‘Unpregnant’ and the Cathartic Beauty of the Hollywood Abortion-Comedy squib

HBO

In the 1966 romantic dramedy Alfie, a young Michael Caine (as the “cockney Casanova” himself) sits in an armchair in his apartment, staring uncertainly at a curtain. Behind it, a shifty, unreliable abortionist induces a woman named Lily, who is pregnant after a one-night dalliance with Alfie.

“I hate anything like this,” Alfie confides to the camera. “My understanding of women only goes as far as the pleasure. When it comes to the pain, I’m like every other bloke: I don’t want to know.” Seeing the fetus later reduces Alfie to tears. He grieves the “perfectly formed being” now “murdered” and renounces his careless womanizing; the abortion transforms him, setting him on a path to attempted respectability. He slips into a suit, grabs a bouquet, and sets off to court a woman called Ruby, hoping to settle down with her. Lily shuffles out of Alfie’s apartment in a traumatized haze, stroking a child’s teddy bear. It’s the last we see of her.

There were no happy endings for women who terminated unwanted pregnancies in movies until long after the 1968 dismantling of the pre-MPAA censorship guidelines often known as the Hays Code, which included demands that abortion should always be “condemned” if referenced at all. Another stipulation of the Code: Abortion “must never be treated lightly, or made the subject of comedy.” Alfie, despite being among the first film comedies to show a woman going through with an abortion, satisfied the decree easily; it painted the act as a moral failing with painful, tragically un-funny consequences. Movie comedies have progressed considerably since, though, in depicting abortion as matter-of-factly as life’s other complications—and daring to laugh at the absurdities surrounding it, too.

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