To continue by inauspicious run of linking current events to topics I’d probably discuss anyway, British readers will have heard about the case of Sarah Catt, who terminated her foetus in the last stage of pregnancy and has been jailed for eight years. The prosecution (‘administering poison with intent to cause a miscarriage’, a law from 1867) and sentencing are interesting for a number of reasons. Medical abortions performed before the 24th week are perfectly legal, and a woman performing one on herself would not expect serious prosecution. In the UK there were 189,100 legal terminations in 2009 and 195,296 in 2008 (ONS).
At the other end, Murder is illegal, and one would reasonably expect a jail term far longer than eight years for executing an innocent born infant, who is not threatening one’s life. The judge pointed out that the act was between manslaughter and murder. The sentence thus seems to reflect that an unborn late-term foetus is in a scary liminal phase between legal personhood, and legal just-a-bunch-of-cells-hood, plus punishment for Catt’s lack of remorse, empathy, or explanation for not having terminated sooner. One imagines there’s also a strong element of ‘making an example’ of Catt to dissuade other potential self-administering abortionists. This Grauniad article does a decent job looking at legal contradictions, such as the fact that women are able to refuse medical treatment which would save a foetus (e.g. C-section) and the fact the judge is linked to Christian groups campaigning to shorten the permitted abortion term.
Having already muttered about my own feelings on abortion/infanticide here, my thoughts instead turned to Ellen Page. I mean, to the film Juno, in which the titular character, having accidentally conceived, chooses to carry her foetus to birth and give her to a well-selected adoptive parent. In the Catt case, this would seem by far the most preferable option (assuming as I am that there are no undisclosed medical issues forcing Catt’s hand).
However, Juno’s early decision to reject legal, appropriate-period medical abortion reminded me of my post-Christianity rant. I realised I couldn’t think of a single commercially successful film which deals with abortion positively. I’ll go through them below, but as I do, ask yourself whether this is Hollywood reflecting society’s mores, or Hollywood shying away from a controversial stance on a controversial topic (and the furore/boycotting that might evoke).
[Sidenote: without suggesting you do or linking you, it’s quite easy to find the relevant scenes from these films by searching on a website the rhymes with pooh lube]
Box Office: $231 000 000
At first glance, this does deal with abortion pretty even-handedly. The witty, wise and astonishingly calm Juno MacGuff, having become pregnant from her one tryst with Michael Cera, does actually visit an abortion clinic (in her first trimester) before deciding to opt for closed adoption. Yay, we see it’s the woman’s choice! What a compassionate yet adult decision!
Hang on there.
Let’s look a little closer at that. Even ignoring the characters’ total lack of contraceptive effort or knowledge, Juno seems to make her choice pretty fucking fast. On what does she base her decision? Firstly, there is her friendly, sympathetic classmate who is standing a lonely vigil, protesting in the abortion clinic car park. Her poster shows a mangled foetus/baby, which would have been many weeks ‘older’ than Juno’s bump. Moreover she pleads with Juno not to abort because “Your baby probably has a beating heart. It can feel pain. It has fingernails.”
For presumably-comic reasons, Juno is far more affected by the fingernail revelation than by the beating heart (i.e. ‘the quickening’, which can/has been used as an abortion cut-off point) or by the ability to feel pain (which would be ethically relevant to most people.) Juno’s fingernail obsession carries through to the clinic’s interior, where she notices all the pregnant women nervously scratching themselves or drumming their fingers into what becomes a cacophony, forcing Juno to flee. I’m not a doctor, but this piece argues all the Sue-Chin’s claims were lies.
Of course, I am aware that if Juno had an early term abortion, the plot would be ruined. But I’d have expected better reasoning from so street-smart a girl than this emotional tide. Perhaps we should look at possible contributing factors:
– Juno goes to the clinic alone, whereas over half of American women are accompanied by ‘the father’, and more by a friend or relative. This obviously makes the traumatic situation far worse.
-The clinic is in the middle of a dirty, empty car park. This not only sets a sombre scene for meeting the abortion protester, but implies very few people have abortions, whilst also evoking poverty and foreboding.
-The staff at the clinic suck. The receptionist is little older than Juno, covered in piercings (conforming to the demographic truth that more working class or minority women have abortions), she seems utterly disinterested (plays Gameboy, no eye contact) and asks Juno invasive, patronising questions in public. I cannot, of course, speak for all abortion clinic staff, but it’s fair to say that the one example the film portrays is extremely negative.
-The other women are, like Juno, alone (asides on with a child already). They are, moreover, very different from her, seemingly unconcerned with what they’re about to do, as well as being ethnic Others.
-Sue-Chin is unrepresentative of the massive, Christian-based and quite terrifying abortion protests that go on both sides of the Atlantic regularly. She’s belittled by her inability to say ‘born’ (‘borned’) and mollified further by Juno’s charm.
OK, super. So Juno goes through with the pregnancy. There is very little discussion of how emotionally difficult it is to give up the being you’ve carried for 9 months, nor the dangers of pregnancy – the worst Juno gets is comic morning-vomit into her stepmother’s urn.
Box Office: $219 000 000
In this one, Katherine Heigl’s Alison is a talented woman, a promoted TV presenter. She has a one-night stand with Seth Rogen (it’s not important what Rogen’s character’s nominal name was, since he plays Seth Rogen in every film) who is a pot-smoking layabout with moronic friends and no obvious prospects. When the two are getting to business, Rogen is too drunk to properly put on a condom, prompting Alison to shout “Just do it already”, which creates a misunderstanding, Rogen thinking he’s being told to get on with sex bareback.
Alison’s mother urges her to abort, as do some of Rogen’s friends, but you can tell she’s never really into it. This seems to be a motif – people who suggest women try abortions are generally portrayed as uncaring or heartless, whereas those who err pro-life are balanced, reasonable human beings who certainly aren’t motivated by a Spaghetti Monster’s edicts. No sir.
I’ll quote someone else on this:
“It seems a sad commentary on the creativity of Apatow, et al, that they were unable to include a conversation about why a young, career-oriented woman who had no discernible desire for children at that point in her life decided to continue with the pregnancy that resulted from a one-night stand with a man she didn’t even seem to like that much. Or, for that matter, why a young, ambitionless man with no discernible desire for children at that point in his life decided to blithely accept fatherhood without seeming to appreciate the massive changes he would have to make.”
Sarah also makes a strong argument about the wider constraints of Hollywood, showing that ‘true happiness’ can only be achieved by Rogen devoting himself to a heteronormative, capitalist existence, and Heigl is better off ‘being supported’ than kicking ass. Heigl, to her credit, criticised the film.
Box Office: $213 000 000
OK, this was set when abortion was illegal in the US. Penny, a secondary and working-class character, becomes pregnant by Robbie, a crass womaniser, who doesn’t give a shit about Penny’s situation, declaring “some people count, some people don’t”. The heroine, Baby, obtains money for Penny, who tries to get a back-street abortion and nearly dies. Her dad saves Penny but lots of shit goes down. Robbie is even more of a dick later.
So, abortion is permissible (yay!) but only of the father is a total curmudgeon (boo!) Whilst this film was pretty ahead of its time, and had to fight hard to include the abortion subplot at all (despite it being vital to the main plot), it still shows termination as an extreme last-resort, not a fundamental right.
The Godfather, Part II
Box Office: $ 193 000 000
OK, this film isn’t much about pregnancy. But it is a massively popular film. In it, Michael’s wife Kay has a miscarriage, and Michael is devastated. Kay, becoming increasingly critical of Michael’s role as mafia kingpin, asks him to stop and an argument ensues, in which she reveals that she actually aborted her (presumed male) foetus so there’d be no heir to the Corleone syndicate.
OK, so women who have abortions are also deranged, manipulative and deceptive; abortion is a crimefighting weapon; abortion is only permissible when you’re stopping the birth of the next Don.*
Cider House Rules
Box Office: $ 88 000 000
Michael Caine is a lovely doctor, and Toby Maguire, his abandoned-orphan sidekick, in 1940s Maine. Caine is particularly wonderful because he performs abortions freely, and takes in unwanted children. All good so far.
However, all the actual abortions portrayed in the film have negative consequences. Charlize Theron’s character has one when her lover goes off to WWII, but is devastated to learn that his injuries mean they will never be able to conceive again. Maguire, who was initially against abortion, is convinced to perform one on poor black girl Rose Rose, who has been raped by her father, Mr Rose. It turns out that Caine is addicted to ether, and eventually overdoses, forcing Maguire back to the orphanage/clinic. He takes over as director, seemingly unhappy with his lot in the frozen wastes performing an operation he was never comfortable with.
So: abortion either has bad consequences, or is only permissible in the case of incestuous rape. There’s a message to take home.
The Ides of March
Box Office: $76 000 000
This slick political thriller revolves around the backstabbing that occurs in a fictional Democratic primary. Ryan Gosling, Junior Campaign Manager for George Clooney, discovers Clooney had an affair with his intern, Evan Rachel Wood, who happens to be the DNC Chairman’s daughter. To keep this from harming his idealised candidate, Gosling takes Wood to a clinic, gives her money and promises to pick her up.
He doesn’t, and she, having had the abortion, discovers that Gosling has been fired (for an unrelated incident involving a scheming Paul Giammati.) She fears he’ll use her as a pawn to get back into the campaign, meaning a public shaming, so commits suicide.
Gosling does, in fact, use the tragedy to blackmail Clooney into making him campaign manager.
Box Office: $ 12 900 000
This was an arty 2004 British film, set in 1950s East London. Vera is a lovely woman who performs illegal abortions for free (although other characters are extorting money from desperate women for Vera’s services.) The film highlights social disparity, since upper-class women are able to terminate legally by paying psychiatrists to approve abortions (for roughly £2,400 today) – the only example we see of this is Susan, who was raped by her suitor. Bit of a motif.
Vera is arrested after one of her patients falls ill. Her own children are abhorred, and none of her employers (for her legal cleaning work) will give character references. She’s sentenced to two and a half years in prison ‘as a deterrent to others’, which negatively impacts other women in need of Vera’s skillz.
Note how much money this film made, and how you haven’t seen it. It is not a blockbuster.
Box Office: $ 456 000 000
Aha! The fightback continues!
A couple of scenes in 300 allude to Sparta’s infanticide policy – we see some child skulls towards the start, and hunchback Ephialtes explains that his parents had to flee Sparta rather than allow him to be eugenicised.
I’m not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, the Spartans are shown to be the ‘Westerners’, bravely defending European civilization from both the Persian, and the religious perverts (Carnea). Which would suggest sympathy for Spartan life.
On the other hand, the Spartans are maladjusted gungho psychopaths. Even the other Greeks (Arcadians) think they’re nuts, and the montage depicting Leonidas’ childhood is pretty fucking brutal. Indeed, Ephialtes is depicted quite positively – despite his exile, monstrous appearance, and Spartan hostility, he really fucking wants to help the goodies. Only when he’s repeatedly and rudely rejected does he turn to Xerxes – Frank Miller certainly isn’t saying “Handicapped people are intrinsically evil”, and I can’t imagine many people left the cinema thinking “Oh yeah, state-dictated eugenic infanticide is something I should write to my MP about.”
Hollyoaks is a Channel 4 soap aimed at teenagers and young adults, with an explicit mandate to portray and discuss various social problems. Rape, incest, child abuse, spousal abuse, alcoholism, homosexuality, trans*sexuality, drug abuse, murder and poverty are all plotlines I can remember from the early noughties.
Not abortion, though. And a quick google reveals I’m right. Amber Sharpe is 12, becomes pregnant, is dissuaded from abortion by a potential adoptive parent, but then Plot Happens and said adoptive parent rejects said foetus and Amber leaves the village/programme. Later script suggests she has the baby with family support. C4 had apparently teamed up with Battlefront in an admirable effort to show that teens and pre-teens should not feel socially pressured into sex. I’m just not sure they did a great job handling what happens afterwards.
Also teenager Rae Wilson becomes pregnant by Ste, who happens to be having a secret homosexual relationship with the manipulative Brendan. Rae wants an abortion but Brendan convinces her not to. Rae wants to have the baby alone after discovering Ste’s lies, although Ste is already a capable father. By happy chance, an argument causes Rae to miscarry.
A little later, Rae is murdered. I’m not suggesting this was somehow a punishment for her being promiscuous or getting pregnant. Hollyoaks only depicts real life dilemmas, after all.
Elsewhere, Theresa almost has an abortion since the father, Calvin was in a happy relationship with someone else, and has since been murdered. Theresa’s decision seems to be forced by the aggressive ex-convict, Jacqui, on the basis that delivering a black baby (Calvin is black) would make Theresa look guilty. However, she is dissuaded last minute by Calvin’s grieving widow Carmel, who happens to be a massive Catholic.
Abortions in Hollyoaks: 0/3.
Informed sources tell me Gossip Girl and The O.C reflect the same situation. In Gossip Girl a character is dissuaded from abortion, and in OC, a girl who wants one is stopped by her mother, who herself had one in the past and deeply regretted it.
None of these are all bad. It’s great that the media considers discussing ‘it’ at all – although Knocked Up manages to avoid using the word itself. None really seem to consider the ethical dilemma abortion presents – when a foetus becomes a moral ‘person’, and how that dependent person’s rights impact or supersede those of the mother. They don’t begin to help us in Catt’s case, although they suggest she’s somewhere between a bitch and a monster. Moreover, none of them address what might now be considered a ‘normal situation’ (condom splitting/missed pill, early, safe, medical abortion with family/partner support) and few give serious consideration to pro-choice arguments except in cases of incest, rape, underage sex or life-ruining circumstances.
Come on Hollywood. Let’s kill some babies.
I’m aware my list wasn’t exhaustive, although I do think it was pretty representative of the mainstream. A fuller list is here http://www.movietrain.net/films-that-discuss-abortion-a-movie-list/ or here http://ecosalon.com/abortion-in-hollywood-movies-film/
*Total sidenote: in Mario Puzo’s original novel, The Godfather, there is a bizarre subplot about Sonny Corleone having a huge penis. It’s really weird. His wife hates him for it, supports his infidelity, and he finds happiness with the only woman who can accommodate him, before the whole gunning-down incident.
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