The rules for depicting abortion in Hollywood

At Ecosalon, Katherine Butler has written a funny, but ultimately rather sad column about the way abortion is depicted in movies and on TV. Butler observes that in pop culture, most representations adhere to a set of ten rules – commandments, if you will. For example:

If your character has an abortion, make sure she is impregnated by a really bad guy.
In The Godfather: Part II (1974), Kay Corleone (Diane Keaton) aborts a male heir to the Corleone crime family. Penny Johnsons’ aforementioned lover in Dirty Dancing is a shady rich boy who is sleeping with wealthy married women. In The Cider House Rules (1999), Rose Rose (Erykah Badu) is raped by her father. Who she then murders. Because he’s a really bad guy.


European producers or financiers are more likely to back a film with an abortion plot line.
The Yellow Handkerchief (2008), written by Erin Dignam, features an abortion plot line. William Hurt is a recently released convict who went to jail after being incited into a criminal rage by the revelation that ex-wife Maria Bello has an abortion. As Dignam has said, finding financing for the film was extremely hard. Eventually the film was produced by Europeans, Arthur Cohn and Lillian Birnbaum. According to Digman, “The producers backed me. I’m sure the fact that they are European helped.”

One of Butler’s rules is, “after her abortion, your character will likely pay for her choice in some negative way.” To this, I might add the rule that if your character has an abortion, there will be negative consequences not just for her, but for anyone who helped her obtain the abortion.

Friday Night Lights followed this rule last year when Principal Tami Taylor (go Team Tami!) almost lost her job for providing a sixteen-year-old student with information about abortion. FNL avoided the question of whether or not Tami would in fact be fired for being marginally pro-choice by having her resign instead. And although we were clearly meant to sympathize with Tammy for all the hell the anti-choicers put her through, the message was clear: abortion will get you in trouble, even if it’s the right thing to do.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • Amanda

    Hm, I’ve never seen Cider House Rules but I read the book, and the situation was quite different. A normal teenage girl and her boyfriend got pregnant and weren’t ready to have a baby. They loved each other and he accompanied her to get the abortion… I’m interested to know if this was completely taken out of the movie. Maybe I’ll have to rent it!

  • Amanda

    Actually, I just looked them both up on Wikipedia and see that the abortion you’re referring to in the blog post is a different one than the one I’m referring to. But it looks as though they BOTH happened in the movie. Right? So Cider House Rules has one abortion that doesn’t follow the rules of Hollywood in addition to the ones that does.

  • nazza

    This reminds me of the logic of the Hays Production Code. For several decades, from the Thirties until the Sixties, no American film could ever show a bad character not escaping punishment for his/her crimes. Films that tried to get away with it had new endings tacked on or were edited to make it seem as though these “bad” character got their comeuppance somehow.

  • Ashley

    European film for the win – If you haven’t seen it, 4 months 3 weeks 2 days is brilliant, though completely depressing, and shows what abortion is like when its illegal.

    • Mark

      I’ll second that recommendation.

      Someone should do a flick about a woman trying to get an abortion in, say, South Dakota… or Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL, where men from the nearby military base have a history of exploiting aboriginal women, who are then unable to get an abortion because no doctors who conduct the procedure work there.

  • Alicia

    I’d like to add another rule to that list. Abortion is a word that can’t be said or that must seldom be mentioned in movies. It seems that when abortion comes up, it’s very much an unsaid but understood thing; subtly hinted that it will take place or has taken place. I wish I could see abortion talked about more openly in movies and portrayed in a way that affects a woman’s life positively, in the end, or that portrays it as an issue of a necessary medical procedure. Movies can play a huge role in expanding people’s perceptions on the subject, and while the storylines might often be fictional, they are often not out of bounds with reality. As such, it’s hardly fair to appeal to pro-life views all the time.

  • Leah B.

    uh, the Americans 4 Life ad on the end of that article to “sign our petition to defund planned parenthood…” so not cool, sigh.

  • carly

    Can i recommend Parsley Days. A canadian film from 2000. While it may be a little dated/slow it is the only ‘happy abortion’ film I know. Young woman, with an unplanned pregnancy, assesses her options, makes the decision to abort and gets the support she needs.

    Of course, from memory, both of the main characters are white.

  • Theresa

    Anyone see last night’s episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”? I’m not really a fan, but some friends are so I watched it. Sandra Oh’s character discovers she’s pregnant and tells the father she won’t have the baby and it’s not up for discussion. She really sticks to her guns!! It was refreshing to see how it was dealt with on the show.

  • Tessa

    I just saw ‘Blue Valentine’ and while it’s not a ‘Hollywood’ film necessary (indie director/writer) and the main character does not end up having an abortion, there is a seen in the clinic where they show part of the process, and I thought they did an excellent job. They had the nurse and the main character discussing sexual history and the beginning of the procedure, and again, although she didn’t go through with it, I thought their depiction of the nurse and doctor was both figures of empathy and understanding and listening clearly to the characters wishes.