On The Issues Magazine: Summer 2009: Book Reviews, edited by Christine Hutchins; How Media Portrayals Affect Women Seeking Abortions by Heather MacGibbon
In our Summer '09 edition, On The Issues Magazine writers and artists discuss gender norms and differing perspectives of gender identity in Our Genders, Our Rights

How Media Portrayals Affect Women Seeking Abortions
by Heather MacGibbon

“I am not a victim or hero. I am just pregnant and can’t be right now. . . . I saw this movie the other night – the girl got to keep her baby . . . but my life is definitely not like that.”

Often if a woman does not fit into roles that the media have laid out, she is lost

This is a paraphrase of what a young women said to me in 1999 while discussing her abortion decision during counseling at an abortion clinic in New York. Her statement changed the course of ten years of media research for me. It became painfully obvious to me that many of the women I counseled tried to find models from the media to explain and clarify their decisions about abortion.

Some women I met bought wholesale the available media roles – presenting themselves as victims of men, society or economic forces in order to support or explain their decisions. Some rejected any sense of discomfort with their decision because it might mean they were not strong. Many came in confused about how to explain their decision – not because they were unsure, but because they did not see any roles that fit their personal situations. What interested me was their heavy reliance on roles from film, television and mass media to situate their personal experiences.

This is why it is so important to examine closely available roles in media abortion narratives. These narratives help explain the materials from which women wrap the experience of abortion into their lives.

Prima Donnas, Martyrs and Victims

In the hundreds of films and television movies that I have analyzed around the issue of abortion, beginning with the silent era, I found three prevailing roles for women that recur through history: Prima Donnas, Martyrs and Victims.

The Prima Donna reaches as far back as the 1916 film Where are my Children (Webber 1916 USA) and later in Ann Vickers (Cromwell 1933 USA). Women are shown seeking abortions to avoid having motherhood impinge on social status and personal enjoyment. In these early films, abortion is the evil straw man for the argument in favor of legalizing birth control.

Prima Donnas contrast with characters, usually of lower classes, who seek abortions because bearing a child or another child would personally or financially destroy them. This is the Victim stereotype, which almost always includes callous treatment of women by men who seduce and then abandon them.

On The Issues Magazine Summer 2009; Irene Dunn in "Ann Vickers"
Irene Dunn (left) in "Ann Vickers"

Martyrs are largely women or girls shown dying from illegal abortions, either because their families had not guided their "moral" choices regarding pregnancy (usually clumped in with all manner of other vices) or because society had outlawed abortion and thus forced them into dangerous illegal surgeries. This stereotype appears in early silent films, and later in films such as The Case of Patty Smith (McKinley 1962 USA) or If These Walls Could Talk (Cher & Sacova 1996 USA).

Over the last few years some media have struggled to confront and resist the trap of roles that have for so many years dominated abortion narratives. Nonfiction documentary and performance pieces tackling this difficult task include The Abortion Diaries (Lane 2007 USA), and I Had An Abortion (Aldrich & Baumgardner 2004 USA). These films document the frustrations of women with the silence and shame surrounding abortion, and try to move abortion into the realm of open discussion. These, along with a recent collection blending fiction and nonfiction, Words of Choice by Cindy Cooper, co-adapted with Suzanne Bennett, have begun to create a body of works that resist the legacy of images of abortion seekers and move beyond the available media roles.

Changing the Discourse

In The Abortion Diaries, Penny Lane brings friends together for a dinner party, allowing viewers to listen in on the thoughts of these women of different backgrounds and ages as they discuss their abortion experiences.

As Lane welcomes her guests, she explains that she has invited them to dinner because, she says, “Something I wrote in my diary when I was pregnant and freaking out and didn’t think I could tell anybody was, ‘It’s not like abortion is dinner party conversation.’ And I remember being really angry that no one ever talked about it.”

It is refreshing to hear how well these women understand the media stereotypes they use and those stereotypes' limits.

When Amanda speaks about her abortion at age fourteen, she describes adopting, at first, the Martyr stereotype, afraid to tell her parents, unsure what to do. She then takes a very different turn, one that challenges media stereotypes on all sides:

“(T)he only time I really felt sad about the abortion is when I realized the social stigma surrounding abortion and the silence surrounding it. The only women that were talking about their abortions were women in the anti-abortion movement and even many pro-choice women were judgmental about it. They wanted it to be legal, but they had ethical problems with terminating a pregnancy. So I felt judged on both sides of the abortion debate – so I was silent and did not tell many people about it.”

Women in Ireland have been under harsh laws making abortion punishable by life sentence

As Amanda explains, often if a woman does not fit into roles that the media have laid out, then she is lost. In the anti-abortion movement, media images show women speaking about their abortions from the position of Victim, regretting pasts they deem "mistakes."

In the reproductive rights movement, media images too often fall back on the idea that, although abortion should be legal, termination is an ethical problem. As a counselor I heard this refrain many times. It is the "I am pro-choice, but . . ." argument.

At times, I, also, used this argument, and I realize that, for me, it was a way of avoiding the stigma that the anti-abortion movement casts. It is the desire to say, "I am for the right to choose, but I am not that cold, heartless, unethical murderer that the anti-abortion movement makes me out to be." Unfortunately, this dodge alienates women who feel themselves judged; they see through these desperate attempts to avoid stereotypes.

Aldrich and Baumgardner’s film contains interviews of women who have had abortions and do not regret the decision. These women, of varying ages, ethnicities and circumstances describe both legal and illegal abortions, along with their reactions to them. The film directly challenges the stereotyped narratives. Their stories, along with photographs of interviewees taken by Tara Todras-Whitehill, are now included in a book,Life and Choice by Baumgardner (Akashic Press 2008).

Words of Choice by Cooper and Bennett, published in a new anthology, Front Lines (ed. Alexis Greene, Shirley Lauro; The New Press 2009) is a collection of performance pieces in multiple scenes that give voice to emotions associated with the abortion issue. It is refreshingly full of irony and humor, which often get lost in political debate.

Inserted in the midst of humorous anecdotes is a moving soliloquy by Kathy Najimy:
“No. No I don’t remember feeling bad. Well, no, I do remember not letting myself feel bad. It would be like giving in, you know? . . . . So you don’t think about it, 'cause if you think about it then you might feel bad or guilty and have to give up your choice.”

Here is direct confrontation with the dilemma that pro-choice women face every day. When making a difficult and sometimes painful decision, negative stereotypes of abortion-seekers force women to attempt not to feel rather than to work through their emotions as they might with other important decisions.

What makes moments such as these more powerful is that they are nestled among humorous pieces -- Cindy Cooper’s “Tru Love,” in which a teen falls in love with a stem cell, and The Onion’s “Morning After Burrito,” a parody of the debate over Emergency Contraception.

Ireland's Hidden Diaspora by Ann Rossiter; On The Issues Magazine Summer 2009

Cooper and Bennett create a beautiful play of ideas and emotions, in the tradition of other media such as the films, Citizen Ruth (Payne 1996), a sarcastic, bleak comedy about the stereotypes that prevail in the pro-choice and pro-life communities, and DOGMA (Smith 1999), a comedy in which the Voice of God is revealed to be an abortion clinic counselor. In each case these productions directly attack media stereotypes of the abortion narrative.

Ireland Mimics Pre-Roe Era

The United States has a complex and dynamic mediascape, but it is a place where, at least for now, abortion is relatively safe and legal, if not always accessible. Try now to imagine the time when this was not the case. Fortunately, several excellent books on pre-legalization history describe those days. Backrooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era (Messer & May 1994), When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine and Law in the United States 1867-1973 (Reagan 1997), and Choices We’ve Made: Twenty Five Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion (Bonavoglia, Forward by Steinem; Seal Press, 2001).

Reading Ann Rossiter's newly published Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The ‘abortion trail’ and the Making of a London - Irish Underground, 1980-2000 (Rossiter 2009) is a harsh reminder that abortion is still illegal in some countries, such as Ireland, where women must travel to other lands if they wish to seek legal medical services. It is shocking how similar the issues are for women in Ireland and women in the United States pre-Roe. The current Irish tales resemble many of those told in The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service (Kaplan 1995) about women who covertly provided abortions prior to decriminalization in Roe.

Women in Ireland have been under harsh laws making abortion punishable by life sentence; and from 1987 through 1995 distribution of information was, at times, made a punishable offense. Despite sanctions people brave crossing the water to England to secure abortion services. Rossiter expertly describes for readers Ireland's history of activist groups, including Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) and Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign (Iasc). Rossiter's history is made more powerful by the current case before the European Court of Human Rights, where three women are challenging forced travel for abortion services, asserting that it is a violation of their rights.

Rossiter's book highlights special problems women face crossing from Ireland to England, such as being detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act because of the fraught history of British - Irish conflict. This only makes the current European Union equivalent of the Roe v. Wade case more powerful and poignant.

Some stories Rossiter tells out of Ireland will sound remarkably familiar to reproductive rights activists in the U.S., who also experience blocked access blocked, frightened providers, heckling crowds and financial hardship. Groups like Haven in New York City house women who can not afford the prohibitive costs of medical care, travel and housing in an urban center. Like IWASG, Haven trains members in the medical, emotional, and financial issues women face – everything from conflict with family members to navigating the subway system. Also parallel to Rossiter's descriptions of Irish activists' sponsored swim events and Ce'ile' dances, the New York Abortion Access Fund (NYAAF) holds fundraisers on a near monthly basis to raise money for economically-stressed women who need to pay for an abortion. All these have common goals: helping women receive medical treatment they need but cannot afford.

Abortion is an issue that affects not only the women facing the decision. It deeply affects health care providers who choose whether to take on the risks of providing abortion services, and friends and families of those faced with these choices. These stereotypes must also be addressed. Yet, a need to escape past images of Martyrs, Prima Donnas and Victims is beginning to be met by films, performance pieces and books that ask that readers listen to the women.


Heather MacGibbon is a writer, researcher, and instructor whose PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University specializes in documentary film, feminist film theory, and gender and sexuality. She is author of What a Difference a Decade Makes in The Journal of Bisexuality Vol 1 issue 4 and "The Good The Bad and the Unborn: Abortion in American Film" in Film and Sexual Politics. Her book, Screening Choice: The Abortion Issue in American Film 1900-2000, is out this year, published by VDM Verlag.

Also see From the Publisher: Selecting The Same Sex by Merle Hoffman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Book Review The Reproductive Rights Reader: Law, Medicine, and the Construction of Motherhood, ed. Nancy Ehrenriech in the Spring 2009 edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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