A film about abortion that is not about abortion

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It’s been 15 years since Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman graced our eyes and ears with the story of a 15-year-old Juno MacGuff (Elliot Page) who accidentally becomes pregnant and gives the baby up for adoption. Over the years, we’ve discussed the soundtrack, performance, and dialogue that seems to come from a mushroom trip. The film is even used in the Irish secondary school curriculum. However, one element of the film that hasn’t been so easily discussed but is now more relevant than ever is its depiction of abortion. Juno is basically an abortion movie that isn’t really about abortion. It does not state categorically whether this is a “pro-choice” or “pro-life” story. It’s a movie that kind of says, “hey, the abortion is going to be in this movie, but we’re not going to let it take up the whole narrative.”

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For those of you who haven’t seen Juno in a moment, let’s take a waddling memory lane. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we’ve established that Juno, much to her dismay, is pregnant and is “a doodle that can’t be undone.” She calls her best friend, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), to tell her she’s pregnant and Leah doesn’t ask Juno if she is going to have an abortion but rather which clinic she is going to go to. They discuss it as if Juno is just going to get her nails done (more on that later) and the discussion of the matter seems to be pretty painless.

For the American public, this scene is nothing revolutionary. In 2007, abortion had been around for a long time and the future of its legality was not uncertain as it is now. But for an 11-year-old, it was groundbreaking. Growing up in Ireland, abortion was a severely taboo and shameful subject. I can proudly say that we changed that in 2018 when we legalized abortion by referendum, but 2007 was completely different. Juno was one of the first movies I saw that mentioned or referenced abortion, and I was blown away by the normality of it all. No mention of being sent to ‘boarding school’, no need to take a flight to another country, and no overwhelming feelings of shame or fear. Thinking back to the movie, I would definitely say that Juno helped me understand abortion and the need for it to be legal, and how it can be a procedure that is not steeped in shame or guilt.


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Now, of course, we all know that Juno doesn’t end up having an abortion, otherwise the movie would be 20 minutes long. Juno is scared of…nails. Juno seems to feel pretty good about her decision until she meets her classmate Su-Chin (Valerie Tian) who demonstrates alone in front of the clinic, shouting “All babies want to be born!” Diablo Cody seems to deliberately make anti-abortion protesters look a bit stupid, not using correct grammar in their preaching statements. And yet, it is Su-Chin who influences Juno’s decision. She tells Juno that her unborn baby has fingernails, and once Juno walks into the clinic, that’s all she can think about. A disturbing and uncomfortable montage begins with the other women in the clinic using their nails in different ways: picking, painting, scratching and biting. It makes Juno run out faster than you can see “burger phone” and it seems to be her decision: she’s going to have this baby.


Some might say this change of mind is a bit too sudden and primitive, but I would ask these people to think back to when they were fifteen. You think you’re on the cusp of adulthood, but you don’t realize you’re still light years away from having it all figured out. A comment, message or fact can change your world, and that’s exactly what happens to Juno. Even though it comes from someone saying “born”, it’s so easy to get sidetracked at this age. The appeal of Juno’s character is that she thinks she’s got it all figured out in life, but by the end of the movie she knows she still has a lot to learn. If at the start of the film, Juno was able to rule herself with a strict set of guidelines and be an immaculate decision maker, it would take away from the authenticity with which Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman have associated the film. As Cody makes clear early in the script, this film is not designed to offer grand mediations on life’s big questions. It wouldn’t fit in the movie for Juno to break down in tears in front of Leah or her parents, exclaiming why she needs to have this baby. That’s not the style here. Juno changes her mind and life goes on, and there’s no time for a big soliloquy about pro-choice or pro-life mediations.


The nail scene is also a reminder of how truly horrific abortion can be. It’s an uncomfortable, scary and overall unpleasant experience. Yes, we want women to have a choice, but we also hope that no woman possesses to make the choice. The nail scene could be the movie’s way of reminding audiences that just because abortion is legal doesn’t make it any less scary, like any medical procedure. The film would do an injustice if it portrayed the abortion clinic as Nirvana. We’ve all met these rude, disinterested employees who freak us out (though I have to admit no one has ever told me about their boyfriend’s pie balls). Again, the movie doesn’t try to sway the audience, just paints things as they are. Sometimes, especially when you’re a teenager, the simplest things can completely skew your point of view, and sometimes, and it may surprise some people, young girls change their minds.


At the end of the day, Juno will not be remembered for its portrayal of abortion. There are arguments for it to be a pro-choice, pro-life movie. But there has to be something to be said for a film that introduces abortion into its plot without letting it monopolize the story. When you compare it to other movies about unwanted pregnancies like The Magdalen Sisters, it is important for people to see that abortion can be described with some level of normalcy. We see it more in current cinema like last year’s Pregnant which revolves around two friends reconnecting as one tries to get an abortion. But again, it’s not “a film about abortion”, it’s a film about friendship.

It’s fair to say that Juno‘s take on abortion is odd, as we’re not used to movies discussing an issue and not specifying which side they’re on. However, the portrayal of how abortion can exist, safely and illegally, and not have to be an intrusive presence in a narrative shows how it should remain legalized in American society. Take what you want, but I’ve always viewed the movie as letting people know that abortion doesn’t send the world into chaos. The pro-choice movement is so called because it is not about abortion but about choice. And that includes changing it at the last minute, just like Juno.


The road ahead seems quite terrifying for women in America, and I have never felt so empathetic since the long and arduous march to legal abortion in Ireland is still etched in the memory of Irish women. I hope that in the years to come, when Americans watch this movie, they can reflect on the mundane legal nature of abortion in the movie and that it won’t be a bygone era.


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