A Brief (Almost Silent) History of Abortion in the Movies

High Fidelity

“The subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned. It must never be treated lightly, or made the subject of comedy. Abortion shall never be shown explicitly or by inference, and a story must not indicate that an abortion has been performed, the word “abortion” shall not be used.”

No, that’s not an excerpt from Texas State Senate Bill 1. That’s a December 1956 amendment to the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC), the Hollywood studio system’s internal playbook for strictly regulating content until 1966. The amendment was a clarification of, and addition to, a prior amendment from March 1951 which was a bit more direct and concise in its stance about representing abortion in the movies: “Abortion, sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not proper subjects for theatrical motion pictures.” I find this older quote more interesting, for it not only tells us about what moral gatekeepers thought of the subject of abortion, but also betrays the MPPC’s perspective of the limited utility of movies as a whole: as both a means for light escapism and affirmative moral pedagogy, but not a forum for discussing serious (or, rather actual) issues and situations.

The history of abortion in American movies is, not surprisingly, largely a history of absence. But what is perhaps a bit surprising is how little American movies have referenced abortion since the quoted amendments descended into obsolescence. This despite the fact that the ratings system, New Hollywood, and the pro-choice movement all converged rather contemporaneously. And when abortion has been referenced, it’s often quickly dismissed or vilified.

Of course, a knee-jerk answer to any question of abortion’s conspicuous absence in American movies might remain along the lines of the MPPC’s own line of thinking: “nobody wants to see abortion at the movies.” But such an “answer” just generates a whole lot more questions. After all, “sex hygiene” and “venereal disease” have long been the stuff of network sitcoms, and abortion still remains relatively invisible.

To an extent, unlike some other hot-button political topics, the issue of abortion doesn’t need mass-distributed visual iconography available via motion pictures to be on the tips of people’s tongues. The legislative fight to make safe abortion a constitutional right, culminating in the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision 40 years ago, employed grisly images of illegal abortions gone awry in order to make the case for medically sound, legally protected, publicly regulated procedures. The pro-birth movement seemed to borrow this tactic, utilizing images of aborted fetuses as a recurring logo. And the religious right isn’t short on its own filmography of the subject: watching The Silent Scream has been credited as a rite of passage for members of this movement, signifying the culmination of abortion as the religious right’s central motivating issue since the rise of the “moral majority.”

More recently with the Wendy Davis filibuster, the pro-choice movement exhibited a more immediate, particularly 21st century embrace of the moving image as medium for social change, using streaming media outlets to live-feed the defeat of SB5 and render old media obsolete in the process.

But what of mainstream narrative cinema, of movies that aren’t used to overtly propagate a position or preach to the converted on a signature issue?

Where Are My Children?, 1916

A history of representing abortion in American cinema likely begins with Where Are My Children?, a 1916 silent that follows a district attorney pursuing a doctor performing illegal abortions who finds out that many citizens of the town, including his own wife, have utilized the doctor’s services. While the film, in placing the doctor as its moral center, openly condemns and vilifies the town’s women for getting the procedure, Where Are My Children? also outlines the socioeconomic circumstances in which abortions typically occur.

A resolute anti-abortion project, the film also (like many films at the time) promotes birth control (showing some first-wave feminism consciousness; it’s probably worth mentioning here that the film was co-directed by Lois Weber) as a means to avoid abortion. In short, it exercises an ideological position particular to the early 20th century that is largely unrecognizable today.

Where Are My Children? was set to be remade in 1936, but this was cancelled when the MPPC reacted negatively to MGM’s 1934 Clark Cable/Myrna Loy film Men in White, in which an important illegal-abortion-related plot point from the source material was reduced to a more ambiguous circumstance regarding Loy’s character’s reaction to an unwanted pregnancy. As was typical for the practices of the MPPC, the abortion subplot is pretty clear to discerning viewers, and this informed the moralizing consequences that the Loy character endures. According to an unofficial website devoted to the MPPC, “The movie, though no one on the Production Code Administration admits this in any correspondence, catered to the Administration’s moral precepts by having Barbara die following the operation, a death that may be interpreted as divine retribution for her sexual transgressions.” Where the play that the film was based upon finds Loy’s character moving onto a happy life, the conservative standards of the MPPC saw abortion as a transgression that the lead character must suffer for.

Men in White, 1934

But these films, made twenty years apart, each attended by notable controversy, evidence filmmakers’ interest in addressing the issue of illegal abortions in a multitude of ways despite institutional or social bulwarks.

For the following few decades, the issue of abortion remained virtually absent in American studio filmmaking, and it seems that the notion that such a subject was not fit for screen became largely internalized by filmmakers and suits alike. Besides Street Corner, a 1948 exploitation film posing as an educational film, and I Am a Camera, an English import based on the Christopher Isherwood novel and the John Van Druten play, abortion, as evidenced by American movie screens, was a word and an issue that did not exist.

Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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