Knocked Up and the American Impulse to Edit Out Abortion

How the comedy, now 15 years old, foresaw Roe’s looming tragedies

A photo collage of two scenes from the film Knocked Up.
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy

Early in Knocked Up, Ben Stone (played by Seth Rogen) tells his friends that a one-night stand has ended in pregnancy. Ben’s friend Jonah (Jonah Hill) offers him advice on the matter. “It rhymes with shma-shmortion,” Jonah says. “I’m just saying … you should get a shma-shmortion at the shma-shmortion clinic.”

Knocked Up is now 15 years old. It premiered in 2007, a product of raunch culture and one of its bards, the director Judd Apatow. The movie tells the story of Alison (Katherine Heigl), an up-and-coming entertainment reporter, and the charming slacker Ben, who have an encounter and then, in short order, a baby. The film is a fairy tale, of sorts—a romanticized account of how a night came to last a lifetime. I mention it because last week, a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion hinted that Roe v. Wade will soon fall—and because yesterday, Senate Republicans blocked a bill meant to safeguard Roe’s protections. Combined, the two events augur a rollback of rights that will give today’s women less say over their bodies than their grandmothers had.

Knocked Up, which processes an unintended pregnancy as a rom-com, is far removed from the grim realities of a post-Roe world. Alison’s life is not threatened by her pregnancy, nor is her livelihood. She lives in California, one of the bluest of the blue states. She has a community of people who are willing and able to support her. She has none of the vulnerabilities that can, for so many, turn a pregnancy into a catastrophe. Her genre, and therefore her situation, is comedy. But comedy, in the assumptions it makes about what is laughable and what is not, can be revealing. “Shma-shmortion” alone is revealing. Knocked Up is a self-consciously edgy movie that declines, again and again, to say the word abortion out loud. It has much to say about Roe’s looming tragedy—precisely because, so often, it opts to say nothing at all.

The pivotal scene of Knocked Up is notable mostly because it doesn’t exist. After Alison learns that she’s pregnant—the film conveys the discovery through a sequence involving vomit, urine, and James Franco—things proceed at a rapid clip. Alison tells Ben she’s pregnant (“with … emotion?” he asks in disbelief). They go to a doctor to confirm the news. “Congratulations!” chirps the obtuse ob-gyn; Alison bursts into tears. From there, we get a series of characters expressing their opinions about the pregnancy: Ben’s friends, arguing about “the A-word”; Alison’s mother, lunching with her daughter and advising her to “take care of it”; Ben’s father, advising the opposite (“I’m gonna be a grandfather!” he says, beaming); Ben himself, admitting, “I had a vision for how my life would go, and this definitely is not it.”

The person we do not hear from, in the tumult, is Alison. Her mini-arc, instead, goes from weeping to lunching to … calling Ben to tell him that she’s decided to keep the baby. The film’s most crucial plot point is withheld in the jump cut. Why does Alison make the life-changing decision she does? We’ll never know, because the movie never tells us.

A common criticism of Knocked Up is that the film, as Heigl put it in a now-famous 2008 interview, is “a little sexist.” The actor was talking in particular about character development: The movie “paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight,” she said, “and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys.” Beyond that, it declines to paint the women as much of anything. Alison, we learn, is cool-girl enough to spend a date helping Ben do research for a website dedicated to celebrity nudity; she is otherwise cold enough to spend a decent percentage of the film sulking or scolding. Knocked Up’s minor characters are more fully realized than she is. You could write pages about Ben’s roommate Jason (Jason Segel)—who alternately worships women and dismisses them, a little bit Don Juan and a little bit Don Quixote. As for the ostensible heroine of this modern fairy tale: Who is she, really? What could you say about her as a person, beyond her impending status as a mother?

Alison’s absence works as a euphemism. It suggests that Knocked Up, a movie that makes jokes about pedophilia and shows an assortment of naked bodies and generally does all it can to earn its R rating, has found the limit of its audacity. And that limit involves shma-shmortion. Euphemism implies shame, and engenders it. It insists that, in a culture that will say anything, some things must not be said. It is no coincidence that people in power tend to talk about abortion in this way too. President Joe Biden endorses reproductive freedom but rarely says the A-word in his public remarks. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer released a joint statement condemning Roe’s potential overturn. They wrote, with indignation and rage, about “bodily autonomy” and “constitutional rights.” But they did not write abortion.

In some sense, their broad language was accurate. The draft decision, and all that it proposes to take away, is about rights. It is about freedom, and personhood, and who can claim, in a country that has so often failed to honor its ideals, to be fully American. When it comes to Roe, though, all of those consequences distill into a single medical procedure. And to be coy in naming it—to say everything but abortion—is to denigrate Roe even in the guise of defending it.

Knocked Up’s silences, in that context, are eloquent. They give shape to the shame that is still frequently present in conversations about abortion rights. The film’s raunch turns out to be a feint: Knocked Up is, at its core, deeply conservative. Alison’s story takes on a certain inevitability, as the physics of family exerts its gravities. Pregnancy becomes motherhood; strangers become a couple; a new baby makes all the adjustments worthwhile. The film’s final scenes share joyous “family videos” of Alison and Ben and their daughter, set to Loudon Wainwright III’s song “Daughter.” The closing credits feature real family photos—of Knocked Up’s cast and crew, both as babies themselves and with their own kids.

One way to read Knocked Up’s silence on abortion, of course, is as an embedded argument: that Alison’s choice is so deeply hers that the film sees no need to justify or explain it. But that interpretation—the right to privacy, rendered in cinematic terms—would be much more convincing if the rest of the film weren’t so breezily dismissive of Alison’s body. Soon after she decides to keep the baby, she and Ben interview a series of ob-gyns: Alison is determined to find the right doctor, and Ben is determined to be accommodating. One session involves a vaginal examination. “Ooh!” the doctor says, mid-exam. “That is not your vagina. That’s your asshole.” She adds: “That happens about five times a day.”

The joke is not terribly funny, unless you find humor in the word asshole. It is, however, illustrative: You’d think that Alison herself would be aware of the doctor’s mistake. You’d further think that she—as someone who has been established as a scold—would speak up about the error. Instead, once again, she is silent. She has to be. For the joke to land, Alison must be written out of it.

There are many other moments that make a mockery of Alison’s privacy. She is seen, variously, vomiting; and splaying in exam-table stirrups; and hovering over a toilet, her underwear around her legs, while taking a series of home pregnancy tests (“I’m dripping!” she says). When she goes into labor, the film offers several extreme close-ups of the baby crowning: the lips, the head, the swirl of mucus and flesh. One of Ben’s friends enters the room and sees Alison’s body as the audience does, full-frontal and stretched to its limit. “Jesus!” he says, in shock and horror, before making a speedy exit. His disgust and the sight that triggered it are played for laughs, as Alison screams in epidural-free agony.

Childbirth, that elemental anguish, doubles as a metaphor. Its logic treats womanhood as indistinguishable from motherhood; it assumes that to be a woman is, definitionally, to be a bearer of pain. The idea insinuates itself everywhere: in medicine (practitioners’ dismissals of women’s discomfort mean that consequential maladies can take years to diagnose); in beauty standards (the aggressive abnegations of dieting, the sting of needles and wax); in fashion (the organ-smashing devices euphemized as “shapewear”); in nearly every other facet of life. Assumptions about self-denial—motherhood as the most natural, and noble, of wounds—pervade discussions of abortion, too. Even the commentators who acknowledge the dangers and cruelties of forced birth—even those, that is to say, who acknowledge reality—summon such scripts to rationalize, and thereby ignore, women’s pain.

This past weekend, on CNN’s State of the Union, the anchor Jake Tapper asked Tate Reeves, Mississippi’s governor, about the state’s trigger law that will go into effect if Roe falls. “Assuming that the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade,” Tapper said, “the state of Mississippi will force girls and women who are the victims of incest to carry [the child] to term. Can you explain why that is going to be your law?” “Well, that’s going to be the law because in 2007, the Mississippi legislature passed it,” the governor replied. And then he changed the subject.

That’s why “shma-shmortion,” that easy joke, can hit so hard. Alison is absent even as she gets her share of screen time; she is ignored even as she is elevated. The philosopher Kate Manne talks about himpathy, a disproportionate sympathy afforded to men at the expense of women. She uses the term specifically in the context of misogyny and sexual violence: instances in which, when it’s “he said, she said,” people side with the he. But it’s applicable, too, to Knocked Up—and the fact that the real protagonist, in this movie about pregnancy, is the guy who did the impregnating. The film, to its credit, presents Ben as a partner, both willing and obligated. But that assumption means that Alison, ostensibly the film’s lead, often acts as a supporting character. Will Ben, wayward and awkward and surrounded by friends who spend their days watching porn and smoking weed and generally marinating in arrested development—friends who refer to ob-gyns as “gynechiatrists”—be able to grow up? As Alison becomes a mother, will Ben be able to become a father? These are the questions that animate the movie. Alison’s role, along the way, is blandly maternal: By giving birth to his baby, Knocked Up implies, she is helping Ben, the man-child, become a man.

Rom-coms revolve around conflict but require a resolution. Knocked Up provides one. Fifteen years ago—the year that Knocked Up premiered; the year that Juno, another pregnancy comedy, premiered; the year that saw the Mississippi state legislature pass the anti-abortion laws that may soon go into effect—Alison met Ben, and got pregnant, and, approximately two screen hours later, became a mother. Knocked Up treated that as a happy ending. I can’t help but see it as an omen, though, as women await the decision other people are making about their bodies and their lives: Alison had a choice. But in another way, she didn’t.