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All I Need to Know about Abortion Rights I Learned from “Dirty Dancing”

Photograph of blond female character from Dirty Dancing Havana. from: PWCD - Texas abortion rights and "Dirty Dancing"


Written by: Judith Pfeffer

Upon closer examination – song, dance, romance, and nostalgia, are not what “Dirty Dancing” is actually about. Viewed by an enlightened, evolved adult, its true themes come clear: class difference – labor injustice – poverty; and what drives the plot is a botched illegal abortion with its cascade of consequences.

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Released in 1987, “Dirty Dancing” is an iconic film still occasionally screened, revived, and commemorated. Starring Patrick Swayze as a sexy-but-sensitive dance instructor, it boasts an appealing mix of vintage pop music, a wide variety of dance styles, and a coming-of-age romance.

Most viewers probably recall only the love story between Swayze’s character, 20-something working-class Johnny, and his unlikely love – newly minted high-school graduate Frances Houseman, better known as Baby for her upper-crust, sheltered upbringing. Even those who know nothing of the film are aware of its famous catchphrase: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!” (As I edit this piece in my home office, I just heard it used in a re-run of NCIS New Orleans.)

Though working full time at the posh mountain resort where Baby’s family spends the summer of 1963, Johnny and his female counterpart – Penny, a longtime platonic friend – must moonlight weekly as performers at another hotel simply to make ends meet. Then Penny realizes she has been impregnated by an uncaring colleague whom she comes to call “Robby the Creep” for his callousness. Robby, a medical student, cravenly currying favor with Baby’s physician father, utterly refuses to take responsibility for the situation he created. In fact, as he proudly waves a copy of an Ayn Rand novel, Robby tells Baby that reading the book has helped him realize “some people count, some people don’t” – and that Penny falls into the latter category.

It is a double crisis. Going to term with the pregnancy is unthinkable, given that Penny can barely support herself, let alone an infant. Nor can she or for that matter, Johnny, afford to forego the income from their part-time job for even one week while she deals with her situation. Baby wheedles cash out of her doctor dad without saying what it is for and gives it to Penny, who, escorted by another colleague Johnny’s cousin – heads out, likely to New York City, for the procedure. (The prevalence of dangerous illegal abortions in NYC in the 1960s is well-documented. Baby, trained to pinch-hit for Penny, fills in that night for the dance performance at the other hotel. The abortion, a place Johnny’s cousin describes as a seedy clinic, indeed does terminate the pregnancy – and it nearly terminates Penny’s life. Awakened by his daughter before dawn some 24 hours later and handed his black doctor’s bag, Dr. Houseman repairs the damage while incorrectly assuming that it was Johnny who seduced and abandoned Penny. If viewers can disregard the Johnny-Baby relationship, the actual message of the movie is apparent: Without access to safe, legal, affordable abortion (or at least wealthy, well-connected, caring friends), a woman who tries to end an unplanned pregnancy may die.

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According to a recent article on the website of Ms. Magazine, in 1965 – two years after the Dirty Dancing backdrop and seven years before Roe v. Wade made abortion lawful – 17 percent of pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths were due to illegal abortions. What brings this to mind is the unrelenting attack on abortion rights in many U.S. states, including a draconian law passed earlier this year in Texas that bans abortions after six weeks, with no exceptions allowed even in cases of rape or incest. On Oct. 6, a federal district court suspended the law, but just two days later, Oct. 8, a U.S. appeals court over-ruled that effort.

Anyone more sophisticated than Baby should see that such laws may indeed reduce legal abortions – but they will not stop illegal terminations, including the often-dangerous homemade ones. And that’s potentially tragic for the Pennys of the present. I’m thinking now of a friend-of-a-friend who, luckily, does not live in Texas. A real-life, current-day Penny who is possibly still alive only because our mutual friend stepped up to pay for her legal abortion – something now increasingly out of reach for many.

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As an ex-Texan, I am ashamed that the leaders of my former home have essentially adopted the credo of Robby the Creep: Some people count, while others – all the Pennys on the planet – do not. Near the end of “Dirty Dancing,” Dr. Houseman, finally realizing that Robby is the culprit, angrily retracts the recommendation he had given Robby for his medical studies. “When I’m wrong, I SAY I’m wrong!” Dr. Houseman loudly declares to all within earshot at the resort’s season-ending dinner show.

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Similarly, it’s not too late for the Lone Star State to make a courageous course correction. I call on the leadership of Texas to emulate Dr. Houseman by canceling this cruel, unnecessary, unconstitutional, and positively medieval law.

Judith Pfeffer formerly lectured in the marketing communication department at Emerson College in Boston, earlier taught journalism at four community colleges on the Left Coast, has worked for newspapers and magazines, done public relations, and is currently affiliated with the YourArlington (Mass.) news website. Like Penny, Johnny, and most other people in the world, she also has supported herself as a low-paid, low-prestige laborer.

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