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.
Perhaps that’s because, if rendered faithfully, securing an abortion in much of America has seemed so easy that the decision fails to drum up sufficient dramatic tension or audience sympathy to please a diverse crowd. In a country where a woman’s right to choose is now safe and legal (though less and less accessible—a plot point I’d rather not have available), filmmakers perhaps risk making their characters seem self-involved for making a choice that comes with no personal consequences. Last year, Planned Parenthood executive vice president Dawn Laguens told the Nation that before Roe v. Wade, women who experienced an unplanned pregnancy faced a stigmatized and dangerous choice (one that makes for a compelling central conflict for a sympathetic character). But now, the organization is beginning to move away from the “pro-choice” label, because abortion is accessible enough that emphasizing a woman’s “choice” sounds “frivolous,” “like choosing your cellphone plan.”
In order to skirt that connotation, American films that do follow through on their abortion plots take care to place their pregnant woman in dire circumstances—like having them impregnated by obviously unfit fathers. In 1982, Fast Times at Ridgemont High became the first comedy of its kind to present an unapologetic depiction of a modern-day abortion when Stacy, a high school girl played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, becomes pregnant after having sex with a classmate and never considers carrying the pregnancy to term. But it’s easier to sympathize with Stacy because she’s been knocked up by Mark, an obvious sleaze. Her decision is retroactively endorsed when she tells him she’s pregnant, and he responds by haggling over the procedure’s cost, then promises to give her a ride to the clinic but never shows. A 2013 plotline on NBC’s Parenthood performs the opposite trick: It has sensitive high school protagonist Drew drive girlfriend Amy to the clinic, support her through the procedure despite his private desire to keep the baby, and call her “beautiful” when he drops her off. Then, she instantly dumps him, and he breaks into tears.
High Fidelity moved the needle a bit by allowing the film’s own protagonist to fill the role of the unfit prospective father, but the plot is carefully constructed to leave both Rob Gordon and love interest Laura off the hook for the choice. Laura never tells Rob about the pregnancy, because he’s cheating on her, giving Laura the “unfit father” excuse and Rob the freedom to redeem himself later when he learns of the abortion without carrying the weight of contributing to the actual decision. High Fidelity is the rare comedy where the man and the woman who contributed to an unplanned pregnancy get together in the end, but it happens only after both characters have supposedly matured past their youthful indiscretions. Ten years later, Greenberg also pairs up boy and girl in the end after the film’s heroine undergoes an abortion, and the procedure itself is presented frankly and without judgment. Still, the gender dynamics that surround the abortion—25-year-old Florence says the experience has encouraged her to get her life together; meanwhile, while she’s conked out at the hospital, her 40-year-old boyfriend gropes at some 20-year-old girls at home—are grim.
Any account of abortion on screen wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to Dirty Dancing, which executes a triple threat with its abortion subplot: In it, dancer Penny becomes impregnated by a womanizing, cheating waiter; she secures a botched illegal abortion that leaves her ill; and her extended abortion recovery period allows a romance to bloom between her dance partner Johnny and her temporary stand-in, Baby, neither of whom have personally aborted a fetus. Impressive.
But Obvious Child executes an even more remarkable feat. While other films that touch on abortion conspire to neutralize a woman's choice, or else punish her for it, Obvious Child never dwells on Donna’s decision. (This is no “Donna’s Dilemma.”) Instead, it plays with all the other choices inherent in the abortion decision—like how much to involve the man in the choice, how to tell your mom, and how to talk about it all publicly—and it does it all with humor and poignancy without getting glib.
Yes, the film’s satirical potential is somewhat limited by its unambiguous politics. The filmmakers have teamed up with abortion-rights group NARAL to sell the movie, and promotional materials state that “Obvious Child is a story that depicts one young woman’s reality and many women’s rights.” And the movie features the most charmingly competent Planned Parenthood doctor that a young, sexually active woman has ever seen. (Unlike Fast Times’ “Free Clinic” or Juno’s “Women Now,” Planned Parenthood signed on to display its insignia in the film.) But Obvious Child’s politics have the advantage of conforming to the reality that many American women actually experience in their everyday lives. This reality is quite obvious on the Internet, where a 25-year-old woman recently posted a video of herself smiling through her abortion, but Obvious Child is the rare feature to dare to tell the familiar tale: By age 45, one in three will choose an abortion, most women have the procedure in their 20s, and while some regret it or experience sadness or guilt, most feel relief and, yes, happiness.
For too long, Hollywood has been offering up either the tragic abortion narrative or the implausible motherhood story without giving the abortion caper its due. Obvious Child makes this heretofore untold tale look like a piece of cake. The film manages to be revolutionary by treading the most traditional of rom-com territory: A girl meets a boy, and after navigating a series of miscommunications and obstacles, one of which happens to be an abortion, they live happily ever after. Or at least through a snuggly, post-abortive viewing of Gone With the Wind.