Reproduction & Abortion Week: Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing

This is a guest post by Meghan Harvey.

I was born in 1977, four years after Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. Though I would see the moral debate play out many times over the course of my life, the legality of a woman’s right to choose was always a non-issue in my mind. It was always just the law. When I say always, I truly mean always. I have absolutely no memory of learning what an abortion was, or why it was so important to have it legal. I just always knew. Mainly because I grew up in the post Roe v. Wade world.

Most women I know around my age (whether liberal or conservative) all agree that despite their personal feelings on abortion, that a woman has the right to choose. Most women all agree, it’s better legal. By better of course, I mean safer.

Part of growing up in this post Roe v. Wade world meant that for us the picture painted of life before Roe v. Wade was different. A world that existed before we were born and it was not a pretty one. No movie or pop culture moment painted that picture clearer than the 80s classic, Dirty Dancing.

For most girls my age it was the first time we saw what “abortion” meant in the days before Roe v. Wade. It was simply “a dirty knife and a folding table.”

For those of you who are not familiar with the legendary movie, here is the main gist of it in a nutshell. Dirty Dancing takes place in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains in 1963. Frances “Baby” Houseman is visiting Kellerman’s summer resort with her family for the summer before starting college in the fall. Baby, a rich privileged girl with a strong sense of right and wrong, meets Johnny the dance instructor from the wrong side of the tracks with the heart of gold.

When Penny, Johnny’s dance partner, finds herself pregnant Baby steps in to take her place on the dance floor while Penny has a back-alley abortion that almost kills her. Not only does Baby cover for Penny, she also gets the money to pay for the abortion from her Dr. father (without telling him what it’s for).

Many of you who have seen the movie a hundred thousand times like I have may very well be reading that description and realizing that the abortion storyline, though not actually the main part of the movie, is the cornerstone of the movie. Without it there is no movie.

Penny, after discovering she’s pregnant

In fact the film’s screenwriter and producer Eleanor Bergstein was asked by a potential national sponsor (an acne cream company) to remove the abortion storyline from the film out of fear of a backlash and protests. Bergstein told them, “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.” The sponsor pulled out and the abortion stayed in.

An abortion to most of us was an icky medical procedure. You went to a doctor and had it done, end of story. I for one was still too young to understand the moral debate or logistics of abortion, just that it was something that happened.

Dirty Dancing opened an entire generation’s eyes to the fact that it had not always been that simple. For the first time we were seeing it described as being done by a man with a “a dirty knife and a folding table.” Penny’s screams are described as being heard all the way down the hall.

Those screams in Dirty Dancing were the first time my generation would hear those screams and understand that the right to choose was not something that had always been ours. It was the first time that we opened our minds to the reality that illegal abortions were deadly, dangerous and horrific. Suddenly to a generation of young girls the protests outside abortion clinics that were so prevalent at the time seemed different. Suddenly it occurred to us, in the simplest way, that these people protesting must not have seen Dirty Dancing.

They must not have seen the Pennys of the world. Women who didn’t have health insurance, support, or a job with maternity leave. Women who didn’t even the money for an abortion, let alone to give birth to a child. Penny was not perfect, but she was not an evil harlot either. She was a woman in a hopeless situation with no choices. Not that different than our aunts, big sisters, or even our moms. In another time, we could have been Penny. But on some level, my generation understood that part of the message of the movie was just that. No, we would never be Penny. Our generation would never have to face the dirty knife and folding table down the hall. We were the lucky ones, and Dirty Dancing ensured our entire generation understood that.

Eventually that first experience of what a back-alley abortion actually was would help us understand later that the debate raging was much more simple than Women’s Rights. Much less official than Roe v. Wade. Dirty Dancing made that first picture of abortion something that had nothing to do with moral or constitutional implications. There is no discussion in Dirty Dancing about when a fetus becomes a life. In fact Baby’s father, the Doctor, never says one word about whether abortions are right or wrong, just that they are illegal.

This debate was about our lives.

A few years after Dirty Dancing came out I entered high school and took a debate class. One of my first debates was debating whether Roe v. Wade should be reversed or not. I stood up in front of my class and described in detail what a back-alley abortion was. I explained how it was the leading cause of death for young women before 1973. I told the story of the real Pennys of the world. I won the debate.

I have a vintage Dirty Dancing shirt that I like to wear. On the back it has the most famous line from the movie, “No one puts Baby in a corner!” Though what that line means to each one of us may differ, as an adult today I can’t help but think that it’s a line symbolic for all women. It sums up the lesson on abortion that is told throughout the movie.

Our lives mean something. Our choices mean something. And we do not deserve to be pushed into a dark corner to sit quietly. Its not just Baby, it’s all of us.

None of us deserves to be put in a corner.


Meghan Harvey is a blogger, New Media Manager, Mom, and 80s movie obsessed women out the Bay Area. She contributes to,, MOMocrats, and her personal blog Meg’s Idle Chatter. You can find her on Twitter at @Meghan1018.


  • Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Have you ever heard of the movies TO FIND A MAN, RACING WITH THE MOON and OUR TIME? All have abortion themes, you might want to check them out. All are basically pro-choice (warning, not pleasant endings to the last two), but the first is annoying in that the young protagonist “becomes a man” in finding his clueless teenybopper girlfriend an abortion (not his baby) and its all about HIM mostly.

    Still, all of them capture important moments in women’s reproductive history and are worth watching for that reason.

  • Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    PS–it is notable that mores have changed radically, too… the babydaddy in TO FIND A MAN turns out to be an older man that would probably get taken to court in today’s time… but in the early 70s, it was just ‘the way things were’…

  • Posted April 27, 2012 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    GREAT post

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