1. Friday Night Lights, “I Can’t” (2010)
Nearly four decades after Roe v. Wade, abortion is a hot-button topic that seemingly never cools down, particularly when there’s an election afoot. So it isn’t surprising that mass-audience-courting entertainment often shies away from directly addressing “shmashmortion,” as Knocked Up memorably referred to it, frequently couching the subject in worst-case-scenario terms or sidestepping it entirely. But when Friday Night Lights chose to tackle an abortion storyline, it did so with the sort of situational and emotional realism that defined the series throughout its run. Unlike most other unexpectedly pregnant TV characters, who tend to have last-minute changes of heart, sophomore Becky (Madison Burge) goes through with the procedure after realizing she isn’t in a position to raise a child. She has an abortion following an agonizing decision-making process that finds her going to her school councilor, Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), for advice—which sparks a firestorm of familiar-sounding controversy in the small Texas town of Dillon, whose residents are incensed that a public-school employee would dare to cautiously, impartially point a conflicted student toward informational literature on abortion. But while Burge becomes the anonymous focus of a public outcry, her decision is never presented as anything other than a personal, private, and extremely difficult choice.
2. Maude, “Maude’s Dilemma” (1972)
It’s so rare for a regular on a network television series to have an abortion that it’s somewhat surprising to realize the first character to do so was Maude Findlay, Bea Arthur’s grand dame of the left, the Democratic Archie Bunker counterpart on the All In The Family spinoff named after her. Watching “Maude’s Dilemma” today is an opportunity to catch a national conversation in the process of being launched. Airing in November 1972, shortly before the Supreme Court made abortion legal throughout the United States, “Maude’s Dilemma” concerns what happens when Maude gets pregnant at age 47. She and her current husband—her fourth—have never had a child together, and while they’re both apprehensive about having one now, Maude is also leery about having an “operation,” as suggested by her daughter from a previous marriage. (The word “abortion” is never spoken.) The two-parter circles around every possible iteration of what Maude will do with the baby, and it thoroughly explores how she supports abortion rights, while remaining unsure whether she herself could possibly have the procedure. In the end, she and her husband agree it’s the best step. After all, who’d entrust a baby to two cranky, middle-aged people? Interestingly, even the show’s token conservatives consider abortion a perfectly legitimate option for a woman in Maude’s situation. The issue had yet to become a national controversy with clear left/right dividing lines.
3. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
“We gotta get an abortion… it’s simple, I mean, it’s no big deal.” That’s Robert Romanus’ immediate reaction when Jennifer Jason Leigh tells him their awkward, brief sexual encounter has resulted in pregnancy. And in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High, scripted by Cameron Crowe and based on his experiences going undercover in a California high school, it really is no big deal. It’s embarrassing and uncomfortable, and it leads to some drama when Romanus, in a fit of cowardice, tries to pretend the whole thing isn’t happening, and fails to come through on his half of the abortion fee and the car ride to the clinic he promised Leigh. But the social fallout of the act proves more traumatizing than the abortion itself, and even that only amounts to a vandalized car and some tension between friends. The film takes abortion seriously, but without dramatizing it as a major decision for either parent, or a major experience for the recipient.
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days (2007)
Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, on the other hand, centers on a student attempting to procure an abortion for a friend in Nicolae Ceauşescu-era Romania, where the act was illegal, dangerous, and absolutely a big deal. The whole painful story follows Anamaria Marinca as she attempts to procure basic supplies like soap, rent a room for the procedure, negotiate with a sexual-predator abortionist, and manage her meek pregnant friend, whose gestation is further along than she admitted (approaching five months, as the film’s title indicates). The film is naturalistic and subdued rather than histrionic or melodramatic, and it makes no particular moral claims about abortion one way or the other. The moral judgment is reserved for the oppressive environment in which such things routinely happen, and for people like the abortionist, who take brutal, selfish advantage of other people’s desperation.
5. Ben Folds Five, “Brick” (1997)
In Ben Folds Five’s surprise smash ballad “Brick,” Ben Folds examines an abortion that highlights the fault lines in an already-troubled relationship. It’s a quietly moving exploration of the complicated, painful emotions surrounding abortion, but it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with capturing a tricky rite of passage for a lot of young adults, with clear-eyed compassion and deep empathy for both parties.
6. Prometheus (2012)
Even women who desperately want children commonly report dreams or passing fancies that a developing fetus is some kind of malevolent parasite, or isn’t human at all; it’s an unsurprising offshoot of the sensation that something else is taking over their bodies. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus takes full advantage of that kind of paranoia, when Noomi Rapace’s character (who was previously unable to have children) suddenly gets pregnant and realizes that whatever’s inside her is infected with alien DNA. She promptly gives herself an abortion with a high-tech medical bed full of lasers, grappling arms, staple-shooters, and something akin to a claw-crane game. Since the medical bed is programmed only for a male patient, she has to go the makeshift route by choosing “remove foreign body from abdomen” surgery. That phrasing says everything about how Prometheus handles its anxiety-riddled take on abortion, in which everything is rushed, messy, improvised, and potentially lethal, and the “fetus” is an alarmingly active squid-creature that resists the process. The scene is half gross-out, over-the-top horror, and half an attempt to channel humanity’s natural squeamishness over the idea of bodily invasion and loss of control. It also takes advantage of any potential squeamishness about abortion itself.
7. The Mob Doctor, “Pilot” (2012)
Fox’s The Mob Doctor is rarely better than its dumb title suggests, but it deserves credit for daring, since it not only features an abortion, but puts it in the first episode. True, it never uses the A-word, but a subplot inspired by parental-consent laws finds mob-indebted doctor Jordan Spiro arranging for a pregnant teenage neighbor—whose swimming scholarship represents a ticket to a better life—to terminate her pregnancy while creating a cover story to keep her father in the dark. It’s presented without reservation as the right choice, and slipped casually into the fabric of the show, a rare case of a program wanting to present the sensibleness of the pro-choice position while not hedging its bets with opposing arguments.
8. Amanda Palmer, “Oasis” (2008)
“If you cannot sense the irony in this song, you’re about two intelligence points above a kumquat,” Amanda Palmer wrote in a blog post (later repurposed as a Huffington Post editorial) responding to UK television outlets’ refusal to play the video for “Oasis,” off her solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer. The song was reportedly banned because it “makes light of rape, religion, and abortion,” which is accurate only if the listener is judging on tune alone and completely ignoring every lyric between the words “rape” and “abortion.” A jaunty little piano-based ditty, “Oasis” contrasts its subject’s enthusiasm over getting a signed photo of the titular band in the mail with a dark tale of her getting raped at a party, getting an abortion, facing down “annoying fundamentalist Christians,” and being shamed by her best friend for being “a crack whore.” She may appear to shrug it off in the chorus with a nonchalant “I’ve seen better days, but I don’t care,” but the details tell a different story.
9. Alfie (1966)
Michael Caine had one of his earliest iconic roles as a Cockney Don Juan who swaggers around Swinging London, bedding a string of women (including Shelley Winters, Jane Asher, Julia Foster, and Shirley Ann Field) and moving on. But he gets in over his head when his casual seduction of the wife of a mate, played by Vivien Merchant, leaves the woman pregnant, and he has to arrange an abortion. As played by Denholm Elliott, the abortionist is a bitter, unpleasant man who scutttles in and out of people’s rooms, shrouded in a cloud of the world’s disapproval. (He doesn’t even have a name—he’s just listed in the credits as “The Abortionist.”) When he’s gone, Caine ignores Merchant’s advice that he not step behind the drawn curtain and view the destroyed fetus, and he experiences strong emotion and regret for the first time in his busy sexual life. He breaks down crying, and, he explains later, “not for him, he was past it.” The lady-killer who lives for sex without responsibility cries “for my bleedin’ self.”
10. Party Of Five, “Before And After” (1996)
After Roe v. Wade made the idea of a series regular having an abortion radioactive, most TV series avoided the topic through the ’80s and ’90s, usually only discussing it in regards to a guest character or two. One exception was this hyper-earnest ’90s family drama about five orphaned siblings doing their best to take care of each other, and confronting virtually every hot-button topic of the era in the process. During the second season, older sister Julia (Neve Campbell, in her breakout role) gets pregnant, and once the other siblings find out, there’s a long, earnest discussion about what she should do with the baby. An adopted friend attempts to sway Julia against having an abortion, because if the friend’s biological mother had had an abortion, well, she wouldn’t be there, while younger sister Claudia (Lacey Chabert) asks what she can say to people who think Julia is murdering her unborn child. Julia, in typical Party Of Five fashion, just doesn’t know. Still, the episode is notable for being the first post-Maude to have a regular decide to have an abortion, even though it ultimately chickens out, with Julia miscarrying on the way to the abortion clinic.
11. One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1977)
Agnès Varda’s sisterhood movie, which spans a period from 1962 to the mid-’70s, was an international hit at a time when feminist principles were taking root in the mainstream and some women, rather than being ashamed of having had an abortion, began to treat the experience as a battle scar won in the war of liberation. At the start, the teenage Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) is raising money to help her friend Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), who has two kids already, have an abortion. Separated by circumstance, the two friends reconnect 10 years later when they meet again at a pro-abortion-rights rally. By then, Pauline has reinvented herself as Pomme, a singer whose subject is the joy and pain of being a woman and the unity of women being there for each other. She discovers her vocation when, like other French women of the time, she goes to Amsterdam to have an abortion and is moved to celebrate the other women in the clinic, in song.
12. Arrested Development, “Warm Sentiments”
On “Warm Sentiments” from Zingalamaduni, Arrested Development’s famously disastrous follow-up to its revered debut, frontman Speech addresses a partner who has an abortion without his consent in ways that are meant to be thoughtful and compassionate. Instead, Speech’s lyrics come off as condescending, self-pitying, and patronizing, especially when he tells the woman he’s judging, “After I scold you, I hope I can mold you.” The line suggests a pretty fundamental power imbalance at the core of the relationship.
13. End Of The Road (1970)
This counterculture head trip, only recently unearthed on DVD after decades out of circulation, exploits abortion to horrific effect. The procedure is performed by James Earl Jones, the chief doctor at an insane asylum called the Farm, who instructs the patient’s lover (Stacy Keach) to assist him, as a lesson in “responsibility.” The scene is staged and photographed to suggest a rape, with Keach and another man holding down the woman (Dorothy Tristan) as she alternately screams in anguish and tersely insists that they finish and get it over with. In the end, she dies on the table, suffocating on her own vomit, and Keach and Jones row out to the middle of a lake and dump her body overboard. Then director Aram Avakian cuts to the closing credits, which feature footage of the astronauts and President Nixon. The pregnancy is aborted, the heroine is aborted, the movie is aborted, the whole damn American dream is aborted. Dig it?
14. A Private Matter (1992)
This torn-from-the-headlines TV film stars Sissy Spacek as local-TV celebrity Sherri Finkbine, host of the Phoenix, Arizona edition of Romper Room in 1962. The mother of four children, Spacek is pregnant with her fifth when it becomes known that thalidomide, which she has been taking under doctor’s orders, causes deformities in the fetus. Based on her legitimate concerns, a hospital is able to waive the legal prohibitions and schedule an abortion. But when word of her identity gets out, it sets off a public firestorm, the hospital gets cold feet, and the Finkbines, who file suit, have to go to Sweden to have the procedure done. Although the film was broadcast 30 years after the events it depicts, it felt relevant enough when it was broadcast, at a time when people were fire-bombing abortion clinics and a judge’s opinion on abortion rights was seen as the litmus test for appointment to the Supreme Court. It may still feel pretty relevant, in a year when the official platform of one major American political party is that abortion should be illegal even in cases where it’s needed to protect the life of the mother.
15. Everwood, “Episode 20” (2003)
Everwood wasn’t exactly a social-issues drama, but it could do an intelligent episode about a hot-button issue when it wanted to. Take this episode from the show’s first season (it was actually the 21st to air), in which a pregnant teenage girl—played by a young Kate Mara—comes to series lead Dr. Andy Brown (Treat Williams) for an abortion. It launches a surprisingly soulful, complex consideration of basically every possible answer to the question of “Is abortion ethical?” in an episode that ultimately decides everybody’s opinions are valid, but the procedure should ultimately remain legal. (The doctor who finally performs the procedure is staunchly opposed to abortion, but recognizes the need for the operation’s legality.) It’s a complicated piece of work that sometimes tries too hard to acknowledge everybody’s thoughts and feelings, but like most of the series’ finest hours, it also delves into complicated, thorny questions by bypassing questions of ethics and legality and going straight for the dynamics of human relationships.
16. Sex Pistols, “Bodies” (1977)
Marking the only time the Christian right would ever embrace something by the Sex Pistols, the churning, pointedly ghastly “Bodies” off Never Mind The Bollocks… paints abortion with all the grisly shock value of a pro-life placard in a churchyard. “Body, screamin’, fucking, bloody mess,” John Lydon screams, nihilistically picking through the guts and viscera of a story inspired by a real-life, mentally deranged fan named Pauline, who often told him and the band about how she was raped by her male nurses and “killed her baby.” Legend has it she once even showed up to Lydon’s house carrying one of her aborted fetuses in a plastic bag. And with a backstory like that, and Lydon screaming lines from the fetus’ point of view (“Mummy, I’m not an animal… I’m not a discharge… I’m not a throbbing squirm”), it’s little wonder that many consider the song to be anti-abortion, with the National Review even picking it—albeit disdainfully—as one of the greatest conservative rock songs ever written. For his part, Lydon has said only that “Bodies” is about “the pain of abortion,” rather than arguing for its moral rightness one way or the other. But for anyone going through that pain themselves, there’s no question that “Bodies” is an intentionally uncomfortable listening experience.
17. The Last American Virgin (1982)
Surely the most depressing in the wave of early-’80s teen comedies, this remake of the popular Israeli teen film Lemon Popsicle follows the sexual exploits of some Los Angeles teens, including Diane Franklin as the titular last American virgin. Her virginity doesn’t survive the movie, however, and after hooking up with no-good Steve Antin, she discovers she’s pregnant. Fortunately, Lawrence Monoson, the guy who really loves her, is there to help. To pay for her abortion, he sells his stuff at the pawn shop and gets a loan from his boss at the pizza parlor. Then Franklin has the abortion, in a relatively graphic scene inexplicably set to U2’s “I Will Follow,” and spends some appreciative time with Monoson—before turning around and hooking up with Antin again, leaving Monoson in tears in the sort of feel-bad ending never seen in a Porky’s movie. If there’s a lesson here, apart from U2 making a lousy soundtrack for an abortion, it’s pretty murky.
18. The Godfather: Part II (1974)
For most of the first two Godfather films, Diane Keaton is kept at arm’s length, both by her husband and by the narrative. As Al Pacino’s girlfriend, then wife, Keaton is a symbol of the life he might have led, his only real connection to a world outside the mafia’s claustrophobic violence and hierarchy. But Keaton herself remains apart, a sympathetic but distant figure who is too obscured to be an audience surrogate, but too important to the plot to be completely forgotten. Her impact isn’t completely felt until the second movie, in which, after trying and failing to explain to Pacino just why she’s become so horrified by his life and his ambitions, she drops a bombshell: the “miscarriage” she suffered earlier, which cost them their third child, was actually an abortion. While the scene’s overwrought dialogue tends to draw the most attention (“Just like our marriage is an abortion, something that’s unholy and evil”), Keaton’s decision is powerful, as she uses one of the few avenues of power she has left to rid herself of her husband’s influence. The scene still has the power to shock, because of the honesty buried underneath all that melodrama. Keaton’s willingness to commit what she considers a mortal sin to escape Pacino’s clutches is both a comment on how far the man has fallen, and a subtle affirmation of a woman’s right to choose.