In the new movie Obvious Child, twentysomething stand-up comic Donna gets pregnant after a drunken one-night stand, loses her job, attempts to schedule an abortion at her local Planned Parenthood clinic, and—cherry on top—discovers that the only available appointment is on Feb. 14. Turns out, it’s the perfect day: This is a romantic comedy where the girl gets an abortion and gets the guy. Along the way, she doesn’t even have a change of heart, contract a nasty infection, or succumb to a tragic death. That makes Obvious Child a run-of-the-mill story for a woman in America but an exceedingly rare tale for a woman on film.
The darkly hilarious debut feature of writer-director Gillian Robespierre—starring Jenny Slate, and based on their 2009 short film of the same name—runs a taut 83 minutes, but its happy ending is long overdue. In the early days of film, the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of film industry censorship guidelines that predated the modern MPAA rating system, ensured that abortion was exclusively depicted as a personal and moral tragedy. In 1956, the code decreed that “the subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned” in films. “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.”
Films that did dare to depict abortion showed the procedure ending in ruin. The 1934 Clark Gable vehicle Men In White obscured its abortion plotline under layers of euphemisms and killed off its character who chose to abort. (It nevertheless sparked protests from conservatives for touching abortion with a 10-foot pole.) This was a typical trope, according to a study published this year in the journal Contraception by sociologists Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport, who scoured hundreds of Hollywood films that featured abortion and found that those released before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision disproportionately ended in death. While some died from the procedure itself, others died of murder, suicide, or injury before they even underwent the abortion; even women who entertained an abortion before deciding to have the baby were at a heightened risk of dying in childbirth.
Overt censorship rules governing on-screen abortions have since relaxed, but the happily-ever-after has failed to materialize. Instead, a curious divide has emerged in the implicit abortion politics of the film industry: Movies set in the pre-Roe era (like Revolutionary Road or The Cider House Rules) continue to paint illegal abortions as the dangerous products of oppressive laws, but movies about modern women fail to regard their hard-earned constitutional right as an unambiguously positive development. Post-Roe, a woman who considers an abortion can only maintain sympathy in the eyes of the viewer if she’s been impregnated by a villain (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), if she suffers stark physical or emotional consequences from the abortion (Absence of Malice), or if—at the last minute—she decides that she can’t go through with it (Blue Valentine). These movies tell us that it was wrong for laws to dictate what a woman ought to do with her body, but now that she has the choice, she should choose to give birth except under the most extenuating of circumstances.
In their study, Sisson and Kimport found that on-screen abortions have become less and less likely to result in death since Roe’s passage. That’s a movement toward realism because, as they note, “current risk estimates place risk of death from abortion at statistically zero.” But in a less plausible turn, pregnancy decisions in movies are now less likely to result in abortions than ever, and that trend’s become particularly pronounced in films produced since 2003. In other words, now that abortion’s safe, women on screen don’t choose it.
In a 2000 episode of Sex and the City, Miranda makes plans to secure an abortion before changing her mind at the last minute. In Blue Valentine, our heroine reverses course on the operating table. And in the 2007 film Juno, the movie’s titular precocious teenager schedules a procedure in her typically impish tone—“Yes, hello, I need to procure a hasty abortion”—but later flees the clinic after an anti-abortion protestor tells her that her fetus may have already grown fingernails. Juno chooses to give her baby up for adoption instead. False pregnancies and miscarriages also function as convenient plot twists for evading the abortion choice. In the second episode of Girls, Jessa schedules an abortion but never shows; instead, she seduces a man in a bar and is pleased when their hook-up is interrupted by the arrival of menstrual blood. And in Citizen Ruth—an abortion debate satire where both pro-choice and pro-life groups politicize Laura Dern’s unwanted pregnancy—she miscarries at the end of the film, obviating both sides’ stake in a “choice” that she never has to make.
The most ludicrous embodiment of the abortion plot point (or lack thereof) is the 2007 Judd Apatow comedy Knocked Up. Katherine Heigl’s Alison never even considers an abortion after becoming pregnant in a drunken one-night stand with Seth Rogen’s Ben. (See also: Fools Rush In.) Alison—who has just cinched an on-camera dream job that requires her to lose weight—never even proffers an explanation for her choice to carry her unplanned pregnancy to term, then raise the child in tandem with a pot-addled stranger who has no job prospects beyond his harebrained scheme to compile celebrity nude scenes on the Internet. Supporting characters urge Ben and Alison to seek an abortion in euphemistic overtures. Ben’s friends call it an “A-word” and a “shmashmortion” while Alison’s mother favors the phrase “taking care of it.” Ben and Alison recoil at their advice, making the very suggestion of abortion appear conspiratorial, heartless, even unspeakable.
Until Obvious Child, the best, most honest portrayal of abortion on screen aired in 1972 (after the procedure was legalized in New York, but before Roe took it nationwide), when Maude featured a two-episode abortion plotline titled “Maude’s Dilemma,” in which 47-year-old Maude becomes unexpectedly pregnant and spends a full television hour brashly debating every aspect of her choice with friends and family—including her age, her financial situation, her temperament, her husband’s feelings, and her daughter’s concerns. She ultimately chooses abortion, but not before the show wrings all possible feminist statements and dark laughs from the predicament. (Could that storyline have occurred if Maude was 26? Probably not.) But in the decades since, the reality of back-alley abortions have faded from memory, and Hollywood has quietly downplayed the importance of a woman’s choice.