Titillation’s a queasy way to sell a story about abortion, but in the early decades of the film industry, when the procedure came up onscreen at all, it was generally within the realm of exploitation. Like STIs and arrest, it was depicted as a scandalous consequence of lurid misbehavior, one that could double as a karmic punishment. In 1928’s The Road to Ruin, for instance — a silent successful enough to be remade as a talkie a few years later — a teenager succumbs from the complications of a sketchy operation after her forays into drinking, sexual exploration, and strip-poker result in an unwanted pregnancy. To ensure the moral of the story isn’t overlooked, the movie then offers up the biblical quote attesting that “the wages of sin is death.”
A similar end awaits the title character of 1962’s The Shame of Patty Smith, a timid 21-year-old played by Dani Lynn who obtains an off-books procedure in a massage parlor. “Illegal abortion!” the posters trumpeted, advertising that no one under the age of 18 would be admitted. “You will be aroused and shocked! And it’s all true …” And yet, despite those taglines, and despite the title, the film isn’t a prurient cautionary tale about a girl gone wild. It’s instead a forerunner of what’s more recently blossomed into its own sad genre: the abortion thriller, whose tension hinges on whether someone will be able to get the procedure they need before time runs out, and if they do, whether that procedure will turn out to be safe.
The Shame of Patty Smith has nothing but sympathy for Patty, whose martyrdom is underscored by the fact that she’s the survivor of a sexual assault. Some of the men she careens among offer sympathy, too, even as they tell her they can’t or won’t help. One physician refuses to break the law; another is willing but wants more money than she can afford to take the risk, while a priest is willing to loan her the money until learning what she wants it for and then offers a scolding instead. “Your law-abiding doctor does everything but point his patient to the septic kitchen table of some unqualified practitioner,” the first ruefully says to a nurse after she leaves, having done exactly that.
It’s easy to call The Shame of Patty Smith ahead of its time, a forward-thinking missive snuck in under the veneer of something more sensationalist. But it’s just as much a reminder, as if we needed one with the demise of Roe v. Wade now imminent, that we choose to believe that we’re always gradually gaining ground as a society, and that battles we’ve won stay won, because it is comfortable, not because it is true. Earlier this month, Audrey Diwan’s Happening opened in theaters alongside the leaking of that majority-opinion draft, and it was immediately hailed for its timeliness in picturing a university student named Anne who searches for a way to end an unplanned, life-derailing pregnancy. The film, based on Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical book, takes place in southwestern France in 1963, a year after The Shame of Patty Smith came out and a decade before the Supreme Court would make its landmark ruling here in the U.S. It’s not really the timeliness of its arrival that gives it potency so much as its terrible timelessness, the way it depicts a reality we’re on the verge of sliding back toward and that other places never left.
The Shame of Patty Smith and Happening aren’t identical, given the six decades between their releases and the ocean between their settings. The older movie has a blunt informative framing, complete with a narrator who offers explanations and appears onscreen himself to address the camera. The contemporary one is more refined in its approach, immersing its viewer in the ever-increasing panic projected by its lead actor, Anamaria Vartolomei, who plays Anne with a fracturing façade of calm and the too-wide eyes of a spooked animal. Patty dies, while Anne is saved from death by medical intervention and from legal repercussions by the doctor, who deigns to classify what happened as a miscarriage. Where The Shame of Patty Smith is restrained, Happening veers into body horror when depicting the increasingly extreme measures Anne resorts to. And yet the contours of what the characters go through is the same, from the conversations with shrugging medical authorities to the encounters with those who’d capitalize on their desperation to leverage them into sex. These are films about women who understood themselves to be people with bodies they had ownership of until, abruptly, they did not.
There’s nothing subtle about the abortion thriller. It’s didactic in its very nature, calling on the tools of storytelling and character investment to put viewers in a position they may have previously considered unfathomable. It isn’t always a thriller in the literal sense, but that’s how it functions, with legal and financial obstacles repurposed as narrative ones with a grim practicality. Some movies about abortion have taken the tack of trying to destigmatize and normalize the act of getting one by showing it to be no big deal — but doing that rests on the assumption that being able to get one is also no big deal. At New York’s Metrograph theater, a series of American films featuring abortion gave a sense of how few of the depictions out there involve characters whose decision about ending a pregnancy isn’t also affected by how difficult doing so might be. This doesn’t just apply to period pieces. Jenny Slate in Obvious Child and Zora Howard in Premature may have a relatively easy time (if not easy experiences) with their respective surgical and medical procedures, but Sidney Flanigan in Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always lives in a small Pennsylvania town where the closest thing she’s able to find to a clinic is a “crisis pregnancy center” that offers her adoption literature and an incorrect assessment of how far along she is.
For a while, the passing of Roe seemed to render the framing of the abortion thriller obsolete, at least in contemporary settings — Dirty Dancing, which came out in 1987 but is set in 1963, pivots on an illegal abortion that almost kills a resort staffer. But the chipping away at access on the regional level, long before the ruling itself was in jeopardy, brought it roaring back in the form of the road-trip movie. The procedure itself may not be dangerous, but regulations around it have created danger by forcing people across state lines and beyond. Teenagers, more vulnerable and restricted when it comes to providers that don’t require parental consent, have been the focus of several simpatico movies in the past few years. Autumn (Flanigan), the mistreated high-schooler in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson), the sheltered Missouri 17-year-old in Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant, have to head to New York City and Albuquerque, respectively, with limited funds and no idea what they’re doing. In 2015’s Grandma, it’s not the abortion itself but the ability to pay for it that sends the 18-year-old Sage (Julia Garner) driving across Los Angeles trying to scrounge up the cash. Meanwhile, Sunny (Kuhoo Verma), the heroine of Plan B, drives around North Dakota trying to find emergency contraception before the end of its window of effectiveness, having been turned down by a local pharmacist smugly citing the conscience clause.
Most of these movies skew more buddy comedy than high tension, but they foreground the precarious youth of their leads and the lurking potential for disaster. It’s a compelling choice that also shows the limitation of the abortion thriller, which is that it channels a wide-reaching plight into the particular circumstances of a single character. Are the struggles of teenagers more easily invested in because they have more of their lives ahead of them? Or because they skew white onscreen? Do we root for Veronica because she’s a successful student with the promise of a good college ahead of her? Or for Autumn because she comes from an abusive home in a poor town where her options for the future already seem narrow? Is Patty more sympathetic because she was raped? Is Anne because she’s the gifted one from her working-class community, poised to climb class rungs into a professorship or a writing career? Storytelling demands specificity, and it’s the details of these characters’ lives that make them feel tangible and their dramas relatable and urgent. But specificity is also at war with the larger point, which is that no one should have to demonstrate why they deserve access to reproductive care.
Outside the U.S., the abortion thriller tends to be more straightforwardly about criminalization as a means of removing power from half the population. In 2007, the Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu won the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a monumental work of suffocating grimness set in 1987, toward the end of the Ceaușescu era, in which the procedure is one more black-market item to be bargained for. Găbița (Laura Vasiliu) is the one who’s pregnant, but it’s her college roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) who’s at the film’s center. Savvier and more pragmatic, Otilia makes the arrangements for Găbița to meet up with an abortion provider, and it’s Otilia’s feelings, her dread, her panic, that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days bends around. As Mungiu put it, simply but devastatingly, his is “a film about someone with empathy for someone else.” The abortion thriller often feels like a project made with the dream of an impossible audience member in mind — the viewer who hasn’t ever really thought about what it means to have an unwanted pregnancy, and who will step outside of their place in the world and come around to someone else’s. It’s a poignant thought, and a heartbreaking one, given how little interest in understanding, and how much interest in control, the people leading the push against reproductive rights demonstrate.
Mungiu’s brilliance comes from filtering the grueling process of obtaining an abortion through someone else — someone who does everything, including paying a heavy price, so that her friend can erase the whole painful period of time from her life and never talk about it again. The emphasis is not just on how difficult it is to get the procedure, but on the sacrifices Otilia makes on Găbița’s behalf, on Otilia’s willingness to share the dehumanizing burden the state imposes on anyone able to get pregnant. Of all the elements that recur in abortion thrillers — the head-shaking doctors, the hectoring religious figures, the moments of staring at rebelling bodies in the mirror, the encouraged silence, the attempts at sexual coercion — it’s the ally, sometimes unlikely, who is the most heartening.
There’s Otilia, who goes so far to aid her roommate in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Mary (Merry Anders), who does everything to help hers in The Shame of Patty Smith. There are the supportive co-pilots Lupe (Victoria Moroles) and Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) in Plan B and Unpregnant, who, in a narrative convergence, both end up coming out to the main characters. There’s the salty but determined Elle (Lily Tomlin) in Grandma, selling her books and enduring a painful reunion with an ex in order to aid her granddaughter. And there’s Skyler (Talia Ryder) in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, who, when she learns her cousin is pregnant, wordlessly steals money from the grocery store at which they both work so that she and Autumn can buy bus tickets to New York.
In Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui, The Sacred Bonds, which reached theaters earlier this year, an outcast Chadian single mother named Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) finds out that her teenage daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) is pregnant and not by choice. There’s no supportive friend in the film — or rather, the supportive friend turns out to be Amina herself, who, despite her initial outcry about disgrace and abortion’s being forbidden by the law and by her Muslim faith, soon sets about raising money however possible for the procedure. It is in other women that Amina finds help — women who may have their place in society diminished by cruel patriarchal structures, but who set up a powerful secret network of their own. In helping her child avoid the shunning she herself was sentenced to, Amina awakens in herself an unexpected defiance, discovering an intoxicating liberation that allows her to stand up to authority, to reconnect with relatives she thought lost, and to dance. Maybe that’s the real takeaway from the abortion thriller, which will hopefully endure longer than any restrictions on the procedure. If it’s too much to ask that those opposed invest in the lives of someone seeking an abortion, at least they can be shamed by the spectacle of those who would lay down everything they have to help.