Documenting Roe on-screen

How debates around abortion have been portrayed in cinema and beyond

May 13, 2022 10:30 am | Updated May 15, 2022 01:20 pm IST

A still from ‘Reversing Roe’

A still from ‘Reversing Roe’ | Photo Credit: Netflix

It has emerged in recent weeks that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has privately voted to strike down the constitutional right to abortion as determined by the landmark Roe vs Wade case in 1973, according to a draft of the majority opinion which was leaked by Politico.

This has also brought to light Reversing Roe, an Emmy-nominated documentary currently streaming on Netflix, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, which traces the history of abortion rights.

The documentary covers roughly 50 years of the history of abortion in about 100 minutes. Reversing Roe contextualises the politicisation of the issue of abortion which was once, according to Linda Greenhouse, an abortion historian, considered a social and medical problem. By highlighting the key events that made the issue of abortion a partisan issue in the U.S. today, the documentary stitches together interviews with chaplains, medical experts, feminists, senators, and advocates of pro-life and pro-choice movements to present the audience with an accurate chronology of abortion rights in the country.

On the silver and small screen

Abortion as a theme is not alien to the silver screen. The topic, as a plot point, made noise even during the era of silent films, with titles such as Where Are My Children, a silent drama written and produced by America’s first woman director Lois Weber. However, their interpretation by the audience, the imagery used to depict the act, and the values associated with the act fluctuated depending on the socio-political context they were produced in. For instance, in Where Are My Children, a woman who gets an abortion to prevent children from interfering with her social life, is shown to go on to lead a life of longing for a family she might have had if she did not go through the procedure.

Abortion — an issue that is usually associated with second-wave feminism — broke through the silver screen even before the demands of the first wave were realised.

Two decades after the success of TV shows like I Love Lucy that familiarised viewers with the format, the subject of abortion breached the walls of the living rooms of everyday Americans with Maude. A two-part episode in the first season titled ‘Maude’s Dilemma’ shows Maude, who is 47 years old, contemplating the option of abortion with her husband who affirms her agency and promises to stand by her. Mere two months after the episode’s release, the 7-2 majority opinion of the SCOTUS which was written by Justice Harry Blackmun paved way for the recognition of abortion as a constitutional right in the U.S., effectively striking down a wide range of state-level abortion limitations applied before foetal viability.

The subject (of abortion) since, has started to appear relatively frequently on the silver and the small screen. Even after legalisation, directors and writers like Eleanor Bergstein felt the need to highlight the plight of women seeking abortion in the pre-Roe era to serve as cautionary tales. In the 1987 romantic dance drama Dirty Dancing which is set in 1963, Bergstein showcased abortion as a key theme. The descriptions of folding tables and dirty knives used during her illegal abortion that almost end up killing Rockette Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) are spelt out loud and clear for the audience to highlight the grave and life-threatening nature of illegal abortions. Movies like Portrait of a Lady on Fire have also brought to the fore the lengths women have been willing to go from time immemorial to get an abortion.

On a backfoot

Roe vs Wade was not the SCOTUS’s last word on abortion. In the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs Casey case, the SCOTUS while upholding Roe vs Wade, reformulated it to allow states to persuade a woman to carry a pregnancy to term. The American family drama series This Is Us in season five shines a light on the growing restrictions surrounding abortions. Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) as an 18-year-old in late-1990s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania opts for an abortion. At the clinic, she is asked very specific, pointed questions about her decision and is then required to come back another day for the actual abortion, subtly depicting the ordeal of getting an abortion.

While these shows and movies serve as reminders, other titles like The Handmaid’s Tale challenge us to imagine a society that is built on controlling the womb.

While fictional shows and movies have attempted to intentionally or otherwise reflect the social and cultural consensus surrounding abortions during their time, documentaries like Reversing Roe while giving a historical context, play the role of support groups. When an older feminist like Gloria Steinem shares her experience of getting an illegal abortion from a doctor in England (to whom she later dedicated her book My Life on the Road), on-screen, it de-stigmatises abortions.

The restrictions started to grow from the 1992 ruling. After making their way to the White House in 2001, conservatives soon passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, 2003 (PBA Ban). Movies succeeding this which had an abortion in their plot like Knocked Up and Juno took a rather conservative editorial stance with Knocked Up replacing the word “abortion” with “the A word” in its dialogue.

Reversing Roe, while documenting the events preceding the passing of the PBA Ban notes that public support was garnered in support of the bill by using gruesome imagery to depict abortions. Movies in the past are also guilty of using the genre of body horror to colour the minds of the audience concerning the subject of abortions.

While restrictions continued even throughout the 2010s with about 300 abortion restrictions being passed in the U.S. between 2010 and 2018, movies became more vocal, with a pro-choice President in office in the early 2010s who openly voiced his support to organisations like Planned Parenthood. Advances in medicine and medical procedures surrounding abortions also meant a change in the way they were portrayed. Directors and writers also started to use humour to navigate the questions surrounding the subject in cases like Obvious Child, Unpregnant, and Grandma.

Thankfully, abortion in recent shows and movies does not form the crux of a woman’s character, it just works like any other event in her life. Shows like Euphoria and Sex Education show the phenomenon just like another life experience; the characters do not weigh the burden of abortion on their shoulders and their story, like in real life, goes on.

A still from ‘Sex Education’

A still from ‘Sex Education’ | Photo Credit: Netflix

Representation in Indian cinema

Indian cinema on the other hand seems to have maintained a consensus that abortion is morally wrong.

Women who decide to carry their pregnancy to term despite material and medical challenges are hailed — at the cost of their misery. In the 2004 romance thriller Aitraaz, Sonia (Priyanka Chopra) who opts for an abortion because she believes having a child will hinder her path to power and wealth is tainted and portrayed in a negative light. Movies like Raahi and Mimi brush aside the option of abortion quickly by ushering in a feeling of piety for the foetus. However, Malayalam cinema seems to be initiating a progressive conversation with the recent Anna Ben-starrer Sara’s paving the way.

A still from the Malayalam film ‘Sara’s’

A still from the Malayalam film ‘Sara’s’

However, women in cinema continue to churn out stories that open our eyes to the fragile rights that govern women’s bodies, with the latest being the 2021 Golden Lion winner, French drama thriller Happening. Their impact on society cannot be underestimated, and are the need of the hour, for silence in cases like these equals complicity.

Reversing Roe, an Emmy-nominated documentary which traces the history of abortion rights.
The imagery used to depict abortions, the values associated with the act and the interpretation of movies which talk about abortion fluctuated depending on the socio-political context they were produced in.
Abortions in recent shows and movies does not form the crux of a woman’s character, it just works like any other event in her life. Shows like Euphoria and Sex Education show the phenomenon just like another life experience.

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