States across the country are working to restrict access to abortion and, critics say, drive it underground, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. But, in movies and TV shows, depictions of abortion have become less negative and more realistic in recent years.
Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist who compiled a database of movies with abortion storylines, traces this history back to the 1916 silent film Where Are My Children?, about a woman who has been rendered infertile after having multiple abortions. Starting around the 1930s, films had to adhere to a set of requirements for onscreen conduct called the Hays Code, and abortions had to be depicted as the wrong decision.
Primarily from the late 1960s onward, once those film industry requirements became defunct, movies went on to depict the various understandable reasons why women would want to have an abortion and to make the process seem doable and not pitiable. Sisson especially credits showrunner Shonda Rhimes with doing a standout job on this front in her shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Bridgerton.
The 2019 film Saint Frances is one example of a movie that sought to provide a realistic look at what it’s like to have an abortion by taking a medication versus undergoing a surgical procedure. It’s based on the writer Kelly O’Sullivan’s experience getting an abortion in her early 30s.
“I think there are probably still a lot of people out there who don’t know exactly what an abortion might entail,” Sullivan says. By featuring a character who gets an abortion by popping a pill, she wanted to make the movie so that “people who might want to seek abortions in the future don’t feel scared.”
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