'Dirty Dancing' Was A Safe-Abortion Champion Wrapped In A Rom-Com Bow

Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein reflects on her hit script 30 years later.

Who knew, when we were watching and re-watching “Dirty Dancing” decades ago in our teenage years that it would be the one slyly feminist VHS in our collection to stand the test of time?

Perhaps screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein had an inkling. “As my husband says, if I’m not happy about [the film’s longevity], I better make films on the moon,” she told The Huffington Post over the phone of the film’s 30th anniversary. Since its 1987 release, Baby’s unforgettable summer at Kellerman’s Catskills resort has been seen — and loved — worldwide.

It’s also one of the few films we can point to when looking for honest depictions of abortion on the big screen, through the character of Penny, a dancer who must miss a performance in order to undergo a back-alley procedure in 1963, a decade before Roe v. Wade. It’s this event that serves as the catalyst for the rest of the plot: The wide-eyed resort guest Baby (Jennifer Grey) offers to take Penny’s place and learn a routine with the mysterious and volatile dance instructor Johnny (Patrick Swayze), whom she’s undeniably attracted to. The classic rom-com back-and-forth ensues.

“It didn’t take a lot of space on the page,” Bergstein said of the film’s abortion plotline. “As it came to be, right before the movie came out, a national sponsor saw it and asked to take the abortion out. The studio came to me when the film was already shot and asked me to take the abortion out. I could say quite truthfully, ‘Well, I can’t, because if there’s no abortion in it, there’s no reason for Baby to learn to dance, to fall in love with Johnny — so the whole story falls apart.’”

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in "Dirty Dancing."
Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in "Dirty Dancing."
Hulton Archive via Getty Images

”They didn’t really notice [the abortion plotline],” Bergstein said. “Sometimes, somebody noticed it and said, ‘Why is this here? You know, this is 1987. Roe v. Wade is in. It’s silly.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but in ‘63 it wasn’t, and who knows.’ Nobody cared enough to even fight with me about it but they thought it was a little foolish to put it in. Now, of course we know that Roe v. Wade is hanging by a thread.”

In this way, a film that on its surface appeared to be a straightforward love story also portrayed the dark reality of illegal abortions — a big-screen reminder of the importance of rights that generations of women have fought to protect. In a frantic scene, Baby calls upon her doctor father when she’s learned Penny is experiencing complications from the shoddy operation. Another employee of Kellerman’s explains the unsanitary conditions to which Penny was subjected.

“One of the reasons I had that purple language in — ‘dirty knife,’ ‘folding table’ — was that young women, when the movie came out in ‘87, would have thought [having an abortion] was like, going to Planned Parenthood or having an appendectomy. They wouldn’t have understood exactly what would happen because they were in that little bubble of total safety,” Bergstein explained. At that point, a viewer of “Dirty Dancing” could have lived with the protections from Roe v. Wade as a given her whole life. While Bergstein said she’s happy to have been able to share this particular story, she said, “I have no pleasure over the fact that it’s an issue now.”

For some, abortion on screen can seem unremarkable. However, looking more closely, a storyline like that of Penny’s doesn’t often come along in Hollywood. Bergstein recalled going back and looking at other films that might have depicted an uncertain pregnancy, and being surprised that few addressed abortion frankly.

One film Bergstein does cite as portraying an abortion story realistically is 2014’s “Obvious Child,” where a broke stand-up comedian has to grapple with an abortion after having a one-night stand.

“What ‘Obvious Child’ does do is show how hard it is even to have a legal abortion,” Bergstein said. “How expensive, how painful, how emotionally difficult it is.”

“We went through them all, and it turned out that since ‘Dirty Dancing,’ all the radical feminist movies about unwanted pregnancies ended up with the woman deciding to have the baby after all,” she explained. “So there really weren’t any legal abortions in films in the last 30 years. And I was more surprised than anybody by that, ‘cause I thought, well we put it in and after that, it opened the doors.”

The “Dirty Dancing” 30th Anniversary Collector’s Box is available Feb. 7.

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