What Films Featuring Abortion Teach Us About America | Opinion

Are movies an expression of America's cultural values, or are our values influenced by what we see on the big screen? There's a case to be made for both arguments, and the answer may be that it's a giant circle; what we see influences what we believe, and what we create and portray is influenced by our evolving beliefs.

This is certainly the way it has played out over the last 50 years in the debate over abortion rights. The landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which affirmed women's legal rights to abortion, brings the national conversation to a fever pitch any time a judicial nomination threatens to alter the delicate balance on the nation's highest court.

That's one of the the reasons Brett Kavanaugh's nomination has become so controversial. Most justices—Kavanaugh included—agree it's a "settled law," yet some politicians are still doing a dance about a major change being just one vote away.

A new poll looking at things from a cultural rather than a political perspective shows attitudes are changing, even while the issue remains complex. A recent Harris/Barna survey asked 1,008 adult Americans to evaluate a list of fourteen movies, all of which had abortion as a central or major theme, and rank them according to how comfortable they were with the way the issue was handled.

The results are surprising. Three films, two regarded as leaning pro-life and one leaning pro-choice led the way in being ranked as handled in a way viewers were comfortable with. Juno, a pro-life film, topped the list at 17 percent, followed by Dirty Dancing (1987) at 14 percent and Knocked Up (2007) at 13 percent.

The remaining 11 films, which included popular movies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Cider House Rules (1999), and lesser known movies such as Citizen Ruth (1996) and Doonby (2013) were viewed as handling abortion well by fewer than one in 14 adults, no matter which perspective of the issue the film embraced.

Younger adults generally are more likely to agree with how abortion was handled in these movies than older adults. Juno, the top-rated movie, was chosen by three in ten millennials, compared to 18 percent of Gen X and just 8 percent of Boomers and Elders. The survey also found frequent church attendees are less comfortable with Juno and Cider House Rules than those who are not part of a faith community.

Interestingly, the top-rated movies are the ones with a recurring theme of the importance of interpersonal relationships. In Juno, Ellen Page plays a sixteen-year-old girl who, while sitting in an abortion clinic, decides not to terminate the pregnancy but carry the baby to term for a couple to adopt. The independent film was extremely popular with critics and it pulled in over $143 million at the U.S. box office.

Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in "Dirty Dancing" (1987). IMDB

Dirty Dancing, which featured a bankable star in Patrick Swayze and a hit soundtrack, became one of the biggest films of 1987. The film features abortion as a subplot which brings together two characters from completely different backgrounds in the early 1960s, when abortion was still largely illegal in America. The patient receiving the abortion suffers after the procedure and needs medical attention which is provided by the father of the main character.

The film that received the third most positive rating is the hit comedy Knocked Up which had an all-star cast featuring Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan, and one of Hollywood's favorite directors, Judd Apatow. After a one-night stand leads to a pregnancy, Heigl must make critical decisions about how a baby would affect her professional and personal life. The studio-backed film uses character-based comedy to highlight her fears going forward as a parent. Knocked Up was also a box office hit with over $148 million domestically.

The films that received the fewest votes generally dealt with abortion as a source of conflict for the main characters, rather than an issue that brought people together. The Cider House Rules centers on an orphan, played by Tobey Maguire, who becomes a doctor who learns to accept abortion as a merciful application by his mentor, played by Michael Caine. The film's characters go through affairs and tragedy, yet never come to any moral or ethical decisions on abortion.

In total, 59 percent percent of those surveyed said they were uncomfortable with the way abortion was presented in any of the 14 movies considered. That's not a surprise; it's an uncomfortable subject. Nonetheless the movies drawing a more positive response were the ones that, rather than preaching about abortion and abortion rights, used it as a plot device that in the end brought people together.

Audiences will soon have the chance to consider the dark side of illegal abortions, with the release of Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer. Pennsylvania physician Kermit Gosnell was convicted in 2013 of performing numerous illegal late-term abortions, murdering babies born alive during failed abortion attempts, and the involuntary manslaughter of a pregnant woman.

The film moves the subject matter from the abstract into real life. His case does not focus on thetheoretical argument about what is versus what should be, but on how women and babies died because of his actions. It's the dark side of illegal abortion brought home to roost in a way that could affect the hearts and minds of the American electorate, simply by telling the truth.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics, culture, and the media for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and other publications. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​​