“Today, the Supreme Court of the United States expressly took away a constitutional right from the American people that it had already recognized,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement after a legal decision on June 24th, 2022, which will remain infamous. “It’s a sad day for the court and for the country.” He is referring, of course, to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, a Supreme Court decision from 1973 which ensured federal protections for abortion throughout the country.
Overturning Roe v. Wade immediately led to numerous states initiating ‘trigger laws,’ previous legislation which determined that, if Roe v. Wade was ever overturned, the states could immediately ban and illegalize abortion. At the moment, more than half of the country will completely ban abortions, and a woman’s right to choose is under threat elsewhere. It seems that five people (five Justices in the Supreme Court, three of whom were appointed by the Trump administration) have determined the fates of hundreds of millions of people for generations. Does that seem normal?
Abortion is one of the most difficult subjects to ever find a compromise or agreement with. If one is pro-life, they likely believe that abortion is literal murder; to them, people supporting a woman’s right to choose are actual murderers. If one is pro-choice, they believe that the government (consisting, mainly, of old men) are dictating what a woman gets to do with her body, and condemning people to a parenthood they do not want. It’s nearly impossible to bridge the gap between these positions, with the abstract question of “when life begins” and how one defines “life” being nebulous enough that it’s difficult to ever find a hard point of concurrence.
Fortunately, there have been several wonderful films (especially in recent years) which have detailed the struggles involved in abortion rights and legislation. Art has the power to create empathy by pushing a process of identification onto the viewer, and is capable of changing hearts and minds through entertainment. These films have explored the abortion issue with tenderness, humanity, and thoughtfulness, and should be watched by both people who support Roe and those who support Wade. The future of civil rights in America is uncertain, but these films beautifully detail how people can be more important than politics, and how a woman’s body is more than a canvas on which legislation can be spewed.
Lily Tomlin is delightful in the rambling movie Grandma about a young woman (a great Julia Garner in an early role) seeking out her queer grandmother (a hilarious Lily Tomlin) for some help with an abortion. The two travel around, exploring parts of each other’s lives and getting to know each other better along the way. Paul Weitz continued his odd and wonderful career evolution as a director here, going from the sex comedy American Pie toward more mature films like About a Boy and Being Flynnbut Grandma remains arguably his best film and an insightful opportunity to look at women and generational differences.
The recent film Cherry follows the titular 20-something roustabout (played impeccably by Alex Trewhitt) as she roller-skates around Los Angeles for 24 hours, considering whether she should have a child or get an abortion with her unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. The film shows, through endearing characters and warm humor, that some people aren’t ready to be a parent, and that it would be a detriment to them (and to society) if they were forced to be.
A viciously dark satire, Citizen Ruth follows Laura Dern (in one of her finest performances) as a selfish opportunist and drug user who is a hateful mess of a human being. When facing imprisonment, she is offered a reduced sentence if she goes through with an abortion (because bringing her child into the world really wouldn’t be good for anybody). Ruth gets bailed out by extremist evangelicals and is lauded as a martyr and hero of the pro-life movement, despite being the antithesis of anything ‘moral’ or ‘Christian.’ It’s a hilarious but depressing masterpiece from Alexander Payne, who brought a similar acidity to politics with his satirical Election.
Mike Leigh is famous for making films about fascinating, complicated women, and Vera Drake is no different, though it does stand out. Imelda Staunton is absolutely phenomenal as the titular character, a 1950s Londonite who performs abortions and helps women in secret. The film is a poignant, tragic, and eye-opening exploration of a society in which abortion is illegal and women and doctors who are targeted, abused, and imprisoned as a result.
There is something about humor which deflates difficult topics, and it seems like many films that tackle abortion utilize comedy as a way to ease tension. Unpregnant is certainly no different as a very funny road trip movie and buddy comedy following two teenagers (played by Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira in endearing performances) who embark on a cross-state quest to terminate a pregnancy.
With more than half of America banning abortion now, thanks to literally five individuals in the Supreme Court, dozens of thousands of young women (including victims of rape and incest) will have to find the time off work or school, the transportation, and the finances to travel hundreds upon hundreds (and potentially thousands) of miles in order to get a safe and legal abortion in a state which allows it. Unpregnant may be very funny, but it presents a very real situation.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hitman’s masterpiece Never Rarely Sometimes Always uses her same aesthetic (uncomfortable close-ups and long, naturalistic takes) to detail the struggles of a 17-year-old girl to get a legal abortion. Masterful at its depiction of the bureaucratic process and the endless hoops people have to go through thanks to male legislators who want women to see multiple doctors, pay exorbitant fines, read unnecessary pamphlets, and experience all sorts of trauma in hopes that they’ll change their minds.
The protagonist of this film does not change her mind though. She takes control of her body. However, she is not exactly happy about it; abortion is not something that most people are ‘happy’ about. By the end of the film, the viewer is encouraged to care about and empathize with the pains of women pursuing an abortion, and see the human behind the ideology.
The Surrogate is an extremely tough movie that raises difficult ethical questions. The film follows a surrogate raising a child for a gay couple. When they find out that the child will have Down syndrome, the couple who arranged and are paying for the pregnancy want to terminate it, but the actual surrogate has other plans. As such, the film explores heavy topics like eugenics, disability, abortion, and motherhood, and is one of the most morally thought-provoking films of recent years.
Jenny Slate made a triumphant comeback after being stupidly fired from SNL for profanity with Obvious Child, a very funny but very careful film from Gillian Robespierre, who is very slowly becoming one of the best comedy directors working today. Slate and an endlessly charming Jake Lacy portray a hook-up couple who did not expect a pregnancy to result from their time together. A very welcome antithesis to Knocked Upthe film sticks to its guns and refuses to moralize or judge any of its characters, approaching abortion as the personal choice it is.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
One of the most important films from the Romanian New Wave, the Palme d’Or-winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days may be the most important film about abortion to date. That’s because it isn’t inherently partisan, and does not utilize a political ideology to drive its narrative, but instead explores what actual abortion and anti-abortion laws do to women.
The film is, above all, humanistic and compassionate, caring about people over politics. This is attested to by the fact that even Christianity Today gave it a perfect review, with Peter Chattaway writing, “The abortion itself is handled in a way that could be seen to support both sides of the abortion debate.” Meanwhile, the feminist magazine Herizons considered it to be a horror film in the way it depicted the treatment of women in a society where abortion is illegal.
The fact that a film can be a masterpiece on both sides of the aisle is remarkable. Of course, in the months and years following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, a call for more aggressive films in support of a woman’s right to choose is certainly understandable. Art, as it always should, must come to the aid of political urgency. However, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days remains special because of its ability to humanize the abortion debate and, hopefully, create a conversation beyond a shouting match, as improbably as it might seem.