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.

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