The 1916 silent film
Where Are My Children? was the first U.S. film to portray abortion onscreen, depicting both the pro-eugenicist and anti-abortion sentiments frequently found in discussions of family planning at the time. The film follows Richard Walton, a district attorney, and his wife Edith. While Richard prosecutes doctors for obscenity for promoting birth control, Edith is secretly obtaining abortions so that pregnancy and children won't interfere with her socialite lifestyle. Edith also encourages other women to get abortions, including her maid's young daughter, who dramatically dies from a botched abortion. When Richard discovers this, he accuses Edith and her friends of manslaughter. The film ends with Edith and Richard confronting future loneliness, deprived of the children they could have had.
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The Road to Ruin was made as a silent film in 1928 and remade as a "talkie" in 1934. Both films chronicle the life and downfall of a teenage girl—named Sally in the 1928 version and Ann in 1934—whose life is ruined by sex and drugs. After getting an illegal abortion, Sally/Ann dies. In the 1928 film, the Bible quote "The Wages of Sin is Death" appears in flames above her bed.
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The Motion Picture Production Code (known as the Hays Code, after Will Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America at the time) was a set of "moral guidelines" that were enforced by the industry from 1934 to 1954, enduring until 1968. The code regulated how crime, sex, drugs, alcohol, obscenity, religion, "national feelings," and many other topics, should be portrayed in film. On abortion, it stated that abortion was "not [a] proper subject for theatrical motion pictures" and later that: "The subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned. It must never be treated lightly, or made the subject of comedy. Abortion shall never be shown explicitly or by inference, and a story must not indicate that an abortion has been performed, the word 'abortion' shall not be used."
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An American Tragedy was based on the Theodore Dreiser novel of the same name, which was in turn based on the real-life murder of Grace Brown. In the film, Roberta becomes pregnant by Clyde, the nephew of the owner of the factory where she works. Clyde pressures her to have an abortion, and then murders her when she resists. This depiction is one of the few films on our list that doesn't actually include an abortion, but it does illustrate a trend that we see in other early films: women who become pregnant out of wedlock putting themselves at physical risk, whether through a dangerous provider or a violent partner.
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The 1948 film
Street Corner was described as "the most vital picture of all time!" Nurses attended all performances, and no children below high-school age were admitted. The film tells the story of Lois, a high schooler who become pregnant, and whose boyfriend is killed in a car accident on his way to marry her in secret. After obtaining an illegal abortion, Lois passes out in the street and is precariously close to death, until she is saved by her family doctor. The film ends with the doctor giving the audience a lecture on venereal diseases, pregnancy, and childbirth (which was actually shown onscreen!).
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Based on a successful Broadway play about a young teenage couple who gets pregnant, the film version of
Blue Denim made one change: It removed the abortion. In the movie, young Janet is saved at the last moment from the illegal abortion provider by her boyfriend's father. The change was made to comply with the Hays Code. The New York Times film reviewer bristled at the changes: "It seems to us that Charles Brackett and Mr. Dunne, who produced and directed, respectively, have taken a tough, realistic little play with a tragic problem in it and have tried to trim it and cram it into the mold of a Hollywood family picture, with the problem never permitted to assume such logic or credibility that it cannot be resolved with a conveniently 'happy ending.'"
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The Shame of Patty Smith (alternatively marketed as Patty, Backroom Abortion, and Gang Rape), follows the sad story of Patty, who is raped by three men who are confronting her boyfriend over a fender bender. When she discovers her pregnancy weeks later, she visits her physician, who refuses to help her; another doctor, who will help only for $600, which she can’t afford; her Catholic priest, who offers to help her obtain a loan until he discovers it’s for an abortion, which he tells her is murder even if she was raped; and her roommate, boyfriend, and a pawnbroker—all of whom help chip in money, in their various ways. Patty eventually obtains her abortion from a chain-smoking nurse and her unemployed pharmacist husband. She is later rushed to the hospital and interrogated by a police officer, who tells the doctor he sees hundreds of cases like this, and describes safe and legal abortion in Sweden. Patty has a vision of the people who failed to help her obtain a safe abortion, and then dies.
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A 1962 episode of the legal drama
The Defenders, titled "The Benefactor," was the first television episode to include an abortion plotline. In the episode, the father-son legal team defends an illegal abortion provider and builds a strong case for legal abortion rights. None of the show's regular advertisers would buy ad space for the episode. This pop culture moment was revisited in a 2008 episode of Mad Men (also titled "The Benefactor," in homage), in which Don Draper must scramble to find new advertisers before the controversial episode airs.
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Many soap operas have dealt with abortion storylines, but
Another World was the first—and the first TV abortion story to focus on the woman getting the abortion. In the story arc, Pat travels with her boyfriend, Tom, to New York City to obtain a legal abortion. She later develops an infection which leaves her infertile, and she ends up killing Tom after he reneges on his promise to marry her. During her murder trial, she falls in love with her defense attorney. They later marry, Pat has surgery to restore her fertility, and they live happily ever after (or, as close to happily ever after as soap opera characters can).
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Alfie stars a young Michael Caine as the eponymous character, a womanizing, self-centered man, who arranges an illegal abortion for one of his married conquests. The abortion is traumatic for them both, especially after Alfie sees the fetal remains. Later, recounting to a friend, he says, "I murdered him!" The moment prompts a crisis for Alfie, and leads him to question his behavior and the meaning of life. A 2004 remake, starring Jude Law, skips the abortion—the woman tells Alfie she's going to get one and then doesn't; she instead plans to raise the child with her husband with no ties to Alfie. It is this paternal crisis that prompts a crisis for Alfie.
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Based on the Broadway show, 1972's
Cabaret starred Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, a young woman who covertly obtains an abortion during the Weimar Republic in Germany, immediately before the ascension of the Nazi Party. Sally understands the abortion as a way to extricate herself from her relationship with Brian, a staid (and likely gay) Englishman, and allow her carefree days performing at the Kit Kat Klub to continue. However, viewers understand that the Klub's days, and Sally's happiness, are fleeting—abortion or no.
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Maude is often recognized as one of the most important early portrayals of abortion decision-making on television. In the episodes "Maude's Dilemma (Parts 1 and 2)", Maude is a 47-year-old grandmother, distraught to find herself pregnant. Her adult daughter encourages her to get an abortion, reminding her that it's legal in New York and that it's not as scary as it was when Maude was younger. She even goes so far as to say, "It's just like going to the dentist!" While the abortion story is still discussed today as groundbreaking and somewhat shocking, most modern commentary forgets that the abortion plotline was followed by a vasectomy for Maude's husband that was considered equally objectionable at the time. Both storylines were the results of a $10,000 reward offered by the group Zero Population Growth to any television comedy that addressed ways of controlling population growth.
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In the second installment of
The Godfather trilogy, Kay Corleone is married to mafia don Michael and raising two children when she becomes pregnant again. Repulsed by her husband's criminal enterprises and in despair that he will never follow through with legitimizing the family businesses, Kay secretly obtains an abortion and tells Michael she miscarried. Soon after, she tries to leave him, and when he attempts to convince her to stay, she shouts, "Oh, Michael, you are blind. It wasn't a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that's unholy and evil. I didn't want your son, Michael! I wouldn't bring another one of your sons into this world! It was an abortion, Michael! It was a son, Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end!" The abortion is framed as a necessary evil, in order for Kay to extract herself and her children from her husband's dangerous criminal life.
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Fame followed the interconnected stories of students at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. Near the end of the film, viewers discover that promising ballerina Hilary Van Doren has become pregnant. We hear her monologue before we realize that she's sitting, alone, in the waiting room of an abortion clinic: "You see, I've always had this crazy dream of dancing all the classical roles before I'm 21. I want Giselles and Coppélias coming out of my feet. And Sleeping Beauties, and the Swan. I want bravos in Stuttgart and Leningrad and Paris. Maybe even a ballet created especially for me. You see? There's no room for a baby." Like Alfie, a remake of Fame in 2009 avoided the abortion plotline entirely.
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After 15-year-old Stacy loses her virginity to Damone in
Fast Times at Ridgemont High, she soon finds herself telling him she's pregnant, and asking for half the cost of the abortion and a ride to the clinic. He agrees, only to leave her stranded on the day of the procedure itself. Stacy asks her brother Mark for a ride to the bowling alley across the street from the clinic, but he figures out where she's going and offers a rare moment of support and solidarity. In 2012, the dark comedy film Bachelorette revisited this storyline, when a woman confronts her ex-boyfriend over his lack of supportiveness during her abortion by saying, "You were a Damone!"
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The abortion TV trope of the 1980s was overwrought balance: For any character that defended abortion, another needed to adamantly oppose it. This is true of
Cagney and Lacey, where, while investigating the bombing of a clinic, the two title characters repeatedly clash over abortion politics. Mary Beth Lacey, who is pregnant during the episode, is strongly in support of abortion rights, while Christine Cagney cites her Catholic beliefs as a reason for her concern. Their arguments become personal when Mary Beth reveals that she obtained an abortion in Puerto Rico before the procedure was legal in the United States. Mary Beth's pregnancy ultimately saves her: During an armed stand-off with a violent anti-abortion activist, Christine says that shooting Mary Beth would also kill her unborn child, an argument that halts the would-be shooter. The National Right to Life Committee described the episode as "pure political propaganda" in support of abortion.
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Dirty Dancing remains one of the best loved movies featuring an abortion storyline. The film, set in 1963, focuses on the characters rallying around Penny so that she can afford and access an abortion. When that abortion goes wrong, Baby continues to support her at great personal risk, and Baby's father treats Penny with compassion and without judgement, even reassuring her that she'll be able to have children in the future should she want them. While the focus of the movie is on Baby's growth, the plot is driven by Penny's abortion and the lengths that her friends go to ensure she can obtain one. Even though the abortion itself is portrayed as dangerous, the film challenges abortion stigma through these depictions of strong, unquestioning support.
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In 1994, soap opera
All My Children featured Julia getting an abortion after being raped by a drug dealer, despite the strong opposition of her Roman Catholic family. This wasn't the first time that All My Children dealt with abortion—central character Erica Kane obtained an abortion in 1972, even before Maude. However, a 2005 plot development revealed that the 40-year-old abortion had in fact been a fetal transplant, and that Erica now had an adult son. This leaves Julia as the only All My Children character to have terminated a pregnancy, and one of few Latina characters on television to have gotten an abortion.
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Sex and the City's 2001 plotline focused on an abortion that didn't happen, when Miranda, decided while in the abortion clinic waiting room, to continue her unexpected pregnancy. But the episode also revealed that both Carrie and Samantha had had abortions (two in Samantha's case). These disclosures normalized abortion as a common experience, even if Carrie's long-term regret and Miranda's last-minute change of mind are experiences reported by a very small percentage of women who consider and obtain abortions.
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Claire's understated abortion on
Six Feet Under was notable for its straightforwardness: no agonizing, no second guessing, just a ride to the clinic while the rest of the show went on. Yet in the season finale a few episodes later, Claire sees visions from the afterlife, including a baby that represents the pregnancy she did not continue. The fact that they used a baby, when Claire had an early abortion, seems to conflate a fetus and an infant—a rhetorical argument often used by the anti-abortion movement.
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In many ways, Missy's abortion on
Jack and Bobby harkens back to the early films of the 1930s: Even if the abortion isn't medically dangerous, it still puts women at grave risk. Missy's pregnancy leads her conservative preacher father to call her a whore and throw her out of the house. When she gets an abortion with the support of Grace, Jack, and Bobby's feminist mother, it seems like she might be OK—until the next episode when she dies in a drunk driving accident after drinking at prom. The story arc is reminiscent of onscreen morality plays, where non-marital pregnancy and abortion led women down a dark path to tragic endings.
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Set in 1955,
Revolutionary Road tells the doomed story of Frank and April Wheeler, an unhappy suburban couple full of seemingly out-of-reach dreams. April crafts a plan for them to break out of their tedium and rediscover happiness by moving to Paris, only to discover that she is pregnant with their third child. Her hopes are crushed, and a superficial cheerfulness returns only once she's decided to self-induce an abortion. The viewer watches April peer out the window as a stain of blood slowly spreads on the back of her dress. She dies at the hospital soon after.
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A contemporary classic,
Friday Night Lights tackled head-on a young woman's experience of obtaining an abortion. Becky's decision to get an abortion is portrayed in tearful detail, while she reflects on her own mother's experiences as a young mother, and the challenges she faced while raising Becky. Ultimately, Becky finds unquestioning support from Tami Taylor and Tim Riggins, two of the shows central characters, as well as from her brusque mother. While the show does not explore many of the barriers Becky would likely have faced in Western Texas (such as long travel distances to a clinic), it does portray the state-mandated script that the doctor reads her, as well as the waiting period before she can get an abortion. Show creators consulted with providers from Whole Woman's Health in Texas when writing the episode to ensure these points were accurate.
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This anti-abortion film follows the story of Hannah, a 19-year-old with chronic health issues, who learns that she is adopted and that her health problems are due to her birth mother's attempted abortion. Her search for her birth mother reveals further that Hannah had a twin brother, who died after just a few months due to injuries from the failed abortion. When Hannah finds her birth mother, she is rejected, and in desperation she turns to a Catholic Church. There she finds guidance to forgive her birth mother.
October Baby is just one of several full-length films produced by the anti-abortion movement to promote their worldview and spread misinformation about abortion.
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After a 2005 episode where Cristina's scheduled elective abortion was avoided by the need for an emergency ectopic pregnancy removal, the medical drama revisited the same character in the same situation in 2011. Cristina is pregnant, does not want to be, and, once again, schedules an abortion. After arguing with her husband, Owen, over the decision, Cristina ultimately obtains one, with Owen by her side. This would represent Shonda Rhimes' first foray into portraying elective abortion, which she would continue to do on
Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal.
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Imperiled pregnancy and abortion are recurring themes on
American Horror Story, but never more so than in its first season, Murder House. This season followed the various hauntings of owners of a Los Angeles mansion. The new owners, Vivien, Ben, and their daughter Violet, have moved to the home for a fresh start after Ben's affair with his student, Hayden, is discovered. Of course, both Vivien and Hayden are pregnant; Hayden plans to get an abortion—Ben even secretly accompanies her to the clinic—only to change her mind, try to blackmail Ben, get murdered by a ghost, and then haunt Vivien in an attempt to steal her unborn child. Meanwhile, part of the home's curse is revealed to be rooted in the actions of Dr. Charles Montgomery, who lived in the home in 1922 and performed illegal abortions for Hollywood starlets in the basement. After a patient's angry boyfriend murders Montgomery's son (as revenge for Montgomery having "murdered" his baby by performing an abortion), Montgomery begins a Frankenstein project to reanimate the baby using fetal remains. He is eventually killed by his wife in a murder-suicide.
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Dr. Addison Montgomery, on both
Private Practice and Grey's Anatomy, is one of very few recurring television characters who provide abortions. Addison is upfront about her reasons for providing abortion care: She needed an abortion at one point in her life, and she believes women in that situation need compassionate, well-trained providers. When faced with performing an abortion at 19-weeks gestation for a patient whose first-trimester procedure unrealistically failed to end the pregnancy, Addison is challenged by a colleague who doesn't understand her willingness to perform an abortion at that stage. Addison says defiantly: "It is not enough just to have an opinion, because in a nation of over 300 million people, there are only 1,700 abortion providers. And I’m one of them.”
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The Good Wife dealt with abortion many times during its seven-year run: A gestational surrogate refuses to get an abortion after a genetic anomaly is revealed; a woman is murdered by her lover because she refused to get an abortion; a teenager's abortion becomes a political scandal, a pregnant woman's pro-choice beliefs are held against her when she tries to access fetal surgery; Alicia discovers her son secretly helped his girlfriend obtain an abortion; Diane debates abortion politics with... everyone. In the 2013 episode "Je Ne Sais What?" Will defends Anna, an Olympic runner, in the Court of Arbitration for Sports, after she is accused of doping. But it turns out that Anna is innocent, as she claims; the positive test was a result of hormonal changes due to pregnancy and a secret medication abortion. Anna refuses to let her lawyers disclose the abortion, choosing instead to risk her athletic career and a $5 million sponsorship contract.
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Call the Midwife is another show to have dealt with abortion repeatedly, within its setting of post-World War II London. A 2013 episode told the story of Nora, a mother of eight, who finds herself pregnant again. Nora visits Mrs. Pritchard, an illegal provider, to obtain an "herbal remedy" that will end her pregnancy, but it fails to work, and she comes to blows with the provider who judges her for needing an abortion. Nora then tries to self-induce, but ultimately must sell her curtains to pay for the abusive Mrs. Pritchard to return and perform a surgical abortion. Afterwards, Nora has a uterine hemorrhage and ends up in a coma, only to be saved by a hysterectomy—which she is quite happy about, as she never wants to be pregnant again. The episode is, perhaps, one of the most tortured and unlikely routes to an abortion happy ending that could be written.
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Obvious Child was the world's first abortion romantic comedy. Following Donna's brutal one-night-stand rebound, and subsequent pregnancy and abortion, the film chases potential controversy while maintaining the traditionally sweet narrative arc of a rom-com. As the New York Times reviewer said, "Like it or not, abortion is a fact in many women’s lives and therefore as available for humorous treatment as any other aspect of human experience." In the two years since Obvious Child, there has been a noticeable trend of television shows including abortion in more humorous and less heavy-handed ways, including Girls, Please Like Me, BoJack Horseman, Difficult People, You're the Worst, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
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After a forestalled abortion plotline in the first season of
Girls, creator Lena Dunham revisited the decision with Mimi-Rose's abortion in 2015. The abortion isn't revealed until after the fact, and comes as a surprise to both Adam, Mimi-Rose's boyfriend, and the audience. This was intentional. As Dunham explained: "I liked the idea of a character who goes so far in the other direction that it’s almost confusing for the audience because we’ve been taught to react one way to this which is, you know, with tears and regret. As someone who’s really passionate about reproductive justice, for me, it’s not just about making sure abortion is legal, it’s about making sure abortion is without stigma and is not something that women feel like they have to apologize for." Mimi-Rose's matter-of-fact disclosure, and her intolerance of Adam's attempts to shame her, represent a new type of onscreen abortion story, one that skips the hand-wringing decision making that was critical to plotlines for so long.
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Halt and Catch Fire portrayed Donna, an entrepreneur, computer engineer, wife, and mother, getting an abortion in 1980s Texas. While still pregnant, Donna tells her mother that she's had a miscarriage, stressing that it's for the best, and that, while she loved her children's baby years, they have moved past that time as a family. It becomes clear that this is why Donna wants an abortion, and the end of the episode shows her entering a Planned Parenthood. Because mothers getting abortions are dramatically underrepresented on television, and because the show specifically allows Donna to cite her motherhood when describing why she doesn't want to be pregnant at this point, this plotline is a rare type of portrayal.
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Scandal scandalously included two in-depth abortion plotlines in 2015—and both were groundbreaking. In the episode "A Few Good Women," Olivia Pope helps a servicewoman, Amy Martin, obtain an abortion after a sexual assault. Later, in "Baby, It's Cold Outside," Olivia obtains her own abortion. Both characters are women of color: Amy Martin represents the first Latina character to get an abortion on network TV since 1985's Cagney and Lacey, and Olivia Pope is the first Black woman who is a main character to get an abortion on network TV (though there have been some peripheral characters, or main characters on cable TV). Furthermore, both procedures are shown onscreen, without cutting away—another first (and second!) for television.
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Please Like Me's portrayal of Claire's abortion represents one of the first accurate, effective portrayals of medication abortion to air on American TV. (It ties for first with Netflix's Jessica Jones, which was released the same week this episode aired in the United States.) The episode shows Claire's visit to the clinic where she takes her first pill, and then depicts her holding the second pill under her tongue at home, while her friend Josh takes advantage of her inability to talk by making jokes about alternative medicine and atheism. The episode is an honest, accurate, funny, and touching portrayal of obtaining an abortion.
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Being Mary Jane follows the life of a TV news anchor and her family in Atlanta. After a disappointing birthday, Mary Jane reveals to her father that she had an abortion. This disclosure is illuminating because it portrays abortion as an unacknowledged part of many successful women's lives, and becomes a matter-of-fact part of Mary Jane's life without being a deep, dark secret. Furthermore, Mary Jane is one of very few women of color (including Scandal's Olivia Pope) who are depicted as getting abortion onscreen.
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Following the precedent of
Obvious Child, Netflix's BoJack Horseman takes the approach that abortion can be funny. After social-media-manager-for-the-stars Diane accidentally tweets that pop star Sextina Aquafina is getting an abortion, Sextina embraces the mistake—even going so far as to release a single "Get That Fetus/Kill That Fetus." The episode follows both Diane's (real) abortion and Sextina's (fake) abortion with humor and (some) sensitivity. The episode openly challenges abortion stigma, and acknowledges humor as a valid way of processing personal decisions and tackling fraught social issues.
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Jane the Virgin had many conversations about abortion in early seasons, but it wasn't until last month's episode that it addressed the issue head-on with Xiomara's unplanned pregnancy. Through Xo's story, the show provides one of the very few depictions of medication abortion, of mothers getting abortions (and the second portrayal of a grandmother getting an abortion, after Maude), as well as the first portrayal of a Latina main character getting an abortion on primetime network television.
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The end of 2016 marks the close of a century since
the first silent film in the United States addressed abortion. In these past 100 years, film, television, and our popular culture have addressed abortion in evolving ways: from the pre-code films of the 1920s, to the exploitation films of the 1940s, to television plotlines in support of legal abortion in the 1960s, to the alternately stigmatizing and stigma-busting portrayals of the 1990s and early 21st century. The incorporation of abortion into onscreen storylines has been done for shock value, for sex educational purposes, for humor, for drama, and for horror. This presentation is not an exhaustive list of abortion stories in U.S. film and television (there are over 200 of them!), but it is meant to illustrate some of the notable examples, groundbreaking firsts, and trends that have emerged over time.
Click through the photo slideshow to learn more about each film and television show, then click below to see clips in video form.