PBS Frontline Special Shows How Much Abortion Has Changed in 36 Years

I never saw Frontline’s “Abortion Clinic,” the 1983 documentary that looked inside a Pennsylvania clinic offering abortion services. After all, I was only six years old when it ran, a first grade student with no idea what abortion even was, much less how rapidly the United States had changed in just the 10 years since safe, legal abortion had become a constitutional right.

Although I would later have vague memories of watching protesters block clinics en masse in the early ’90s on the evening news, for the most part I grew up knowing abortion was legal, believing it was fairly easy to obtain and thinking — even in the Midwest, where I lived – that terminating a pregnancy was more the fodder of church debates and election campaigns than it was an everyday issue.

For me, and probably a lot of people who fall into that late Generation X/early millennial cusp or later, it can start to feel like we’ve always been here — struggling to keep clinics open, fighting to stop heartbeat bans and wrestling to prevent long waiting periods from becoming law.

It becomes hard to remember that there used to be a time when a person could walk into an abortion clinic without a prior appointment, and a doctor would perform a termination. A person could only have a vacuum aspiration or a D&E, and medication wasn’t even an option. Clinics often looked just like a doctor’s office, rather than an operating room in a hospital.

And, yes, abortion opponents running into a procedure room to lock themselves to equipment or piling up to block a door and refusing to leave until police dragged them away was a constant threat — but there was no need for every waiting room to have bulletproof glass for protection.

It’s perhaps the greatest strength of “The Abortion Divide,” PBS Frontline’s revisit to “Abortion Clinic” now that 36 years have passed. The juxtaposition of “then” and “now” draws an undeniable contrast for the audience of just how much abortion has evolved in just three-and-a-half decades — some for the good, but sadly much more for the bad.

Just the fact that the original clinic that Frontline directors returned to no longer exists — it merged with another Pennsylvania clinic — is one of the clearest changes, and probably the most recent. A 2011 TRAP law requiring abortion clinics to meet the same physical standards as the state’s ambulatory surgical centers — even if they were only providing simple early abortion care — caused at least five clinics in the state to close, with those that remained being forced to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in remodeling and equipment purchases to meet this new medically unnecessary regulation.

In many cases, abortion clinics have gone from simple medical offices to surgical centers for no other reason than the whims of anti-abortion legislature who want to run them out of business.

Restrictions on the procedure itself have also increased in the state of Pennsylvania since 1983. Minors must obtain parental consent in order to receive an abortion, and all patients must wait at least 24 hours between an initial appointment and counseling session and the procedure itself.

Also occurring in the 36 years between these Frontline documentaries was the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which allowed states to introduce restrictions in the first trimester as long as they had a “health” benefit to the person trying to obtain the pregnancy and didn’t constitute an “undue burden” on the right to access a termination.

The state of Pennsylvania was the defendant in that case, and all of its proposed abortion restrictions were found constitutional except for a requirement that a married person must get permission from their spouse before obtaining an abortion.

But while clinics and access — both physical and legal — have dramatically changed in the intervening three decades, abortion protestors certainly haven’t. As the documentary shows, many of today’s anti-abortion activists have been in front of these clinics for over a generation, and their opinions and tactics have changed very little in the process.

This was especially obvious as many discussed the “real” root of the abortion problem — “promiscuity” — and how contraception only exacerbates the problem of unintended pregnancy.

Still, if there’s a silver lining to be found in the comparison between then and now, it’s the availability of easier, earlier methods of abortion care.

Many of the patients in the documentary chose to end their pregnancies using medication abortion — a method that didn’t exist in the United States when “Abortion Clinic” was filmed in 1983. Almost all of the patients seemed content with their decisions — although one did vacillate some when she learned that she was pregnant with twins — and all appeared very aware of what to expect, even without the “informed consent” information that the state mandates.

Interestingly, every patient filmed was already a parent — unsurprisingly 60 percent of those terminating pregnancies already have children – a realistic portrayal, yet not one general audiences tend to be familiar with.

Abortion has been legal for 46 years — and even in just that period of time, the medical and political landscape of access has dramatically shifted. Even if it remains legal, it very likely will shift again.

Hopefully, when Frontline revisits this topic again another 36 years down the road, there will still be a clinic left to document.

“The Abortion Divide” runs Tuesday, April 23 at 10:00 pm Eastern.

Photo credit: Robin Marty

46 comments

Leo C
Leo Custer11 days ago

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Leo Custer
Leo Custer13 days ago

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Ingrid A
Ingrid A13 days ago

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Janet B
Janet B15 days ago

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Janis K
Janis K16 days ago

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Tania N
Tania N18 days ago

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Tania N
Tania N18 days ago

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Hannah A
Hannah A19 days ago

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Janis K
Janis K20 days ago

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Leo C
Leo Custer20 days ago

thank you for sharing!

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