On February 19, 2021, Kate Cohen, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, published a piece called “On TV, Abortion Is the Road Less Traveled. Life’s Not Like That.” In it, Cohen relates being upset at a recent episode of the television show Atypical, where a character discovers she is pregnant and decides to have the child without even considering abortion. Cohen writes, “I’m so tired of this.” She elaborates, “Over and over again in TV shows and movies, female characters discover they are unintentionally pregnant and then make the choice that most women in that situation don’t make. Or worse: They don’t seem to remember that they even have a choice.”
Cohen then lists recent media offerings that depict women choosing life—always, I would add, in characters whose faith is either entirely absent or simply irrelevant to their decisions to carry their children to term and give birth. The films Juno and Knocked Up (both from 2007) are two of many examples she cites. Cohen laments the resistance to positive depictions of abortion, and she expresses her worry that legal abortion itself may be in jeopardy.
Challenging Cohen’s suppositions about the psychology of women dealing with an unplanned pregnancy or living with abortion on their conscience is an argument for another time, and probably for someone else to do.
But I found myself thinking about depictions in the media of women’s struggles over whether to give birth to the life within them. Poking around the internet, I discovered a site called the Abortion Onscreen Database, run by pro-choice media activist Steph Herold.
Herold has documented 460 examples in film and television from 1916 to the present where a character has an abortion. For a Catholic, there is much sadness in considering so many examples of a grave moral evil on our screens. But is abortion something people really want to see? And if not—as Kate Cohen laments—maybe the general public is not as brainwashed by the abortion industry and its elite cheerleaders as some of us fear.
The first time an entry on the Abortion Onscreen Database features the depiction of legal abortion without negative health or psychological consequences for the woman is the infamous 1972 two-part episode of Norman Lear’s CBS sitcom Maude, titled “Maude’s Dilemma.” The main character, played by Bea Arthur, decides at age 47 to abort her child in an episode that also features a woman of the same age with four children who decides to give birth to her fifth. Creator Norman Lear said in a later interview that the episodes “riveted the country in terms of degree of controversy.” Maybe so, but did the controversy change any hearts or minds?
Another database entry from the same period is Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather II. In a memorable scene, Kay Corleone, played by Diane Keaton, admits in a rage to her husband Michael, played by Al Pacino, that she has not miscarried, but rather aborted what would have been the couple’s third child. Despite all of Michael’s evil deeds, including arranging the murder of his own brother, Kay’s admission is one of the most haunting moments of the film—but does it satisfy? Is killing an innocent baby in the womb a reasonable challenge to the reign of evil? If she aborted Michael’s child because “this must all end,” why not just kill Anthony, the Corleone heir, and be done with it?
Amy Heckerling’s and Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High from 1982 features an abortion procured by a high school girl, Stacy, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Stacy does not demonstrate any negative effects afterward, and we are clearly meant to be sympathetic. On the small screen, from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, abortion was a serious but normal thing that happened from time to time, including on Thirtysomething, Beverly Hills 90210, Roseanne, and in most primetime police and medical dramas.
As the abortion debate has intensified in the twenty-first century, a scroll through the database reveals why both pro-life people and pro-abortion people may be increasingly upset—neither side can be happy seeing other viewpoints represented. In 2015, an episode of Scandal called “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was a source of widespread outcry from the pro-life community. Kerry Washington’s character, Liv, has an abortion while Congress debates funding Planned Parenthood. The 2020 film Unpregnant turns the quest for an out-of-state abortion into a teen road-trip romp.
In contrast, in the 2018 German film Never Look Away, abortion is clearly depicted as a tool of the patriarchy, when a Nazi doctor unsuccessfully attempts to perform an abortion on his own daughter to prevent her from marrying a man he disapproves of. In the same year, the horrifying story of the Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell was told in the film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. 2019 saw the release of Unplanned, a film based on the true story of a Planned Parenthood employee’s change of heart after seeing the reality of abortion.
Then we have the long-running British drama Call the Midwife. For most of the first two seasons, almost every episode gave me a lump in my throat as one family after another welcomed new life into their homes with the help of midwives and Anglican nuns, often despite economic hardship.
But then Call the Midwife, which, by the way, is set in the 1950s and 1960s, started featuring abortion—eight episodes to date, with many more advocating strongly for contraception. What was originally a testimony to the miracle of heroic childbearing has turned into a culturally current soap opera with anachronistic values and very practical “choices” that could go either way. Call the Midwife is now, in a word, boringly efficient; new life permits so much more creative storytelling. As Protestant author Karen Swallow Prior tweeted in response to Cohen’s article, “Something about abortion is anti-art, too, perhaps. The spirit of art—of creativity—lifts toward life not death.”
On screen, as in reality, life is a thrilling and beautiful thing. There is a reason why even Lena Dunham’s progressive television show Girls wrapped up its six-season run in 2017 with the main character choosing to have her child instead of having an abortion.
It seems highly unlikely that either side of the abortion debate will feel good about the artistic state of play on this ever-volatile issue anytime soon. But Catholics may find hope in Kate Cohen’s rather bloodless lament. If abortion isn’t playing to audiences so well these days, let us rejoice.