A Movie Breaks the Abortion Taboo

In the new Ben Stiller movie, a character decides to have—and actually goes through with—an abortion. Stephen Farber on the ripples it's causing.

Wilson Webb / Focus Features

Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller as a 40-year-old malcontent, has received many enthusiastic reviews praising its acute characterizations and evocative rendition of Southern California anomie. But almost no one has called attention to one of the most startling things about the movie: its matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental depiction of abortion. (You should stop reading here if you do not want parts of Greenberg to be spoiled.) In the film, Greta Gerwig plays a twentysomething personal assistant who begins a desultory romance with Stiller’s Greenberg. When she learns that she is pregnant as a result of a relationship that ended more than a month earlier, she decides to go to the hospital for an abortion, and she returns home without experiencing much pain or guilt.

“What movies are saying now,” says Eleanor Bergstein, Dirty Dancing’s screenwriter, “is that if you are of fine moral fiber, you make the opposite decision and decide to have the baby.

Greenberg hasn’t yet provoked much controversy—partly because the abortion is downplayed in the movie. Gerwig’s Florence tells Greenberg that she is going to the hospital for “a D and C” (the word “abortion” is never used), but it’s perfectly clear that she is terminating the pregnancy. In addition, the film hasn’t stirred an outcry because it’s so far showing only in major cities where critics may be more blasé (or more out-of-touch) than moviegoers in the heartland.

This plot twist is pretty revolutionary for a Hollywood film in 2010. When did you last see an American movie that portrayed a woman opting to have an abortion? Thirty-seven years after the Supreme Court declared abortion legal in Roe v. Wade, the subject is more polarizing than ever, as the rancorous Congressional debate over health care demonstrated. In this contentious atmosphere, Hollywood has chosen to play it safe and keep abortion invisible.

In recent films and TV shows about unplanned pregnancy, the heroine almost invariably decides to have the baby. In a much-debated episode of the racy HBO series, Sex and the City, a pregnant Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) decided against abortion at the very last minute—the same second thoughts have occurred on shows such as Dawson’s Creek and Beverly Hills, 90210. In Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, an ambitious career woman with a demanding job gets pregnant as a result of a drunken one-night stand. Amazingly, she never considers an abortion. Juno focuses on a high school girl who does visit an abortion clinic before deciding to have the baby and give it up for adoption. It might be argued that in these cases, there would have been no story if the characters had had abortions in the first or second reel, yet the films ended up making an implicit political statement that dismayed pro-choice activists as well as other filmmakers.

Screenwriter Erin Dignam, whose recent film The Yellow Handkerchief features abortion as a plot point, says, “The writing and directing in Juno were very good. But how did they end up making that statement? In 99 percent of cases of 16-year-old girls who get pregnant today, that wouldn’t be the result. People have very deep, unresolved feelings about abortion, and that may be why they’re afraid to show it.”

Abortion is treated more forthrightly in acclaimed European films like Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, which earned several Oscar nominations in 2004, or the Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007. But abortion has disappeared from American movies over the last two decades.

This silence is not new. The Production Code that censored movies from the 1930s to the 1960s forbade any mention of abortion. During the freewheeling ‘70s, the subject finally came out of the shadows in a number of movies and TV shows, including the much-publicized Maude episode, broadcast on CBS in November 1972 (abortion was legal in New York state before the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade), in which Bea Arthur’s Maude decides to have an abortion after learning of an unexpected pregnancy. While some local stations refused to broadcast the episode and some viewers registered angry protests, the show was watched by tens of millions of Americans. On the silver screen, Cabaret, The Godfather Part II, and Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop Greenwich Village also focused on women who choose to have abortions.

Greenwich Village was set in the 1950s, and Mazursky says, “I wanted to say something about those scary times, when people were getting abortions in kitchens. You would think we would be more sophisticated today, and it’s true that movies are more lewd, but in other ways they’re much more cautious. I didn’t believe the character’s decision in Knocked Up to go ahead with the pregnancy.”

In the ‘80s abortion still figured in some prominent American films. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jennifer Jason Leigh (now married to Noah Baumbach and a co-star as well as a writer of Greenberg) played a high school girl who has an abortion. The whole scene is handled so casually that viewers seeing the film for the first time today would be amazed by the character’s nonchalance.

One of the biggest sleeper hits of the decade was Dirty Dancing. When Eleanor Bergstein wrote the script in 1987, she recalls, “We thought Roe v. Wade was going to be overturned,” and that was one reason she wanted to include a subplot about abortion. The film is set in 1963, when abortion was illegal, and Patrick Swayze’s dance partner, played by Cynthia Rhodes, seeks his help in finding an abortionist. The operation is bungled, but a doctor played by Jerry Orbach intercedes to save her life. When Vestron, the now-defunct studio releasing the picture, saw the final version, they urged Bergstein and director Emile Ardolino to edit out all references to the abortion. “I explained that it was integral to the plot,” Bergstein says, “and if we cut that out, the rest of the story would collapse. So we kept it in. The Catholic Church did denounce the movie, which I’m sure led more young Catholic girls to see it.”

Contemporary movies like Knocked Up and Juno are serving up a different message. “What movies are saying now,” Bergstein comments, “is that if you are of fine moral fiber, you make the opposite decision and decide to have the baby. And everything turns out beautifully. The girls never end up in a shelter, as girls in real life often do.”

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However you feel about the subject, the invisibility of abortion on mainstream movie screens during the last 20 years has almost certainly had an impact on public attitudes. Last year, for the first time since 1995, a majority of Americans described themselves in a Gallup poll as “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice.”

Given this shift in attitude, some artists clearly feel more motivated to address the subject. Dignam was determined to examine abortion in The Yellow Handkerchief, an independent production that stars William Hurt, Maria Bello, and Kristen Stewart. The story begins as Hurt is released from prison, hoping to reconcile with his ex-wife, played by Bello. Flashbacks reveal the reasons for the estrangement between them. At one point she tells him that she had an abortion before they met, which may make it difficult for her to have children. Hurt becomes enraged, and his anger leads him to commit a violent act that lands him in prison. With the passage of time he decides to ask her forgiveness for his behavior. Interestingly, she never apologizes for having the abortion.

Dignam reports that during the years she worked on the screenplay, there were people who urged her to change this plot point and have the couple fight over something besides abortion. But eventually the movie was produced by two Europeans, Arthur Cohn and Lillian Birnbaum, and financed entirely with European money. “It was a source of great conflict,” Dignam says. “But the producers backed me. I’m sure the fact that they are European helped.”

The filmmakers of Greenberg—Baumbach and Leigh—were unavailable for comment, ironically because they had their first baby just days before the movie opened. But they must have been aware that the movie was going against the grain of other popular films. Leigh’s involvement in Fast Times at Ridgemont High early in her career may have been on her mind when she helped her husband to imagine the character of Florence, a similarly adrift young woman who decides that abortion is the best option for dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. It’s encouraging that in cautious times, a few filmmakers are again willing to confront this highly charged theme and take the flak that comes their way.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Stephen Farber is a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter. He has written reviews and articles on film for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Movieline, Esquire, New York, New West, and many other publications. Farber has written four books on film: The Movie Rating Game; Hollywood Dynasties; Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case; and Hollywood on the Couch.