did not throw out Patel’s conviction entirely, though. Instead, it vacated Patel’s second charge of Class A felony conviction of neglect of a dependent, ruling Patel should have been charged and convicted of a lower Class D felony. The court remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions to enter judgment against Patel for conviction of a Class D felony neglect of a dependent, and to re-sentence Patel accordingly to that drop in classification.

A Class D felony conviction in Indiana carries with it a sentence of six months to three years.

To support Patel’s second charge of felony neglect at trial, prosecutors needed to show that Patel took abortifacients; that she delivered a viable fetus; that said viable fetus was, in fact, born alive; and that Patel abandoned the fetus. According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state got close, but not all the way, to meeting this burden.

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state had presented enough evidence to establish “that the baby took at least one breath and that its heart was beating after delivery and continued to beat until all of its blood had drained out of its body.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded, it was reasonable for the jury to infer that Patel knowingly neglected the fetus after delivery by failing to provide medical care after its birth. The remaining question, according to the court, was what degree of a felony Patel should have been charged with and convicted of.

That is where the State of Indiana fell short on its neglect of a dependent conviction, the court said. Attorneys had failed to sufficiently show that any medical care Patel could have provided would have resulted in the fetus surviving after birth. Without that evidence, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded, state attorneys could not support a Class A conviction. The evidence they presented, though, could support a Class D felony conviction, the court said.

In other words, the Indiana Court of Appeals told prosecutors in the state, make sure your medical experts offer more specific testimony next time you bring a charge like the one at issue in Patel’s case.

The decision is a mixed win for reproductive rights and justice advocates. The ruling from the court that the feticide statute cannot be used to prosecute patients for terminating their own pregnancy is an important victory, especially in a state that has sought not just to curb access to abortion, but to eradicate family planning and reproductive health services almost entirely. Friday’s decision made it clear to prosecutors that they cannot rely on the state’s feticide statute to punish patients who turn to desperate measures to end their pregnancies. This is a critical pushback against the full-scale erosion of reproductive rights and autonomy in the state.

But the fact remains that at both trial and appeal, the court and jury largely accepted the conclusions of the state’s medical experts that Patel delivered a live baby that, at least for a moment, was capable of survival outside the womb. And that is troubling. The state’s experts offered these conclusions, despite existing contradictions on key points of evidence such as the gestational age of the fetus—and thus if it was viable—and whether or not the fetus displayed evidence of life when it was born.

Patel’s attorneys tried, unsuccessfully, to rebut those conclusions. For example, the state’s medical expert used the “lung float test,” also known as the hydrostatic test, to conclude Patel’s fetus had taken a breath outside the womb. The test, developed in the 17th century, posits that if a fetus’ lungs are removed and placed in a container of liquid and the lungs float, it means the fetus drew at least one breath of air before dying. If the lungs sink, the theory holds, the fetus did not take a breath.

Not surprisingly, medical forensics has advanced since the 17th century, and medical researchers widely question the hydrostatic test’s reliability. Yet this is the only medical evidence the state presented of live birth.

Ultimately, the fact that the jury decided to accept the conclusions of the state’s experts over Patel’s is itself not shocking. Weighing the evidence and coming to a conclusion of guilt or innocence based on that evidence is what juries do. But it does suggest that when women of color are dragged before a court for a failed pregnancy, they will rarely, if ever, get the benefit of the doubt.

The jurors could have just as easily believed the evidence put forward by Patel’s attorneys that gestational age, and thus viability, was in doubt, but they didn’t. The jurors could have just as easily concluded the state’s medical testimony that the fetus took “at least one breath” was not sufficient to support convicting Patel of a felony and sending her to prison for 20 years. But they didn’t.

Why was the State of Indiana so intent on criminally prosecuting Patel, despite the many glaring weaknesses in the case against her? Why were the jurors so willing to take the State of Indiana’s word over Patel’s when presented with those weaknesses? And why did it take them less than five hours to convict her?

Patel was ordered in March to serve 20 years in prison for her conviction. Friday’s decision upends that; Patel now faces a sentence of six months to three years. She’s been in jail serving her 20 year sentence since February 2015 while her appeal moved forward. If there’s real justice in this case, Patel will be released immediately.