Updated: Mar 9, 2022
A topic that has long fascinated me is motherhood. What does it mean to be a mother? Does having a child automatically make you a mother? Can you become one by other means? On a more clinical level, I am intrigued by pregnancy. Widely regarded as the most remarkable capability of the human body, pregnancy (planned and unplanned) has been widely documented in popular media. Bearing witness to the physical changes, coming to terms with the idea that another human is growing inside of you, and forwarding the natural circle of life. These are all wonderful concepts that should be depicted and explored.
A Happy Event (2011) dir. Rémi Bezançon
I am grateful, however, that society has moved beyond the trope of sanctifying the pregnant woman. The expansion of women's rights and popularization of women-made art allows for the truth of the matter to be shared from a plethora of different perspectives. There are still boundaries that have yet to be crossed, but the increasing quantity of films depicting women who wish to make the choice not to birth their child rings truer to the reality of women around the globe. Within this essay, I will explore three different categories of pregnancy decisions: abortion, the giving up of a baby to another, and raising the child.
One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977), dir. Agnès Varda
There is, of course, nuance to the broad realms of reproductive autonomy, and I will do my best to make light of those nuances within the films with topics including but not limited to surrogacy, sexual violence, and adoption. Even though I watched many movies in preparation for digging into this topic, due to time constraints and streaming availability, I was not able to see them all. As the reader will no doubt observe, most of the films deal with cisgender white women from the U.S. and western Europe, which is a trend within the industry representation of pregnancy rather than an active decision on my part. I tried to find a mix of light and heavy films that deal with these issues, and to focus on movies that present the pregnant woman as the protagonist or a major character in the story. Female writers were also prioritized.
With all those disclaimers aside, I will now proceed with discussing the first, and no doubt the most sensitive of the topics.
Abortion movies have become a lot more common in the past ten or so years. Once a taboo subject reserved for off-screen discussion, there is now a hearty catalog of abortion-based films, with tones ranging from situationally harrowing to pleasantly normalizing. Although the first depiction of abortion on screen can actually be traced back to the 1916 film Where Are My Children? (directed by female pioneer Lois Weber), the introduction of the Hays Code largely limited how the topic was presented for several decades. For more information about the history of abortion in film, this Time article by Suyin Haynes does a much better job than I ever could. Instead, I’m electing to compare and contrast how the concept of abortion is presented in cinema.
The oldest movie in my series, Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) depicts two women brought together by a quest for abortion, but not in the way that one might think. 17-year-old Pauline crosses paths with an old neighbor, Suzanne, who is just a few years her senior. However, Suzanne was kicked out of her home after becoming pregnant as a teenager. She is now the mistress of a poor photographer with whom she is raising two children and expecting a third. Suzanne, with no skills and no prospects, is utterly miserable. Quick-thinking and decently well-off Pauline arranges money for Suzanne to seek out an abortion. The two eventually part ways, but promise to keep in touch. The film follows their friendship over the span of two decades.
Agnès Varda’s timeless film emphasizes the collectivity of motherhood: the universality of the female experience, regardless of circumstances. Pauline, later known as Pomme, eventually seeks out an abortion of her own across borders with much less difficulty.
The two women bond over their desires to exercise control over their own lives. Suzanne loves her two children and she makes quite a few sacrifices to keep them all together, but at the time of her third pregnancy, she was unable to handle the implications of another mouth to feed. Pomme, on the other hand, is a free spirit, unwilling to settle down. Her relationship with abortion is an easy one: she believes all women should be able to make the choice of whether they birth a child for themselves. She actually ends up meeting her future partner at the abortion clinic in Amsterdam.
From 2015 to 2019, there was an estimated 73 million abortions per year worldwide according to the Guttmacher Institute. Varda’s film is an attempt to normalize, unite, and articulate the beauty of women who terminate their pregnancies and still end up living good, full lives. The film makes light of the miracle of birth in many ways as well, which will be discussed in the third section of the series. However, its pragmatic insistence of the necessity of the procedure’s availability suggests a kaleidoscopic, cyclical longevity to its themes of womanhood, and should be regarded as a landmark in the genre.
Happening (2021) dir. Audrey Diwan
Another French film dealing with abortion during its period of illegality is L’événement (Happening), the 2021 winner of the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion. A visceral look at the pressures undergone by the female body, Happening is by no means an easy watch. High school student Anne (Anamaria Vartolomoi) is barely able to discuss her unplanned pregnancy with her friends, let alone her doctor.
Director Audrey Diwan approaches the subject with an unrelentingly clinical eye. Organized in chapters with respect to the number of weeks of pregnancy, the focus on the female body and its many contradictions is prevalent. Anne is taken advantage of when she is vulnerable about her condition, and the academic pressures bear an additional weight on her conscience. She doesn’t feel shame about her sexual encounter, but she does realize how societal interpretations of her change once she doesn’t appease the desired virginal status.
Anne only feels safe in total solitude, and even then, she is mind-bogglingly miserable. If she were to have the baby, she would risk both societal scorn and throwing her education away. If she manages to arrange an abortion, she still might be arrested. The intensity in Anne’s eyes as she attempts home remedies is resolute; she must operate in total secrecy. Her fatigue in searching for an answer to her problems contributes to her embracing promiscuity. It’s clearly what men want from her, and she can derive pleasure from it too. Besides, she can’t become pregnant twice over. In contrast to One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, Happening sees its protagonist as completely and totally alone. Even after her friend opens up to her about her own lengthier sexual experiences, Anne’s pregnancy as a result of her fling is simply deemed “unlucky.”
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) dir. Cristian Mungiu
Happening’s tone is similar to Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), in that peers prove just as dangerous as the police. In Mingiu’s film, Romanian students Otilia and Gabita arrange to meet with a black market abortionist. Seemingly occurring in real-time, the time crunch for Otilia and Gabita to find someone to perform the operation is truly a last resort. It is made all the more draining by the fact that the protagonist is not the one who’s pregnant; Otilia is the friend who was willing to lend a hand.
Otilia’s relationship with Gabita is one of both empathy and resentment. She is risking a great deal to help out her friend, but she is also doing most of the heavy lifting. Gabita’s misestimate of how many weeks pregnant she is only adds fuel to their stress fire, but most startling yet is the request of the abortionist upon learning about the wrong information, who only agrees to perform the procedure if he receives sexual favors in return.
In Mingiu’s world, men are either manipulative or oblivious. Either way, they hold all the power. Otilia and Gabita’s experiences are no doubt traumatizing. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days reinforces the patriarchal notions that uphold some anti-choice rhetoric. It is more a matter of control than legitimate concern for a baby’s well-being.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) dir. Eliza Hittman
Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) is a different interpretation of the “two women against the world” story arc. Whereas 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days centers around the illicitness of the ordeal, Never Rarely Sometimes Always breaks down the geographical and financial barriers of young rural women seeking out the procedure. Skylar and Autumn are able to book an appointment with a lawful women’s clinic in New York, but it’s a matter of finding the money to get there (stealing from their job), in good time (one weekend), without alerting their parents (apparent deadbeats).
In the other films, it is largely assumed that the sexual encounters of the other women were consensual but with contraceptive error. Hittman, on the other hand, hints that Autumn’s may have resulted from abuse from someone close to her. Learning that her relationship was non-consensual adds a greater layer of complexity to her secrecy. How would she be treated if she told her family? Hittman also makes an effort to depict the rural Pennsylvanian clinics near Autumn which carry their own anti-abortion agendas. Without the money or resources to find an alternative, she would essentially be forced to have a baby that was conceived out of coercion.
Never Rarely continues the theme of societal isolation from both Happening and 4 Months, with particular stress on the constraints enforced by the patriarchy. Unfortunately, once Autumn and Skylar run out of money, they are dependent on a 20-something guy named Jasper that they met on the bus to give them a loan to make their journey home. He is only willing to help them with their undisclosed travel plans under the guise that Skylar is attracted to him, which Skylar allows for the sake of necessity. Autumn is really only in safe hands when she is at the clinic, adding a dose of tragedy to the cousins’ eventual return home in realizing that they will be questioned and harassed for stealing the money in the first place. There is also no guarantee that Autumn won’t continue to endure abuse.
Citizen Ruth (1996) dir. Alexander Payne
Further down the route of poverty impacting bodily autonomy is Alexander Payne’s extremely underrated Citizen Ruth, a satire about a drug addict Ruth (Laura Dern) who is pregnant with her fourth child. After she is caught huffing paint thinner for the umpteenth time, the court rules that continuing down her path would result in fetal endangerment and additional jail time. She is thus thrown into a tug-of-war between pro-life and pro-choice advocates who politicize the matter to the point of Ruth becoming a cultural symbol. The movie is a big farce about how agendas corrupt honest attempts to help someone in a tough situation. Payne shows a slight preference for the pro-choice people as having more open-minded rhetoric, but as an organization that also needs money to survive, they can just as easily be reduced to their margins of popularity.
Who knows what would be best for Ruth in the long run, seeing as how she’s unemployed and unsuccessfully rehabilitated from her addiction several times over. Her character clearly experiences lingering disorienting side effects from all of the hazardous substances she’s inhaled; basic human decency says that she should be able to choose the answer for herself, but her condition also implies that she is corrupted by the desire of feeding her addiction. Wouldn’t it be just as cruel to prevent someone from having a baby as it would be to force them to have a baby? Her last three kids have been legally removed from her supervision after she was declared an unfit mother. Payne has no clear answers beyond the initial provocation of the political advocates; Ruth is simply one story in a mess of millions.
Unpregnant (2020) dir. Rachel Lee Goldenberg
A lighter analysis of the wonkiness of state-to-state abortion regulations featured in Never Rarely is Unpregnant, Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s 2020 road trip abortion buddy comedy. Even though the movie focuses more on the friendship dynamic of protagonists (Veronica and Bailey) than the abortion itself, the movie relates to Citizen Ruth’s clash of religious principles and sense of corporal control. From Veronica’s home’s papal shrine and scattered Christian paraphernalia, it’s easy to understand how her mother’s catholicism might play into Veronica’s perceived contact limitations. Veronica is the projected valedictorian and a savvy problem-solver, so she is convinced that she can take care of the matter herself.
Her boyfriend is nice enough, in theory, and he’s willing to marry her and help her raise the kid. But she doesn’t want to be entrapped by a four-wheeler enthusiast with stalker tendencies at age 17 due to a condom mishap. Her doubt about his potential as a partner is confirmed when she discovers that he knew about the hole in the latex and then proceeded not to tell her. With the knowledge that her boyfriend did not really prioritize her well-being in their relationship, she is able to pawn his proposal ring without reservation.
Veronica has a perfectly logical solution to the problem, and she just needs everything to go to plan. The problem is getting from Missouri to New Mexico in one weekend when she doesn’t have a car. It’s a story of inconveniences. Veronica is a very capable person, and she’s willing to dump all her money into fixing the issue. But the fact that she has to travel over four states just to get the procedure done is the main burden; that, and the fact that religious folk along the way attempt to tell her that she’s making a mistake.
By the time she completes the abortion and is left entirely destitute, she finally decides to tell her mother. What’s done is done. Her mother helps her get home and tells her that it’s not the choice she would’ve made, but she understands why she did it. Just like Happening’s Anne, Unpregnant’s Veronica is a person whose future relies on pursuing a proper education and getting out of her nosy town. Being able to choose whether she bears a child at that point in her life should be an automatic right.
Premature (2019) dir. Rashaad Ernesto Green
Abortion has proven to be a compelling subject for fleshing out romantic dynamics. In 2019 indie Premature, 17-year-old Ayanna begins a relationship with an older man and becomes pregnant. Already in a tumultuous period of her life in the summer between high school and college, she opts not to tell her lover about her plan to take care of it. When one of her friends spills her secret to Isaiah after the fact, he becomes frustrated that he was not part of the decision.
The conflict in Premature is not necessarily the abortion; Ayanna’s best friend tells her neighbor that she needs to stop having kids that she can’t take care of, and that her other friend described the procedure as being like “popping out a tic-tac.” Abortion isn’t a secretive topic. Rather, the conflict is about whether the other responsible party should be factored into the decision, particularly when the romance is more than just a brief fling. Ayanna doesn’t want to tell her mom, but mostly because she doesn’t want to prove that her skepticism about Ayanna’s entanglement was valid. Ayanna ends up going through with the abortion. The most important thing is that her actions are entirely hers. By relying on her gut instinct, she demonstrates self-sufficiency, bodily autonomy, and genuine character growth.
Obvious Child (2014) dir. Gillian Robespierre
Likewise, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child (2014) features what seems to be the most classical take on terminating a pregnancy (if that can even be said). I would attribute the film with initiating the everyday, non-melodramatic treatment of the subject a mere 10 years ago. Just as Greta Gerwig destigmatized menstruation for her male company at the dinner table in 20th Century Women, Robespierre breaks down the odds and ends of pursuing an abortion.
Jenny Slate plays Donna, a woman who becomes pregnant after having a one-night stand with nice guy Max. She’s fairly confident she wants to have an abortion because of the stage she’s at in her life; her mother, too, had an abortion prior to birthing Donna. But there are still some expressions of doubt. Abortion may be a straightforward answer to unplanned pregnancy, but there is still weight to the decision. Donna is most conflicted by Max articulating, offhand, that he wants to be a grandfather. Does that mean he would want her to keep the baby? She philanders a bit, channeling her confusion into her stand-up comedy, before deciding to go through with the procedure.
Robespierre approaches the topic with utmost sincerity. Even though Donna sees herself as unprepared to raise a child, she is compromised by the notion that the biological father of the child would want to see the baby be born. She doesn’t have to tell him, but she might feel guilty if she didn’t. At the end of the day, she is the one who has to carry and birth the baby, and she is simply not ready for that. Max, upon finding out about the pregnancy, is at first inscrutable before concurring that he is equally not ready.
The most admirable aspect of Robespierre’s approach is how abortion isn’t presented as some big thing; it’s not necessarily a social justice issue. Like in any perfect world, Donna has access to the procedure and is able to discuss it with her loved ones. It really comes down to her own introspection: determining whether she wants to birth a child at this point in time. She entertains all the possibilities before choosing what’s right for her, sans residual doubt. It is wildly refreshing, and one of the best entries in the silver-screen representation of abortion to date.
"Women's History Month 2022 Pregnancy Series: Abortion" is part of a 3-part series on pregnancy in film in honor of Women's History Month. The next two articles, which discuss giving the baby away and making the decision to raise a child, will be released in the following days.