When people think of Dirty Dancing, it’s almost always the famous lift scene and Patrick Swayze saying “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” that come to mind. But in the last few weeks, a leaked Supreme Court opinion revealing that Roe v. Wade may soon be overturned has reminded more than a few people that abortion also plays a major role in Dirty Dancing’s plot. After all, Baby (Jennifer Grey) only learns to dance so that she can fill in for Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), who is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. I’ve realized that there’s one more thing from the movie—a number, actually—that’s stuck with me over the years almost as much as that lift: $250.
That’s how much Penny needs to get an illegal abortion in the movie, money that Baby gets for her by borrowing it from her father, a family doctor. Without realizing it, I carried that $250 around with me for years; it became one of my only frames of reference for how much an abortion might cost. No matter that the movie was fictional, and set firmly in the past, in 1963. Until recently, if you asked me how much an abortion was, my answer probably would have started, “Well, it cost $250 in Dirty Dancing … ”
“A lot of people don’t think about the cost of an abortion until you need one,” Steph Herold told me. She’s a researcher who works on the Abortion Onscreen Database, a project at the University of California, San Francisco that collects examples of media depictions of abortion. “It may be that the only place that you actually hear about or think about ‘Oh, what might an abortion cost?’ is when you actually see someone talk about it in a movie or on TV.” For the record, the mean cost for a medication or aspiration abortion is around $500 in the United States today.
It’s rare that movies discuss abortion at all, and among films that do, Dirty Dancing stands out in several ways, one of which is its inclusion of that all-important $250 figure. Herold said that of the more than 180 movies and TV shows in the Abortion Onscreen Database, only about 15 contain any discussion of cost, and even fewer name a specific number.
Encouragingly, this may be changing. “There seems to be a trend of films in particular talking about that more, films that are explicitly about abortion access,” Herold said, citing 2015’s Grandma and 2020’s Unpregnant. “Those recent examples I think are unique in actually talking about a big barrier to getting an abortion: having to come up with the money,” Herold said, though “they don’t really go into the details about, well, why is it that they need to raise the money? Is it because their insurance doesn’t cover abortion?”
We can add to the list of movies that do talk about the cost this year’s Happening, a French film set, just like Dirty Dancing, in 1963, in which a literature student named Anne must come up with money for an illegal abortion.
Happening director and co-writer Audrey Diwan wanted to show that access to abortions, which were illegal in France until 1975, was very much determined by class. “Illegal abortion is a poor woman problem,” she told me. Whereas women with resources could travel to other countries—“You have the money, you take a boat and you go to England,” Diwan said—women with less money were more likely to seek out dangerous, illegal abortions.
“If they were rich, the story would not be the same,” she said. “It means that money is very much in the middle of the question we should ask ourselves.”
Like that $250 in Dirty Dancing, Happening gives us a specific price tag: 400 francs. “Annie Ernaux and I worked on the idea of how much it cost and how to translate it in the old currency,” Diwan said. (Ernaux wrote the book upon which Happening is based.) They wanted to be accurate to the period, but the secrecy surrounding abortion at the time and lack of straightforward records made it difficult to determine an exact figure. They settled on 400 francs, but “it was never the same price everywhere, as you can guess.”
It’s a figure that’s a little hard to interpret unless you lived in France in the 1960s, so I asked Diwan how much that amount would have meant to Anne, who sells off her belongings in the movie to raise the money. “Literally everything she owned” had to be sold, Diwan said. “She kept very few clothes and no jewelry from her baptism.”
In addition to showing Anne’s desperation, selling off her treasured memories also serves a metaphorical purpose, Diwan said. “The idea was: Let’s forget about your past in order to save your future.”
As much as these exact numbers can make the issue more concrete, they can also distort. If you were watching Dirty Dancing in the 1990s or 2000s like me, the number $250 might have provided some measure of comfort: That was more money than any teenager I knew had on hand, but it wasn’t an impossible amount.
But $250 then would be roughly equivalent to $2,300 in today’s dollars. It was a number Dirty Dancing screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein arrived at through research about how much an abortion might realistically cost in the New Paltz, New York, area in the 1960s.
“It was more money than any of those kids made in a whole summer working in the Catskills,” she told me. “If everybody pooled all their summer salaries, the kids in the dirty dancing room wouldn’t have enough to pay for it, because they basically had room and board and they lived on tips. It was just pie in the sky.”
Despite writing a movie all about the financial hardship of obtaining an abortion, Bergstein said it wasn’t until a few years ago, when she was asked to be part of a Dirty Dancing screening fundraiser, that she realized that monetary hurdles still pose a considerable problem today. “I didn’t understand until I had that Q&A afterwards that this was to raise money for people who couldn’t scrape together the money even for a legal abortion, that it was still sometimes you had to go to another county or you had to even get to another state if it were past a certain month or something.”
“That was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “If you don’t have money, everything is hard—I mean, it’s hard to keep food on the table, it’s hard to have milk for your baby, everything is hard. But I hadn’t really spent a lot of time thinking of how hard it was to get a legal abortion.”
If the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision goes as all signs indicate it will, this sort of fundraising will only grow more important—as will seeing the realities of paying for abortion depicted on-screen. “As abortion is recriminalized, the cost of an abortion is going to likely go up, not because the procedure will be more expensive but because people will have to travel further and take more time off of work and stay longer in hotels,” Herold said. “So it will really be on Hollywood to show that and bring that home for people.”
I’m glad that Dirty Dancing forced me to think about how hard it would be to pay for an abortion all those years ago. But we need more movies and shows set in the present to talk about the money aspect too. Dancing is optional—but encouraged.
For more on the historic fight for abortion rights, listen to Slow Burn: Roe v. Wade.