When Grandma hits theaters tomorrow, audiences will be treated to the best, and possibly the second-ever “abortion comedy” in popular (or semi-popular) entertainment history. The film follows Lily Tomlin and her granddaughter, played by Julia Garner, as they take a road trip to find money to pay for an abortion.
The thing about good abortion stories on TV or film, whether they are deeply serious or slyly comic, is that they are almost always also good women’s stories. They center female relationships (friendships, moms and daughters, even daughters’ relationships to their dads), and allow women characters to be mean, cold, vulnerable, stupid, brave, kind — you know, the whole range of human emotions and behaviors.
Here are 13 plotlines that demonstrate how powerful and affirmative good storytelling about abortion can be.
Lily Tomlin is a feminist poet grandma who has destroyed her credit cards and dismissed her younger lover. Cash poor, she spends the day helping her teenage granddaughter raise funds to terminate a very unwanted pregnancy. Like its “abortion rom-com” predecessor Obvious Child, Grandma is actually more of a dramedy, an extremely sharp and witty vehicle for female talent that will also make audiences cry and occasionally shake with rage. I can’t rave enough about how real the characters feel, or how central their lives as women are to the film.
Six Feet Under, “Twilight” (2003)
Claire Fisher, played by Lauren Ambrose, is 17 when she has an abortion on the beloved HBO drama. And while her feelings about it are multidimensional (there’s even a fantasy sequence involving a fetus ghost), her choice is clearly the right one, and never placed in a moralistic framework. Fans often cite this plotline as one of the reasons they love the quirky, dark series.
Obvious Child (2014)
Obvious Child is a rejoinder to the oft-stated idea that movies don’t feature abortions because they kill the plot. Instead, the film shows Jenny Slate’s comedian character’s journey from an unplanned pregnancy to a subsequent abortion. She ends up assessing her life, and even becoming closer to the hapless but kindhearted guy who knocked her up.
Friday Night Lights, “I Can’t” (2010)
We can never talk too much about Becky’s abortion on Friday Night Lights. The teen girl gets knocked up by the equally adorable football player Luke Cafferty and goes to Tami Taylor for advice. Tami’s answer to Becky’s question, “Do you think I am going to hell if I had an abortion?” — “No, honey, I don’t” — is one of the most powerful moments in a series full of poignant storylines. Tami faces great consequences for her honesty with the girl, having to resign from her job under pressure from the wingnuts in her town, but Becky has a happy future (with Luke) and a chance to escape the cycle of teen pregnancy in her family.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Dirty Dancing’s abortion is illegal and botched, but it serves as a vehicle to show women’s vulnerability to male judgment and male cruelty. It also galvanizes Baby’s growth into an incredibly strong woman who stands up to her father. Penny, the dancer/staffer who has the abortion, isn’t punished after she recovers. We all know that after she went to college, the grown-up Baby, now presumably called Fran, was demonstrating in the streets for legalized abortion and probably leading the charge.
Parenthood, “Small Victories” (2013)
Parenthood has many tearjerking plotlines around children ad family, and the one that ended in teenage Amy having an abortion was typically sentimental without being judgmental. The New York Post‘s headline? “Parenthood did what few have tried — make abortion seem nearly normal.”
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
This gritty Romanian film is like the inverse of Grandma, in that it takes two women’s search for the money for a procedure, and for a doctor who will perform it illegally, into high-stakes thriller territory. The police are everywhere, the “doctor” is an extortionist thug, and the dinner party in which one friend waits for a call from the other is the most terrifying gathering you’ll watch.
This is life when women’s wombs are under state control: a dystopia.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
This ultimate ’80s teen movie has stoners and a famous red bathing suit, but it also has a poignant abortion sequence. Stacy, a former virgin who gets pregnant when she makes a play for a popular cad, finds him unwilling to help her financially when it’s time to pay for the procedure. Though she’s fine after the abortion, the experience makes her look elsewhere for romance, and question her previous pursuit of the fast crowd’s lifestyle. Abortion is part of teen life, for better or worse, the film tells us. There’s even a deleted scene on DVD releases that takes us somewhere even rarer: inside the clinic.
Girls, “Close Up” (2015)
Girls ended its earliest abortion plotline with a miscarriage, but snuck in a brilliant follow-up in the most recent season. When Adam finds out his new girlfriend Mimi Rose has gone ahead and had an abortion without consulting him, he has to deal with his feelings of impotence and the difference between being wanted and being needed by a woman.
Vera Drake (2004)
This painful historical drama from Mike Leigh was a star-turn vehicle for Imelda Staunton, playing a kindly woman who performs abortions on the sly in Britain, where it’s punishable by jail time. Despite being historically and medically inaccurate, it’s a testament to women’s devotion to helping each other at great personal risk.
Grey’s Anatomy, “She’s Gone” (2011)
After a few last-minute feints, Grey’s Anatomy finally went all the way there when Cristina, played by Sandra Oh, defiantly chose her career over a pregnancy, and convinced her partner to support her after he hesitated. Vulture’s Willa Paskin wrote: “Cristina says yes. And then, instead of the usual last-minute flip flop, the abortion actually happens.”
Maude: “Maude’s Dilemma” (1972)
Maude’s later-in-life abortion after the legalization of Roe is often cited as the first storyline of its kind, a pioneering abortion episode that drew protests, cheers, and far too few imitators.
When Greta Gerwig’s adorably adrift character has an abortion, it’s portrayed as a tough but necessary decision. But when she wakes up from her procedure and her jerk of a new love interest, Roger Greenberg, offers her a treat to try to make her feel better and only ends up horrifying her, the unthinkable happens: a woman lying in bed after an abortion becomes a vehicle for a wonderful joke that reveals a great deal of pathos in her and the film’s other characters.