10 Movies To Remind Us All That Abortions Are Moral And Necessary

The landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade was overturned by a largely conservative United States Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, ending a 49-year Constitutional decree that people had a right to seek pregnancy abortions under the stipulation that stopping them would violate their right to privacy (as detailed in the U.S. Constitution's fourth amendment). While not entirely surprising — a draft of the decision was leaked to the public in early May — it remains disheartening and infuriating to witness the overturn play out, as many understand that abortions will indeed continue in the United States, just illegally and more dangerously. 

For years, filmmakers from all over the world have been regularly exploring the issue of abortion, looking hard and thoughtfully at an issue that is too often reduced to blithering proselytizing from politicians and pundits. Cinematic stories of abortion give the act a human face, showing audiences that there are people at the center of this debate. Many films about abortion focus on the difficulty to obtain one and the stubborn taboo attached to getting one. In these movies, said difficulty creates unnecessary pain for — and gruffly wrests agency from — those seeking them. 

Because abortion is a moral obligation, an important health issue, and a necessary procedure that requires free and easy access for all, /Film presents 10 films that explore those notions. Some are historical dramas, others are harrowing personal tales, and some are weirdly lighthearted road trip comedies.

Happening (2022)

Perhaps the timeliest of 2022's releases, Audrey Diwan's "Happening," based on an autobiography by Annie Ernaux, was released in American theaters on May 6, 2022, mere days after Justice Alito's Roe v. Wade draft opinion was leaked. As the country steeled itself for the inevitable overturning of Roe, it could watch the painful, humane story of Ernaux's experiences as she became pregnant as a university student in 1963. The pregnancy interrupted her studies, stymied her social life, cast a weird pall over her developing sexuality, and came to be a source of great shame. As abortions weren't legal or easy to come by, audiences see the extremes that young Anne went through to find the procedure, pushing "Happening" into bleak thriller territory. 

Told in a frank, quiet, near-realistic style, Diwan's film is sensitive and moving, providing a gut-punch of injustice along the way. 

"Happening" is available for rent.

Lake of Fire (2006)

Director Tony Kaye ("American History X") is not American, giving him a unique perspective on the virulent nature of the American abortion debate as it stood in the early 2000s. In his 152-minute documentary film, Kaye begins lightly probing protestors both for and against abortion, eventually finding — rather organically — the origin of the procedure's use as a political talking point. Many sociologists and journalists have detailed the rise of abortion as a "hot button" issue, finding a direct link to extremely conservative American Evangelical churches. In tracing the anti-choice protestors, Kaye time and again encounters small pockets of hateful, ultra-right-wing Christianity in rural areas. 

Kaye also follows several pro-abortion protestors, and even goes so far as to explore exactly how the procedure works and how difficult a decision it is for the women who choose to undergo it: It's not, he finds, a casual affair as the anti-choice people have declared it to be. Ultimately, he's found that the central argument against the procedure is that one should avoid the titular Lake of Fire, that is: Hell. "Lake of Fire" is a damning look at American culture, and how we too often hurt our own citizens for no good reason.

"Lake of Fire" is on Tubi.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

One of the best films of 2020, Eliza Hittman's "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" is an up-to-the-minute portrait of what abortion looks like in the United States. A 17-year-old girl named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) learns she is pregnant in suburban Pennsylvania, and seems to have limited options as to how to proceed with her life. A "crisis pregnancy center" (a non-profit Evangelical anti-abortion clinic) tries to convince her to keep her baby. She tries to induce a miscarriage and just hurts herself. Eventually, she enlists her cousin (Talia Ryder) to help. She steals some money and accompanies Autumn to New York City, the site of the closest abortion clinic who won't call her parents.

The two girls face sexism, harassment, and indignity every step of the way. The world is arranged to permit abuse toward young women, and the two protagonists attempt to traverse, with as much strength as they can muster, the emotional highs and lows of their determined quest, eventually finding solace — a final rejection of loneliness — in each other's company. It is a dangerous trip, but it's to the only place where either of them seem to encounter any understanding. 

"Neve Rarely Sometimes Always" is on Freevee.

Vera Drake (2004)

The most striking thing about Mike Leigh's 2004 film "Vera Drake" might be the quaint dowdiness of the 1950s neighborhoods where it takes place. The title character, played by Imelda Staunton, takes care of her family, quietly smiles, and seems to be pleased with her modest life. On the side, just to aid women in trouble, she performs illegal amateur abortions — safely, of course. "Safe as houses," she and others say of the procedure. The second most striking thing about "Vera Drake" is its casual, easy compassion. Vera is no radical, understanding that young women sometimes need help, and she happens to have the skills to provide it. 

"Vera Drake," like all abortion stories, is a story of class. About how the wealthy are afforded more options and less judgment when it comes to their bodily autonomy. And it's told with the eye of someone who knows: Those 1950s neighborhoods were Leigh's as a boy. 

"Vera Drake" is on Hoopla.

Dirty Dancing (1987)

More often remembered for its dancing, and the overwhelming charisma of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, it might be sometimes forgotten that Emile Ardolino's 1987 slumber party staple "Dirty Dancing" is an abortion story at its core. Set in 1963, prior to Roe, one of the characters (Cynthia Rhodes) seeks an abortion that goes hideously awry. There is talk of a rusty blade. Ultimately, it will be Grey's character's father (Jerry Orbach), a doctor, who will have to step in to help. The thing Orbach is angriest about is the lying. He naturally aids the Rhodes character, and doesn't seem to be at all taken aback by abortion existing. 

Abortion, "Dirty Dancing" seems to be pointing out, was once a sordid, secret thing that had to be done illegally and on the sly. Since the film was made in 1987, and it depicts abortion as being just something that happens from time to time — only stymied by old laws — it is inherently a pro-abortion film. Now that it's taken care of, we can dance our hearts out.

"Dirty Dancing" is available on Fubo, Sling, and several other streaming services. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

While the main plot of Celine Sciamma's infinitely longing romance "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" concerns two women (Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel) left alone on an island together, slowly learning that they are falling volcanically in love, a notable subplot involves an itinerant handmaiden (Luàna Bajrami) who comes to the two lovers for aid in securing an abortion. The three women take logical steps to secure one for her, and, in so doing, grow closer than ever. (By the way, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is the best film of 2019.)

There are no men — at least of note — in "Portrait," and abortion rests in the hands of instinctual sororal benevolence. Women, the film says, look after one another. It's worth nothing that another film from 2019, "The Lighthouse," depicts what happens when two men are left alone on an island together. In that film, at least one of them ends up with a mouth full of wet dirt. 

"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is on Hulu and Kanopy.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

The title of Cristian Mungiu's 2007 film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" refers to the window during which a woman is legally permitted to seek an abortion in 1987 Romania, when the film takes place. 1987 was a time of authoritarian rule — ironically called The Golden Age by the fascists in charge — and not only were abortions illegal, but the systems in place to help women were nonexistent. This is slowly discovered by Otilie (Anamaria Marinca) who spends the film — in real time — trying to help her more innocent friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) secure the procedure in question. Abortion would become legal in Romania two years after the events of the film.

The villain in "4 Months" is an overwhelming institution that seeks to enslave women as child-bearers for the state. It's worth knowing that Romania outlawed abortion to increase birth rates and keep their population large, not because of any moral or religious objections.

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is available on The Criterion Channel, Kanopy, and AMC+. 

Plan B (2021), Unpregnant (2020), Grandma (2015)

As /Film's own B.J. Colangelo recently wrote, a sad indicator as to where we are in the United States can be seen in the rise of road trip abortion movies, wherein two young women must go on a long journey to secure an abortion or birth control because such service are offered in so few areas of the country. "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" certainly falls into the subgenre, but several films have tried to mine the situation for comedy while still addressing the scarcity and injustice in abortion care. 

Also part of the subgenre are Rachael Lee Goldenberg's fluttery 2020 film "Unpregnant," Natalie Morales' very similar but still endearing 2021 film "Plan B," about two teens' need to secure a morning-after pill following a bad sexual encounter, and Paul Weitz's 2015 film "Grandma," about a tough-as-nails matriarch, played by Lily Tomlin, who uses her bluster and aggression to grumpily help a granddaughter in need. Each of these films accepts that abortion is real and natural, and that the obstacles that stand in a young woman's way are indeed the stuff of farce. Sadly, the farce is coming truer every day.

"Unpregnant" is on HBO Max, "Plan B" is on Hulu, and "Grandma" is available on VOD.