Forty-three years after Roe v. Wade, Americans remain about as deeply conflicted over abortion as ever.
The popularity of the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice” wax and wane, according to polls, but even “pro-choice” Americans generally support abortion only up to a point — typically not beyond the first trimester. The pro-choice absolutism of the Democratic party leadership — which opposes efforts of any kind to restrict abortion, including late-term abortion and IDX (intact dilation and extraction, also known as partial-birth abortion) — is contrary to the views of the vast majority of Americans.
The nation’s divided conscience on this subject is reflected on the screen. For some time, abortion rights advocates have expressed frustration over the cinematic problematizing of abortion and general preference for stories about expectant mothers who choose to give birth or conveniently miscarry (or, particularly in older films, even pay with their lives for attempting or even contemplating abortion).
The tug-of-war between the culture of life and the culture of death came into focus in a striking way nine years ago, in 2007. In one film after another — the crude slacker comedy “Knocked Up,” the indie comedies “Waitress” and “Juno,” the Catholic-produced indie drama “Bella” — an unplanned pregnancy briefly leads to contemplation of the possibility of abortion, but the conflicted mother chooses to have the baby, leading to a joyous, transformative denouement.
None of these films is an anti-abortion polemic. “Juno” includes a character who espouses pro-life rhetoric, helping to persuade Ellen Page’s Juno not to go through with her abortion, but Juno’s personal choice doesn’t mean she is now anti-abortion. (“Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody is pro-choice.) Keri Russell’s character in “Waitress” comes close to affirming a pro-life stance, citing her unborn baby’s “right to thrive” in her decision to quit smoking. Even “Bella,” which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, hears out all the reasons why Tammy Blanchard’s troubled character should want an abortion, and offers no explicit counter-argument.
Nevertheless, these films are all life-affirming, or broadly “pro-life,” in a sense that does embrace procreation and the child in the womb. I’m reminded of a 2004 incident in which LA Times writer Mark Swed, reviewing Richard Strauss’ epic opera “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” called it “an incomparably glorious and goofy pro-life paean.” In keeping with the paper’s ideologically rigid style guide, this was automatically changed in the editorial process to “an incomparably glorious and goofy anti-abortion paean.” A subsequent correction noted that while it does “extol procreation,” there is “no issue of abortion in the opera.”
Also in 2007, a Romanian drama, Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” offered an utterly different story of an unplanned pregnancy, one that ends in a horrific illegal abortion / double rape. Abortion rights advocates rightly noted that this excruciating sequence dramatizes the suffering and risk of back-alley abortion, and all the suffering and risk that could have been avoided if abortion were legal.
Yet the degrading and dangerous circumstances of the abortion don’t exhaust the film’s pathos. The product of the protagonist Gabita’s abortion — a bloody, burned fetus lying amid rags on a bathroom floor — is given a lingering closeup. The horror continues as Gabita asks her friend Otilia to bury the fetus, and Otilia wanders the dark streets carrying the tiny corpse in a bag, finally dropping it into a garbage chute.
This sequence is dreadful because the film has given Gabita’s problem a face — a human face — and with it a sense of human obligation. “4 Months” is not necessarily anti-abortion, but it insists that we acknowledge the human collateral of abortion.
Some abortion rights advocates are willing to face this reality: to acknowledge abortion as a tragedy even if it is also, in their view, a woman’s right and sometimes the best choice. But this conflicted view is a hard sell. More often pro-choicers prefer to deny or disregard the fetus’s humanity, to regard abortion as a non-problem. Last year’s “Obvious Child,” directed by Gillian Robespierre and starring Jenny Slate, may be the cinematic standard-bearer for such unapologetic abortion rights advocacy.
2007 also saw a pair of documentaries, “Unborn in the USA” and “Lake of Fire,” that offered generally mixed to negative depictions of the pro-life movement, although “Lake of Fire” in particular offered a spectrum of views on the pro-life side, even giving the floor to the left-wing, pro-life Jewish atheist Nat Hentoff, then of the Village Voice.
This is a welcome complication of the narrative around the abortion debate, both sides of which often treat the existence of pro-lifers who are atheists and nonbelievers and/or politically liberal as an awkward anomaly. I happen to count a small number of liberal, pro-life atheists among my friends and acquaintances, and I find it unfortunate that opposition to abortion is assumed to be inherently religious. It should not be hard to fathom why someone who believes that this life is all there is would oppose depriving anyone of it.
And few political observers in the years around and after Roe v. Wade, at a time when abortion opponents included the likes of Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Dick Gephardt, would have guessed that the Democratic Party — the party of the powerless and voiceless, the party of the large majority of Catholics at the time — would embrace abortion rights so absolutely.