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  • Rich Klein

EDITORIAL: Dirty Dancing, Dirty Knife and Roe v. Wade

Thirty five years ago this week, the iconic movie Dirty Dancing premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

A major scene in the film- set in the Catskills and which even references Loch Sheldrake and opens with a ride up the Quickway - is when Penny returns back to the fictional resort after receiving a botched abortion.

"The guy had a dirty knife and a folding table," says one of the staffers to Johnny, the character played by Patrick Swayze.

In the movie, Dr. Jake Houseman -played by the magnificent Jerry Orbach - treats Penny (played by Cynthia Rhodes) and saves the day. The "Penny" character was loosely-based on Liberty's own Jackie Horner, the dance instructor at Grossinger's from 1954 through 1986 who died in early 2020.

Liberty legend Jackie Horner, whose stories about her times as the dance instructor at Grossinger's helped shape the script for Dirty Dancing, was honored by the County Legislature in August 2019. She died six months later.

Of course, the movie is set in the summer of 1963, exactly 10 years before Roe v Wade became the law of the land.

Now, the precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court decision could be overturned anytime between now and June 30 with a ruling in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health.

In the movie, Penny was blessed to have a doctor nearby to save her from possible death.

But of course, that will not be the reality for the poorest women in states that severely restrict access to abortion.

As Americans, we like to think our laws reflect the times we live in.

For example, some of our nation's founders owned slaves before the Union won the Civil War, ending legalized slavery and forever cementing Abraham Lincoln's legacy as one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history. And yet, it would be another century before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

It was time but long overdue.

The point is that legislation and Supreme Court decisions are supposed to reflect the times we live in.

That's one reason that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has it all wrong when he says that abortion should be banned because it's not in the Constitution. We all know that there are many, many other items not included in the Constitution, like the right to privacy.

But in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court first recognized the right to privacy when it decided Griswold v. Connecticut , a case that stopped Connecticut and other states from banning contraceptives. The same justices that decided Griswold held that abortion was legal when it decided Roe v. Wade eight years alter.

With the clock now ticking down on the landmark decision, it's clear that the American ideal of "freedom-loving" people will be just talk. If Roe disappears, the U.S. would have more restrictive abortion laws than many countries around the world.

The Washington Post columnist, E.J. Dionne (who I saw regularly in the early 1980s as a cub reporter in Albany) wrote this over the weekend:

"Here’s what’s not complicated: The best path toward reducing the incidence of abortion is to offer far more support to women, both during pregnancy and as they raise their children. By walking away from child credits, expanded child care and paid parental leave, our nation has signaled its indifference to their struggles. But the abrupt fall of Roe, and the widespread criminalization of abortion, would be disastrous. It would not end abortion. It would endanger the lives of many women and place a particular burden on the least privileged among us."

With Sullivan County at the bottom of New York State's health rankings and too many residents economically disadvantaged, Dionne has it right that criminalizing abortion could have disastrous consequence - including in Sullivan.

That's why the current situation in which five SCOTUS justices (and only one of them female) get to decide how millions of women manage their bodies reminds us of a 1981 bumper sticker that said: "The Moral Majority is neither."

That referred to the religious political organization founded in 1979 by Rev. Jerry Falwell that helped put Ronald Regan in The White House in 1980. Ironically, it's that same set of beliefs from that organization that formed the values of the five justices about to change what some of them said was "settled law. "

Dirty Dancing screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein said this in 2017 about the abortion scene that she included in the movie:

"Well, I don't know that we will always have Roe v. Wade."

New York right now protects a woman's right to choose and that should remain as long as Democrats keep the Legislature and the Executive Chamber.

But in at least 26 other states, millions of women might find themselves with the "dirty knife and a folding table" that we heard about in the movie.

Jackie Horner's stories about abortions in the Borscht Belt made it into Bergstein's script and, now, two years after her passing, that emotional scene in Dirty Dancing has taken on new meaning.


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