History Of Abortion Through Cinema In The United States

From the feminist film theory's perspective, these films are a form of resistance to the male-dominated cinema.

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The article argues the unsafe abortion rights in the United States and the risk of reversing Roe V. Wade, and the representation of abortion in films. Through “Ask for Jane (2018)“, the paper portrays the dark history pre-Roe v. Wade, and the documentary “Reversing Roe (2018)” provides legal backing and proof of the recent politicisation of Roe v. Wade in the United States. While “Unpregnant (2020)” and “Plan B (2021)” show the current reality of the lack of safe abortion access for teenagers in the United States. “12th & Delaware (2010)” and “Citizen Ruth (1996)” express the lack of common ground in the abortion debate and the difficulty for women to make choices.

The Roe V. Wade (1973) is a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme court that protects a pregnant woman’s right to choose abortion. On 24 June 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) overturned the landmark Roe v Wade case, which guaranteed abortion as a constitutionally protected right in 1973. Recent films like “Plan B (2021)” and “Unpregnant (2020)” depict the current situation of unsafe abortion rights in the United States. 

The Roe V. Wade (1973) is a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme court that protects a pregnant woman’s right to choose abortion. On 24 June 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) overturned the landmark Roe v Wade case, which guaranteed abortion as a constitutionally protected right in 1973. Recent films like “Plan B (2021)” and “Unpregnant (2020)” depict the current situation of unsafe abortion rights in the United States. 

The article intends to depict the history of the struggle for abortion rights for women in the United States through films. It argues that even though the conversation about women’s bodies and choice has expanded concerning human rights, the ground reality of safe abortion rights is as worse as in 1969. In the transition between the second wave of feminism and the fourth wave of feminism, the films depict the dark history of no liberty for women’s reproductive autonomy in the land of the free. 

The article argues the unsafe abortion rights in the United States and the risk of reversing Roe V. Wade, and the representation of abortion in films. Through “Ask for Jane (2018)“, the paper portrays the dark history pre-Roe v. Wade, and the documentary “Reversing Roe (2018)” provides legal backing and proof of the recent politicisation of Roe v. Wade in the United States. While “Unpregnant (2020)” and “Plan B (2021)” show the current reality of the lack of safe abortion access for teenagers in the United States. “12th & Delaware (2010)” and “Citizen Ruth (1996)” express the lack of common ground in the abortion debate and the difficulty for women to make choices.

Women’s solidarity and female friendship 

“Plan B (2021)” is an interesting mix of female friendship with Sunny and Lupe, the main characters, women’s solidarity, and the representation of unsafe abortion in the United States for women. Their journey covers the growth of female friendship in the search for the morning after pill and their journey of culture and sexuality.

“Unpregnant (2020)” is a film of similar lines, covering the adventure of two old friends regaining friendship through their journey of finding access to reproductive health services as the state does not allow abortion without a parent’s consent.

There is a similarity between these four films portraying female friendship and the role of women’s solidarity toward reproductive rights. Jane’s collective was historic, it was a group of strong women (Janes) performing abortions, and these “Janes” are present even today in the form of Veronica and Lucy helping fellow women/friends access abortion. 

The article intends to depict the history of the struggle for abortion rights for women in the United States through films. It argues that even though the conversation about women’s bodies and choice has expanded concerning human rights, the ground reality of safe abortion rights is as worse as in 1969. In the transition between the second wave of feminism and the fourth wave of feminism, the films depict the dark history of no liberty for women’s reproductive autonomy in the land of the free. 

Ada, the mother of Rose in “Ask for Jane (2018)” is a mother advocating for her daughter’s career and wants her to be independent the similar characters’ mother characters can be seen in “Unpregnant (2020)” and “Plan B (2021)”

Representation in the films

“Plan B (2021)” represents cultural restrictions and stereotypes about abortion; the lead actor is Kuboo Verma playing Sunny. While the film represents women of colour and their journey to find their way through culture, religion, and sexuality, the film is similar in stereotyping Indian mothers as strict and teenage women of colour as smart and shy. The other character Lucy is also well represented by a Mexican origin family and the two daughters of immigrant students in highly white-dominated schools in the United States. 

The characters in the film “Plan B (2021)” are well represented, along with “Ask for Jane (2018)” which represents the struggles of women of colour to get an abortion. Ask for Jane also covers the racial politics and well as violence against women and the lack of safe abortion for the economically weaker section in the United States. While the Jane collective was dominated by white women, the film shows the harsher treatment towards black clients arrested that highly the racial discrimination in police custody in the United States. 

“Plan B (2021)” is an interesting mix of female friendship with Sunny and Lupe, the main characters, women’s solidarity, and the representation of unsafe abortion in the United States for women. Their journey covers the growth of female friendship in the search for the morning after pill and their journey of culture and sexuality.

Women’s autonomy and feminism 

Abortion rights have been central to the feminist movement from the first wave to the fourth wave. While there is an evolution of technology in filmmaking, dialogues, characters, and general cinematography, the key idea of inaccessible abortion for women in the United States remains the same. Even after 60 years, the central story comparison can be drawn between “Plan B (2021)” and Unpregnant (2020)”with “Citizen Ruth (1996)” and “Ask for Jane (2018)” of the consistent struggle for abortion for women in the United States. 

“Plan B (2021)” and Unpregnant (2020)” represent the need for women’s autonomy over their bodies and limited state access to reproductive health care. The films portray the other side of the debate on abortion as crazy, reckless people, although “Unpregnant (2020)” focuses more on the teenage struggle of a boyfriend and lack of choices for women in relationships and the lack of individuality in a relationship. The film captures the anti-choice conservative, limited choice for women, and the emergency resort teenage girls have to take to access abortion for accidental pregnancy. “Ask for Jane (2018)” portrays a strong female bond and determination to spread awareness and regain female autonomy.

All these films bring out the better, more independent women through the character of Ruth from “Citizen Ruth (1996)”, who ends up taking her rights into her hands and discovering her voice and decision-making autonomy with reproductive rights. A film like “Ask for Jane (2018)” fills the void of strong women who defied the law and went to great lengths to regain the power of choice in the United States. 

All these films bring out the better, more independent women through the character of Ruth from “Citizen Ruth (1996)”, who ends up taking her rights into her hands and discovering her voice and decision-making autonomy with reproductive rights. A film like “Ask for Jane (2018)” fills the void of strong women who defied the law and went to great lengths to regain the power of choice in the United States. 

Accuracy and credibility 

“Plan B (2021)” represents the limited choices available to women through the scene in which the women do not get the morning after pill due to the “conscience clause” the film provides a real South Dakota legal clause that allows pharmacists to deny access to after pills to minors if it goes against their morals.

“Unpregnant (2020)” covered the current and crucial issue of lack of access to reproductive health services for women. Unlike other teen comedies, this film is sensitive and empathetic and portrays the real struggles without exaggeration. 

“Unpregnant (2020)” is based on the novel ‘Unpregnant’ by Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendriks. The film represents the struggle for women’s autonomy in religious, right-wing, and anti-choice parts of the free world of the United States. The film digs deep into politics, with Veronica (the lesbian female character), with the harassment women have to face from anti-choice activists, but it also creates chaos while dealing with pregnancy and abortion. 

“Ask for Jane (2018)” is a remarkable historical film; it is based on the true story of the Jane Collective, an underground abortion network that started in 1968 that helped over 11,000 women access abortion. The film is incredibly important as it expresses the situation before Roe v. Wade was passed. “Ask for Jane (2018)” consulted the real-life member of the Jane collective Judith Arcana that gave authenticity to the film.

Cinematography 

The actors in “Plan B (2021)” have natural chemistry, and the script is represented reality. With excellent direction by Morales. The film is a political satire and goes a step further to represent the control of parents over the reproductive rights of women and the limitation of “Roe v. Wade”. The story of the film is not simple; just like the debate on abortion, the film is written by five screenwriters representing different aspects of the film, with little clarity on the focus of the film.

All films represented unapologetic women seeking reproductive health services, strong-headed progressive women with ambitions and determined to go against catholic anti-abortion beliefs. The political messages are delivered through dialogues, pro-choice monologues, and coming-out plots. The films target the same set of progressive pro-choice populations. The films take a side, a politically inclined and pro-choice approach towards abortion. 

The cinematography in “Citizen Ruth (1996)” is interesting, as it puts Ruth in first-person perspective. The film was the debut of director Alexander Payne who also co-wrote the film. It is satire and comedy based on a real sensitive social issue. While “Ask for Jane (2018)” is a historical, mostly female-led crew, the film’s dialogue disappoints in delivering a larger academic language of women’s autonomy with a lack of character development in the film.

The screenplay feels didactic, saddled with unnatural dialogues delivered by actors. But the music plays an integral role in setting the tone for the film, in “Ask for Jane (2018)” sets a tone for an activism-based film with a foot-stomping song in the very beginning. 

Feminist history 

“Ask for Jane (2018)” is a strong portrayal of the feminist movement in 1969; the film vastly covers the protest for abortion rights and the women’s liberation movement during that decade. The film also covers the illegality aspect of performing an abortion and the role of the state in providing women with the liberty of choice. The film is a historical drama that emphasises the necessity of legal reproductive rights through Roe V. Wade.

The collective is arrested in the end, but the charges are dismissed after Roe v. Wade’s judgment by the supreme court. The film is a mirror to the present, the importance of Roe v. Wade and the sacrifice of first and second-wave feminists in providing the rights women enjoy today in the United States. The pre-Roe v. Wade America is horrifying, and women’s solidarity and sacrifice to provide the choice to women in the United States are depicted through the film. “Ask for Jane (2018)” is painful to watch; it covers deep horrifying resorts of pregnant women to abort and the dark history of illegal abortions pre-Roe v. Wade and the feminist movement to regain autonomy. 

The feminist film theory came in the 1960s along with the second wave of feminism; it critically analysis the subjectivity and gender representation of films. The women’s sexual liberation, patriarchy, and social and political representation of women in films were critical subjects. These films are representations of women’s issues, and from the feminist film theory’s perspective, they are a form of resistance to the male-dominated cinema. Hayward, Susan. 2000. Cinema Studies. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. Pg. 125 

Unlike the films depicting teenage pregnancy in recent years, “Ask for Jane (2018)” can be seen as a form of resistance. Unfortunately, the depictions in the film are still a reality in some parts of the United States; it shows what the world after the repeal of Roe v. Wade can look like, with more states banning women’s right to abortion and autonomy over their bodies, “Ask for Jane (2018)” is relevant and a piece of women’s history and a reminder of the past. 

Humour as a tool 

“Citizen Ruth (1996)” is a journey of a drug addict woman with four children, none of them in her custody, who gets pregnant again and is caught with drugs. Upon trial, the judge announces fewer years of imprisonment if she gets an abortion; while she wants to abort the child, anti-abortion activists trap her. Ruth is offered $15,000 to keep the child by an anti-abortion group, and the pro-choice group offers the same amount to abort the child. But Ruth had a miscarriage a day before her abortion.

“Citizen Ruth (1996)” is a very different take on the abortion debate; it is a funny satire. The film takes an entertaining take on a sensitive subject. Yet covering the lack of autonomy of women, the film is a tug-of-war with a weak stance on the issue. Unlike other films, it does not take a moral position. The film is interesting as it is a debate between two groups fighting for a woman’s rights which is ironic, but the film is not for educational purposes. 

“Citizen Ruth (1996)”“Unpregnant (2020)”, and “Plan B (2021)” are all comedy dramas. The journey of women to make decisions and regain reproductive rights in a comical and dramatic tension portray the role of humour as a tool to spread awareness and start the public discourse on abortion rights.

Hollywood films and daily soups before Roe v. Wade plotted stories portraying women’s decision to keep the baby last minute; even in the 90s and 2000s, abortion was not a means to pregnancy, but the last 15 years have shifted the narrative of abortion representation. Abortion in the films since the mid-2000s has been mostly depicted as a reproductive health choice, with shows like “Sex ed” and “Planned parenthood” portraying abortions in un-dramatic plotlines.

Documentary and the abortion debate 

Documentaries play an integral role in shaping opinion and representing ideas. The feminist movement in the 21st century includes documentaries as a tool to spread awareness and amplify its impact. In the ongoing debate in the United States, the portrayal of women, accessibility, and abortion rights in the documentary with political aesthetics is an integral part of awareness. Warren, Shilyh. 2015. “Abortion, Abortion, Abortion, Still: Documentary Show And Tell”. South Atlantic Quarterly 114 (4): 755-779. Doi:10.1215/00382876-3157122.

Through documentaries like “12th & Delaware (2010)” and “Reversing Roe (2018)”, the abortion debate, the current situation, and an ongoing 60-year-long debate on abortion in the United States can be understood with different tools of collecting data and representing social issues. “12th & Delaware (2010)” uses the daily intimate look at the abortion debate. The documentary is shot at a very critical point, a street corner in Florida where a clinic provides reproductive health services for abortion, and on the other side is a centre that provides information to women to carry on their pregnancy (pregnancy care centre).

With a clear inclination toward pro-choice, the filmmakers provide an enthusiastic, moral take on the abortion debate, and the documentary covers the difficulties women have to face while making a choice on the street with an intersection of opposing ideologies. The documentary uses the tool of capturing the daily routine of the clinic and the consultancy, the misinformation, the influence on patients, and the role of religion in the abortion debate. 

“Reversing Roe (2018)” is a different documentary; it takes a wider political perspective; with a right-wing government in power and the appointment of pro-life supreme courts judges, the chances of reversing Roe v. Wade in the United States. It uses the tools of news clips, interviews, and protests to capture the politicisation of abortion in the United States. The documentaries, while short and released in present years, represent a wider history; as the debate in the United States goes beyond statistics to emotions, the documentaries capture different realities.

“12th & Delaware (2010)” while representing the grassroots realities and experiences of women seeking an abortion, “Reversing Roe (2018)” focuses on the politicisation, legal debate, decade-long political campaigns, legislative discussions, and interviews from both sides. While both the documentaries show biases toward pro-choice, they successfully use the tool of documentaries to spread awareness and start conversations on political debates. 

Also read: Abortion Laws In India: Do Pregnant People Have Agency Over Their Own Bodies?

In conclusion, the paper argues the importance of films in drawing parallels between the past and the present. Even with the history of the feminist movement in the United States from 1969 to the present, abortion rights are central to the political debate, and while the United States represents the land of rights, liberties, and freedom are limited to men and even within women the freedom of reproductive rights, and its representation in the films varies adversely through the social, cultural, and economic divide.

Also read: Manifesto 343: The Abortion Rights Movement By Women Who Spoke About Their Illegal Abortions In 1971


Ishita Dutta is an academic researcher. She is a feminist, environmentalist and social activist. She has completed her bachelor’s in Global affairs with her majors in human rights and international development. You can find her on her Instagram.

Featured image source: Netflix