‘Obvious Child’ a breakthrough on abortion rights

On some issues, U.S. movies lag decades behind social change. Abortion is one of them, especially when statistically one woman out of three has an abortion during her lifetime.

Finally, 41 years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, there is a female-centered movie, “Obvious Child,” which puts a positive, realistic, honest spin on why one woman chooses to have an abortion. This is a first for U.S. films.

The story line in recent films like “Juno,” “Waitress” and “Knocked Up” shows young women choosing to go through with an unexpected pregnancy. In the last film, the beautiful blonde star even marries the goofy overweight guy. Up to now, if U.S. movies dared show a woman having an abortion, she often dies at the end, is shamed or punished, or terribly regrets her decision.

Women in European films have tended to fare better, though “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” shows, while women survived, having an illegal abortion in Romania was scary and expensive. In “Vera Drake,” an English working-class woman who moonlights by doing illegal abortions in 1950 is shown in a very sympathetic light.

Women on TV shows in the U.S. have fared a bit better, beginning in 1972 with “Maude,” who aborts her menopausal pregnancy with no regrets. But it wasn’t until 2011 on “Grey’s Anatomy” that Dr. Cristina Yang has an abortion without anguish. In the intervening 39 years a lot of characters, like Miranda Hobbes in “Sex in the City,” opt for motherhood, though her friends note that while having an abortion is complicated, it is a positive decision.

Disgusted with the “pro-motherhood way” being unexpectedly pregnant was handled in recent films, writer and director Gillian Robespierre based her first full-length feature on a short film with the same title that she created in 2009 starring comedian Jenny Slate of TV’s ”Parks and Recreation.” Encouraged by the positive reception the short received, she decided to expand it in collaboration with Slate. The film made waves at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and opened in New York on June 7.

Donna Stein, played winningly by Slate, exhibits all the quirky, wiseass sensibilities of a middle-class, college-educated, Upper West Side New Yorker who’s a stand-up comedian in her late 20s. The plot centers on Donna’s struggle to find her way when her boyfriend dumps her for a girlfriend, and she loses her job, ends up pregnant after a liquor-fueled one-night stand and schedules an abortion on Valentine’s Day.

Donna knows she can’t have — nor does she want — a child. At the same time, no one shames or punishes her. One moving scene is between Donna and her often-at-odds, businesswoman mom, who, after Donna joins her in bed, confides that she had an illegal abortion during college.

“Obvious Child” is not a movie that speaks universally about why women have abortions, though it proudly carries the pro-choice banner with great wit, warmth, compassion and even a sly romance. It does not reflect the grim reality of millions of poor women, disproportionately women of color, young, immigrant, lesbian and transgender, and those living in rural areas, who are struggling in this anti-woman, anti-abortion political climate in dozens of states where harsh limitations forbid abortions.

Writing in Salon on June 6, Katie McDonough calls the movie a “revolutionary fairy tale” — “revolutionary” because it unabashedly affirms a woman’s right to choose abortion and a “fairy tale” because it does not tell the intense, desperate story of women daily denied access to reproductive services. That story must be told.

Sue Davis, a longtime reproductive justice activist, wrote the pro-choice novel, “Love Means Second Chances.”