"I carried a watermelon" "Nobody puts Baby in the corner" "I'm scared of walking out of this room and never feeling for the rest of my whole life, the way I feel about you" "You're wild!"
Like most women in their mid-30s, I've been quoting lines from Dirty Dancing for over 20 years. I literally cannot count the number of times I've watched it. Baby falling in love with Johnny touched on every geeky awkward teenage nerve I possessed, and ended with the ultimate romantic daydream.
"Baby, is that your name? You don't know shit about my problems."
It was also the first place I learned anything about abortion. It taught me:
- Deciding to have an abortion is a heart-breaking situation to be in.
- Having a baby is the biggest decision a woman will ever make and will change every bit of her life.
- Even if you think the person who is the father will stay with you forever, there is no guarantee, and you have to be prepared to have the child either way.
- Having an illegal abortion can kill you, or make you unable to have children in the future.
- Whatever decision is made, the woman will bear it. She will either be supported or not, but the choice is hers alone.
In the UK, 1 in 3 women has an abortion in her lifetime. While stereotypes persist, the facts demonstrate that 1 in 5 women who seek an abortion are married, and many others are in committed relationships while 47% of women already have at least one child already. However, while it is clear that abortion is something that will be faced either by you or someone you know, there remains a deal of secrecy and even shame around discussing it at all. Although Dirty Dancing depicts abortion in a responsible and accurate way, it remains a rare example. Even though abortion is depicted onscreen more frequently than in the past, the outcomes do not reflect real experience and as this article highlights "Characters who have, or just think about having abortions often die"
Onscreen taboos and misrepresentation around abortion, when it is such a common issue in the lives of women are extremely problematic. And even Dirty Dancing may never have depicted it were it not for the amazing attitude of writer Eleanor Bergstein who turned down sponsorship for the movie to preserve the story:
They came to me and said, "We'll give you money to go back into the editing room and take the illegal abortion out." And I said, "Oh, I'd be so happy to, but as it happens, it's so into the plot that if I took it out, there's no reason for Baby to learn to dance. There's no reason for her to dance with Johnny, to dance at the Sheldrake, to fall in love with him, to make love with him, so the whole plot falls apart, so I can't do it." And they said, "Oh jeez, too bad," so [they] disappeared, to my joy, and [the abortion] stayed in.
While attitudes towards abortion in the UK are overwhelmingly pro-choice (76%), the laws remain more restrictive than in almost every other European country. Shockingly, it is still not fully decriminalised, and has not been updated since its introduction in 1967, since which time it has had to fend off numerous attacks from anti-choice campaigners.
Women do not, as many believe, have the right to an abortion on request, even if they have been raped. In order to be legally permitted to undergo an abortion, a woman must convince two doctors (neither of whom she is likely to have met before) that continuing with the pregnancy would have a worse effect on her mental or physical health, or on that of her existing children. The implication of this appears that the safety and well-being of the foetus is of greater importance than those of the woman carrying it and who will have to raise it. By needing proof of the woman's incapability of mentally or physically continuing with the pregnancy, her own wishes are irrelevant, and her choice rests in the hands of others.
Worryingly, there is also 10% of the medical community who on moral or religious grounds can opt out of performing an abortion, and though advised to refer a woman with an unwanted pregnancy on to another provider, are under no obligation to do so. There does not appear to be such rationale for any other medical procedure a patient may require, e.g. a kidney transplant for an alcoholic, operating on a stab wound of a gang member, attending someone suffering an overdose of an illegal drug. Yet a woman wishing to terminate a pregnancy remains subject to the judgement of others, and would be considered a criminal for administering any abortion procedure herself without the necessary permissions.
Until it directly touches your life, it is easy to believe that abortion rights have been won, and that women have autonomy over their reproductive fate. However, the rights that do exist have been fought for fiercely, and remain under siege. They are in desperate need of updating and protecting, and proof that the public support women being in charge of their bodies is needed to facilitate this.
To show my support I will be at the Abortion Rights screening of the wonderful Dirty Dancing on Tuesday 4th February at Whirled Cinema proceeds of which are primarily being used to identify and document public support of women being in charge of their own bodies. This evidence will protect the rights that exist, and campaign for updates to the 47yr old law, ensuring: every child a wanted child, every mother a willing mother.