- Nobody puts Baby in the corner.
- [Announcer] Ah, one of the most iconic movie lines in film, from 1987's "Dirty Dancing."
- It was my favorite movie in high school.
I watched it pretty much once a week I think, for an entire year - [Announcer] There was summer love, real, dirty dancing.
And one of film history's greatest moves.
But driving this summer romance is a controversial event, that brings all of the characters together.
- And I thought that he loved me.
I thought it was something special.
- The entire plot is driven by abortion.
- [Announcer] And today, abortion is back in conversation.
- [Reporter] The conservative leaning court is ready to overturn Roe versus Wade.
- [Announcer] And abortion has always been a contentious topic, even when Eleanor Bergstein wrote "Dirty Dancing."
- The studio came to me, and said "Eleanor we'll give you money to go back into the editing room, and take the abortion out."
And I said, I would be so happy to, but you see if I take it out, there's no reason to Baby to learn to dance with Johnny, for them to fall in love, for them to have sex, for him to come back, and dance with her in front of everybody.
So I can't take it out, or the whole film falls apart, and they said, we should have thought of that earlier.
- [Announcer] Let's get a historian's take on what "Dirty Dancing" teaches us about the history of abortion access, and why this movie may be more relevant than ever.
(TV remote clicking) (car highway sounds) ♪ Big girls don't cry ♪ - [Baby] That was the summer of 1963, when everybody called me Baby, and it didn't occur to me to mind.
♪ Don't cry- ay - ay ♪ - "Dirty Dancing" is a film from 1987, about a young girl Frances, nicknamed Baby, who goes on a vacation with her family, to a retreat in the Catskills, and ends up becoming embroiled in a wild love affair, with one of the men who works at the resort, as a dance instructor named Johnny.
- Who's that?
- Oh, them they're the dance people.
- Baby becomes very entranced with both Johnny, and Penny, and their dancing.
- Penny becomes pregnant by one of the waiters, who works at the resort.
The waiter refuses to accept responsibility for this pregnancy.
- You can't just leave her, I mean... - I didn't blow a summer hauling toasted bagels just to bail out some little chick, who probably balled every guy in the place.
- She's in tight financial circumstances.
She does this sort of back door, or back room abortion, that ultimately almost costs her her life.
- Come on, it's Penny.
- You didn't call an ambulance?
- She said the hospital'd call the police.
She made me promise.
He didn't use no ether.
- I thought you said he was a real MD.
- The guy had a dirty knife and a folding table.
- Anyone who knows this world, including Penny, knows that it's not a real MD, but it's all they can do.
- [Announcer] Huh?
Is this how abortions happened in real life?
Back in the 1960s?
- So in 1963, we're 10 years before Roe v. Wade.
So abortion is widely illegal across the country.
Deaths due to abortion were also at an all time high, before abortion laws were relaxed.
(suspenseful music) - We have a lot of ideas about coat hangers, and back alley abortion providers that were quite dangerous.
That certainly happened.
But it's also important to remember that pre-Roe, you also had non-medical professionals performing illegal abortion safely.
A great example is the Jane Collective in Chicago, which was a group of feminists who came together, and were trained to provide safe abortions, without major medical adverse outcomes.
So we know that there was a good amount of safe illegal abortion happening, even pre-Roe.
- [Announcer] So if safe, yet illegal abortions were possible, what made Penny's abortion so dangerous?
- Class plays a huge role, especially with the character of Penny.
- One of the counselors knows a doctor, a real MD, just traveling to New Paltz, for one day next week.. We can get her an appointment, but it costs $250.
- But if it's Robbie, there's no problem.
I know he has the money.
I'm sure if you tell him... - He knows.
- Penny isn't someone who has $250 to be able to pay someone for an abortion.
Penny isn't someone who can easily take a day off work.
- Can't someone else fill in?
- No, Miss Fix-It.
Somebody else can't fill in.
Everybody works here.
- It's made very clear from the outset, that the guests are of one socioeconomic class, and the dancers are of another.
- It doesn't say get an abortion it's great.
What I did manage to put in the cost of having an abortion.
- Could you lend me $250?
- I'll have it for you before dinner.
- The moment where she's borrowing money to pay for Penny's procedure, proves that Baby actually has greater access to resources, and healthcare, and possibility than Penny does.
The class dynamics between Baby, and Penny actually exist in real life.
In 1973, we have the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade.
- And a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court today legalized abortions.
The majority, in cases from Texas and Georgia, said that the decision to end a pregnancy, during the first three months, belongs to the woman and her doctor, not the government.
Thus, the anti-abortion laws of 46 states were rendered unconstitutional.
- Abortion and reproductive rights has continued to be a wedge issue in American politics, since the passing of Roe v. Wade.
There is an amendment called the Hyde Amendment, that's passed every year, that essentially says that federal money cannot be spent to support abortion access and care.
And this is a huge class and racial issue, because it means that women who are primarily low income, childbearing folks who are primarily working class, or working poor, and from communities of color, who rely on things like Medicaid, don't have access to get that paid for through their insurance.
- The cost of an abortion procedure can be a tremendous barrier to access for a lot of women.
Many women are seeking abortions, because they cannot afford to have another child.
- I think that the movie itself is really wonderful in representing sort of the coming of age story, and how class differences mark these women's choices, and life outcomes.
But ultimately it focuses only on white women's stories.
And we know that that's not necessarily representative of who's actually accessing abortion care in this country.
- [Announcer] What's going on now, that's bringing "Dirty Dancing".
and abortion access back into conversation?
- The Supreme court has now overturned Roe v. Wade.
- My mother was in college when Roe v. Wade was enacted.
And I know that that was an important moment for her, in her days of feminist activism.
And I don't know that we expected that to be lost in one generation.
- It is important to remember this, that a whole generation didn't even know about illegal abortion.
They wouldn't understand.
So that's why I put all that purple, dirty knife, folding tables, screaming in the hall - [Announcer] What might this mean for people who need to access abortions today?
- Women who want abortions and cannot access them, they are markedly more poorly than their counterparts who are able to access abortions.
So what we will see in the absence of federal action, is the need for certain states to absorb fairly high patient volume, for patients that are able to travel.
- It'll impact communities that are already the most vulnerable.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall famously was in support of pro-choice legislation, because he knew that thousands of African-American women, and poor Black women needed to access abortion care every year, and that they were hurt or maimed in the process of accessing illegal abortions.
So, not only do Black women access abortion at higher rates than their white counterparts, but they also suffer higher rates of maternal mortality, than their white counterparts.
So, this is not only just an issue of whether or not someone wants to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, but also an issue of often life or death, for women who are trying to determine whether or not they'd like to carry a pregnancy to term.
- [Announcer] So, what can we learn from "Dirty Dancing"?
- There is no point at which the people in Penny's life, question her decision to get an abortion.
There is only an absolute commitment, that she can make the decision that she wants to make, and that she's safe in doing so.
I think the most resonant lesson that "Dirty Dancing" offers for today, is a model for how people can support those who need an abortion in their lives.
- It's actually not just women who access abortion, or reproductive rights healthcare throughout this country.
It's all childbearing people.
It impacts how people can work.
It impacts how people can plan their financial futures.
It impacts how families are structured.
It's a global sort of human rights issue at its heart.
- [Announcer] Thanks for watching "Historians Take."
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