The Best & Worst Depictions Of Abortion In TV & Film

Hollywood has long been reluctant to offer realistic depictions of what it’s like to end a pregnancy, despite the fact that roughly 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion before age 45. When it does summon the courage to address the issue at all, Tinseltown has too often distorted the facts or reverted to misogynist stereotypes — like the helpless damsel or the hysterical mistress. That’s not to say we haven’t made progress since 1928’s Road to Ruin, one of the first films to include an abortion storyline. In that film, a teenager gets an abortion and subsequently, as a form of cosmic punishment, is mysteriously burned alive in bed.

From the laughably absurd to the refreshingly frank, here some of the best and worst portrayals of abortion on film and TV.

Just 7% of 2016's top films were directed by women
. Refinery29 wants to change this by giving 12 female directors a chance to claim their power. Our message to Hollywood? You can't win without women. Watch new films every month on Refinery29.com/Shatterbox and Comcast Watchable.

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Director Anu Valia partnered with Refinery29's Shatterbox Anthology to create "Lucia, Before and After"—an unflinching depiction of the hurdles rural women still face in the battle to exercise their right to choose. A stark portrait of Texas' 24-hour waiting periods, inaccessible clinics, and pre-procedure ultra-sounds, "Lucia, Before and After" reminds us of the debilitating limitations imposed on abortion as a constitutionally-enshrined right, even 44 years after Roe vs. Wade. Check out this remarkable film here.

Just 7% of 2016's top films were directed by women. Refinery29 wants to change this by giving 12 female directors a chance to claim their power. Our message to Hollywood? You can't win without women. Watch new films every month on Refinery29.com/Shatterbox and Comcast Watchable.
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The Worst

Knocked Up
(2007): This movie — about two apparently incompatible strangers whose one-night stand results in an unintended pregnancy — manages the rather extraordinary feat of never even uttering the word “abortion.” Instead, like grown-ups discussing a taboo subject around children, the characters quickly mention — and dismiss — the possibility of getting “a shmashmortion at the shmashmortion clinic.” Uh…thanks for sparing our fragile ears?
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Juno (2007): When Juno, a high-school student, discovers she’s pregnant, she has a lot going for her —including her awesome, super-supportive parents and friends. The reality is much more challenging for many teens facing an unintended pregnancy. The last thing they need is to be scared into thinking that women’s health clinics are sketchy, unclean places with rude, intrusive staff (as they are lazily caricatured in this film). Whimsy and sarcasm are fine and all, but a taste for indie music alone isn’t enough to get you through the complexities that come with being pregnant.
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The Walking Dead (season 2): After learning she’s pregnant, Lori contemplates bringing a child into a world that is a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic hell. You know, as you do. Not unreasonably, she decides to end the pregnancy. A few weeks after conception, she takes something labeled “morning-after pills” before vomiting them up just in the nick of time.

Not only does the show play into anti-choice fantasies of women changing their minds at the last moment — as though women are incapable of fully thinking through the decision in the first place — it also spreads misinformation about how the morning-after pill, also known as Plan B, actually works. The morning-after pill is contraception: It prevents pregnancy, and you have to take it at least within five days (not weeks) after a condom breaks or you’ve had unprotected sex for it to work.
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The Suckling (also known by the somehow even more repulsive title Sewage Baby, 1990): For someone with a certain sense of humor, this completely over-the-top horror movie might belong in the "best" category. After a teenager has an illegal abortion, the fetus comes into contact with toxic sludge and turns into a monster before proceeding on a murderous rampage against the customers and employees of a brothel. But, most viewers agree that, unfortunately, this poorly made dreck is not “good” bad — it’s just plain awful.
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House of Cards (season 1): In Netflix’s hit political thriller, Claire Underwood, wife of the vice president, unapologetically admits in a TV interview to having had an abortion. But, because of the heavy stigma, she lies by adding that the pregnancy was the result of rape. The show also spreads an all-too-common misconception when a doctor tells Claire that her abortions (it turns out she’s had three) have compromised her ability to conceive. In reality, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures, and it’s highly unlikely to adversely affect a woman’s ability to have a child later on. Anti-choice activists frequently use scare tactics like this to pass regulations intended to shut down clinics. It’s a shame to see them reiterated in wildly popular and influential shows.
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The Best

All My Children (1973): Just months after the Roe v. Wade decision, Erica Kane — one of the soap world’s most well-known and beloved characters — underwent daytime TV's first legal abortion. The episode also frankly portrays Erica’s reason for ending the pregnancy: because she simply doesn’t want to have a child.
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A Private Matter (1992): This HBO drama tells the true story of Sherri Finkbine, a mother of four living in Phoenix in 1962, who decided to end her fifth pregnancy when she learned the fetus had severe abnormalities. In the dark days prior to Roe v. Wade, she was publicly shamed and had to travel abroad to obtain the procedure. Not only does the story depict real-life challenges that women around the world still face, it shows what a nightmare it is when personal civil rights and medical choices become the subject of public debate.
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Grey’s Anatomy (season 8): Strong, successful super-surgeon Dr. Cristina Yang confidently makes a decision about her own health, and is irritated by the patronizing insistence that she seek counseling before ending a pregnancy. At a time when politicians are increasingly passing laws with requirements that suggest women are fundamentally incapable of thinking through these decisions on their own — including lengthy waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, and “counseling” that amounts to pure propaganda — it’s nice to see a truthful portrayal of a woman making a firm decision.


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Parenthood (season 4): A show that is all about family tackles one of the most common decisions about family that people have to make, and does so without histrionics. The episode takes the unique angle of addressing the issue primarily from the perspective of a teenage male character, Drew, dealing with his own emotions on the matter while being supportive of his girlfriend Amy’s decision to end a pregnancy.


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Obvious Child (2014): This refreshing indie rom-com deals with abortion head-on as a central part of the narrative, without reducing the main character, Donna Stern, to a crazed, overly emotional mess. The movie isn’t afraid to find the humor in the subject and, while it depicts abortion as a serious decision, the movie also reveals how commonplace that decision is.
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Jane the Virgin (season 1): More than once on this telenovela-style show, characters have grappled with the decision of whether or not to have an abortion. The subject is treated seriously, and without the knee-jerk hysteria or end-of-the-world fatalism you see in so many other depictions. Abortion is a normal part of many women’s lives, and it’s empowering to see that reality reflected on-screen.
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