Dirty Dancing and Reproductive Justice

28 years ago today, Patrick Swayze’s character Johnny lifted Jennifer Grey’s character Baby while “I’ve had the time of my life” blared in moDirty-dancing-coverx-largevie theaters across the country for the first time. To this day, Dirty Dancing continues to be a rite of passage for many. The dancing, the music, Jerry Orbach, the reproductive justice storyline—what’s not to love? That’s right: for many of us, Dirty Dancing was our first exposure to abortion in general, but also specifically the cost of not having access to safe, legal abortion care. (Yes, there are spoilers.)

In the movie, Johnny’s dance partner, Penny, finds herself pregnant at a time before Roe v Wade so she does not have access to safe, legal abortion care. During this time many women attempted to self-induce their abortions or went to untrained practitioners who performed abortions with primitive methods or in unsanitary conditions, as Penny does. Some women in pre-Roe days were able to obtain relatively safer, although still illegal, abortions from private doctors, but this wasn’t an option for Penny who couldn’t afford it on her salary as a dancer.

Like a number of other women of that day, Penny suffers a life-threatening complication after her illegal abortion. Although accurate records could not be kept, it is known that between the 1880s and 1973, many thousands of women were harmed as a result of illegal abortion and not everyone was lucky enough to have Jerry Orbach to help them as Penny did.

And while Dirty Dancing taught us about the public health crisis of illegal abortion, it also showed us some of the access barriers that many women still face today. Like Penny, many women still struggle to afford the cost of their care and have to borrow money from others, they face challenges getting a ride and someone to go with them to their appointment, and they have to figure out how they can avoid losing their job for taking time off from work.

But it isn’t the 1960s, and here are some ways we can make it better:

Health insurance coverage:

Many women simply cannot afford the abortion care they need. Like Penny, women are often forced to borrow money from family and friends or even pawn items and take out payday loans in order to afford the care they need. Due to the Hyde Amendment and state laws restricting or completely banning private health insurance coverage for abortion care, having health insurance often doesn’t help. Fortunately, members of Congress are working to change that by passing the EACH Woman Act.

Paid sick leave:

43 million people – nearly 40% of the U.S. workforce—don’t have any paid sick leave. Just like Penny, millions of women have to risk their jobs in order to obtain the abortion care they need. If they don’t lose their job, they often lose pay for one or more days that they have to take off related to this care. Ensuring all workers have paid sick leave will help make accessing the health care they need less burdensome.


Anti-choice politicians continue to pander to extremists’ efforts to shut down safe abortion clinics and put as many roadblocks as possible in front of women seeking care. This is making safe, legal abortion care nearly inaccessible for a growing number of women in America. According to a recent New York Times article: “The average Texas county is now 111 miles from the nearest clinic, up from 72 miles in 2012. This is substantially higher than the national average outside Texas, 59 miles, and more than triple the average in deep red South Carolina, 36 miles.” However, even 20 miles can be an insurmountable distance without a car or public transportation. Increased travel time can also increase costs: more time off of work, finding child care, paying for gas, possibly even having to rent a hotel room. Safe, legal abortion care is meaningless if it isn’t accessible.

While anti-choice politicians continue to try to roll back the clock to the days of Dirty Dancing, we must not forget the lessons we learned from Penny, Baby, and Johnny. Let’s keep the iconic lift from the film, but let’s not return to the unsafe, illegal abortions, and let’s get rid of barriers to abortion access. Send a letter to your governor and other state elected officials telling them to not be swayed by the recent misleading tactics by anti-choice extremists and to protect women’s access to safe abortion care.


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