Heartbreaking stories in film of women whose abortions were illegal
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has reversed its guarantee for women to get abortions legally, many are looking back at earlier times when it was impossible to end an unwanted pregnancy in a safe and legal way.
Several films and series have told the stories of women who found themselves in difficult situations while facing a ban on abortions. They help open our eyes to their painful realities.
Based on the novel from 1961 by Richard Yates, this film tells the story of an ambitious suburban couple (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) that has to abandon its plan to move to Paris when it expects a second child. Unable to accept her fate, the young wife decides to try and end the pregnancy herself.
In June 2022, HBO premiered its documentary about 'the Janes' of Chicago, a network of anonymous women who provided access to abortions before Roe v. Wade (1973) legalized them.
Many remember this movie as the love story between Baby (Jennifer Grey) and Johnny (Patrick Swayze), but it's actually a film about abortion in the 1960s U.S.
Left in the photo is Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), Johnny's dance partner who gets pregnant by a boyfriend unwilling to care for her or the child.
Baby, who's a rich customer of the resort that Penny and Johnny work at, lends Penny the money for an (illegal) abortion. She also takes her place in the dance competition that Penny has to miss. (This is usually the part that people remember).
And finally, when Penny's procedure goes horribly wrong, Baby calls in her father, a physician, to help Penny recover without having to go to a hospital and explain herself to the authorities.
In a Maine orphanage in 1943, women not only come to bring the babies they cannot care for, but some also ask the doctor running the home to help them with safe abortions. Michael Caine won an Oscar for his role as Dr. Larch, director of the Cider House.
When Joan, the administrative assistant of a 1960s advertising agency, becomes pregnant with a baby from her married boss, he tells her to get an abortion. Joan (Christina Hendricks) almost goes through with it, telling her doctor that she's had abortions before. But in the end, she decides to keep the baby.
A lot of things stayed the same when 'Alfie' was remade in 2004 with Jude Law. The movie is about a womanizer who cannot commit to a single relationship. However, in the 1966 version with Michael Caine, one of Alfie's conquests - the wife of his friend - gets pregnant. The secret abortion that follows makes Alfie reconsider his lifestyle.
In a series about midwives in the mid-20th century, the question of unwanted pregnancies is part of the storylines. In the UK, where the drama is set, abortions were illegal until 1967. In season 8, for example, the midwives save a woman from dying after she's gone through a failed, crude abortion.
This Romanian film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival of 2007. It is set in the authoritarian society in the 1980s when finding a person to perform an abortion could lead women to be deceived and abused without any legal support to rely on.
This is another European and prize-winning movie dealing with the delicate topic. 'Happening' won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice film festival, picturing the dramatic event of a young French woman's illegal abortion in the 1960s.
Imelda Staunton plays Vera Drake, the 1950s London housewife who provides working-class women with abortions, "helping young girls out when they can't manage." She's eventually exposed, arrested, and prosecuted for it.
Actress Susan Trustman is said to be the first young woman to have an illegal abortion (at least in the vaguest of descriptions) on American TV. The NBC soap opera describes how a teenage girl gets pregnant and undergoes an abortion with terrible consequences.
Clark Gable plays a doctor who falls in love with his nursing student (Barbara Dennin), gets her pregnant, and then has to try and save her life after a botched abortion. A very controversial story in those years - as much as it is today.
The protagonist of this film is based on Marie-Louise Giraud, the last woman who was guillotined in France in 1943 for having performed illegal abortions. Isabelle Huppert, who plays the housewife in question, won the award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival.
While the film contains three stories of different women across generations, the most relevant to this list is Claire (Demi Moore), a nurse in the 1950s. When she gets pregnant, she fears the shame of her family and searches for a way to end the pregnancy.
Two upper-class women in 18th-century France help one of their housemaids find a relatively safe way to end her unwanted pregnancy. In the process, they fall in love with each other.
In France in the 1960s, two young women become friends when one of them helps the other - an overwhelmed mother of two toddlers - to gather the money for a safe abortion in neighboring Switzerland.
This early critique of abortion legislation was co-directed by actress Lois Weber. It follows a district attorney charging a doctor with the death of a woman to whom he'd provided an abortion. What the protagonist doesn't know, is that his wife has been helping the physician for the sake of the women seeking abortions.