Abortion in North American Film

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Abortion, the ending of pregnancy, has been largely considered taboo for most part of the motion picture era. The term is generally used to describe therapeutic abortion, but not spontaneous abortion which is commonly referred to as miscarriage. It is only within the past few decades that abortion-related plot lines have become more commonly featured in TV shows and movies. Some research indicates that abortion in film is still inaccurately portrayed and is occurring onscreen at a rate much lower than in reality. While about four in ten of pregnancies among Americans end in abortion[1] and 30 abortions to every 100 live births in Canada,[2] many believe that abortion is featured much more rarely onscreen, especially in comparison to pregnancy.[3] The potential disparity between reality and movies has led to social myths and altered public perception of abortion.


The number of reproductive representations in general, including abortion, parenting, pregnancy loss and so forth, has unsteadily increased in the past millennium.[4]. The earliest abortion related plot line is identified in a silent film called Where are My Children?[1], directed by Lois Weber.[5] In 1951 and again in 1956, the Motion Picture Production Code was amended to classify abortion as improper subject for theatrical motion picture.[6] The Code not only prohibited the presentation of abortion, but also the use of the very word "abortion" itself.[6] After the American landmark court decision Roe v. Wade, the appearance of abortion onscreen increased by at least 31%.[7] From 2003 to 2012, the number of abortion plotlines saw a 105% increase over the total number from the decade before.[7] Although the rate of representation varied from year to year, possibly due to influence of cultural attitudes and politics, the overall trend is increasing overtime.

On Screen Abortion Rate by Date.png

Common Themes

A number of themes can be seen to recur in films featuring abortions such as romance, fetal personhood, complication, anti-abortion movements, and mortality. These common themes can be seen in all abortion-related films but I will make the relation specifically towards these themes and North American Films.


Instead of stating that romance is commonly featured in abortion-related movies, it is more sensible to conclude that abortion is sometimes a byproduct of romance. Discussion and consideration of abortion can be seen to follow common plot elements of a romance movie, such as a one-night-stand in Knocked Up. Abortion has often served as a major conflict between characters, such is the case in Coach Carter when the boyfriend becomes furious when he learns about his girlfriend's recent abortion.

Fetal Personhood

The debate of the existence of fetal personhood is often featured in dialogue between characters in the movies concerning abortion. The idea that an unborn child is a human person is often used by pro-lifers as an argument against abortion, thus inferring that it is equivalent to murder. In the Oscar-winning film Juno, the protagonist Juno MacGuff encounters a pro-life protester outside an abortion clinic, who tries to change Juno's mind about abortion. She tells Juno, “Your baby’s heart is probably beating. It can feel pain. It has fingernails.” Juno ultimately reconsiders having an abortion due to the fingernail idea. The movie has been criticized for its paradox of right and choice and its stance on fetal personhood.[8]


Surgical complication is the event following an illegal or unsafe abortion in movies, although the rate of having one is extremely low.[9] The nature and severity of complication varies, but the depiction of risk is arguably higher in films than in reality.[10] In Dirty Dancing (1987), the dancer who went through an illegal abortion suffers from agonizing pain but recovers after treatment. In more extreme cases, the women suffer infertility or even death as a result of complications.

Anti-abortion Movement

Anti-abortion movements, also known as pro-life or right to life arguments, are not surprisingly a reoccurring theme in abortion movies. For example, in the 2007 movie 'Juno', the theme of pro-life versus pro-choice can be seen throughout the movie. The film 'Juno' (2007) had a very strong sense of anti-abortion which was one of the first oscar winning films to reflect our true society. Even though this film supported a new style of media that was scarcely documented on film, it also angered many because of its lack of information when it comes to pregnancy and abortion. A particular section that stands out would be the section where Juno is going to the clinic for a check up and the protester outside insists the fetus inside her has fingernails. Juno may have highlighted societies lack of talk about pregnancy and anti-abortion movements but it does so with misleading information.


The character in the movie who considers or obtains an abortion sometimes, and perhaps too often, dies. In a study that examines abortion-related TV shows and films, of the 310 plotlines, 42 end with the death of the woman, whether or not she obtained an abortion.[11] Among those characters, 16 die as a direct result of the abortion, preceded by murder and suicide. The fictional depiction of risk of death associated with abortion is much exaggerated. It is speculated that such representation could skew the audiences' perception and understanding of abortion safety. Furthermore, pregnant female characters who consider abortion often end up dead just the same. The researchers state that "this association of death with the contemplation of abortion contributes to the ongoing production of abortion stigma, narratively linking the consideration of pregnancy termination with violence and death".[11] In a 1928 silent movie The Road to Ruin, upon obtaining an illegal abortion, the words "The Wages of Sin is Death" inexplicably appear over the teenage girl's bed in fire and then she dies.

Death and Abortion in Media.png

See Also

List of Films about Abortion

List of Documentary Films about Abortion

List of Songs about Abortion

Extensive Collection of Abortion Films [2]


  1. Finer LB and Zolna MR, Shifts in intended and unintended pregnancies in the United States, 2001–2008, American Journal of Public Health, 2014, 104(S1): S44-S48.
  2. Induced Abortion Statistics, Table 3-1, Statistics Canada, 2003
  3. H. Anderson,"What TV teaches us about abortion",The Gospel Coalition (2014), http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-tv-teaches-us-about-abortion
  4. ANSIRH, "Abortion Onscreen", http://www.ansirh.org/research/abortion-onscreen.php
  6. 6.0 6.1 "The Motion Picture Production Code". The Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry (1930-1967). Retrieved 2014-10-23.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Sisson, Gretchen; Kimport, Katrina (2013-12-15). "Telling stories about abortion: abortion-related plots in American film and television, 1916–2013". Contraception. 89 (5): 413–418. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  8. Latimer, Heather. "Reproducing and representing reproductive politics in contemporary North American texts". Retrieved 2014-10-27.
  9. "Abortion - Before, During, and After an Abortion: When to Call a Doctor". WebMD. Retrieved 2014-10-27.
  10. "Abortion Onscreen Infographics". Retrieved 2014-10-26.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Sisson, Gretchen; Kimport, Katrina (2014-07-26). "Telling stories about abortion: abortion-related plots in American film and television, 1916–2013". Contraception. 89: 413–418. Retrieved 2014-10-27.

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