Abortion and the Film Image

There are a number of fronts in the abortion battle—whether you’re pro-choice or pro-life. There’s the political side, of course, and the moral persuasion side. One aspect I’ve always been fascinated with is the issue of the image in media. What’s shown and what’s not is part of the story of film and television, socially as well as artistically.

We’ve come a long way from the scandal of The Kiss (1896)—sex—and The Great Train Robbery (1903)—violence. Sex and violence are a regular part of film and TV, and if the producer or director plays the ratings game, they knew exactly how much they can show. Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where knife never touches flesh, was once thought violent. Now it’s intense but tame. To many of my students, Basic Instinct is an old movie. We’ve come a long way.

Except for abortion.

In an age where nearly anything is shown, and where TV shows go to digital technology to show the details of a wound, there is one image that remains unshown—the process of abortion and its aftermath. Filmmakers are falling all over themselves trying to show what hadn’t been shown before—part of Titanic’s allure was its “you are there” demonstration of the most famous sinking of our times. Since showing is at the heart of the art form, wrestling with what can and should be shown, or what should only be suggested, is one of its central artistic struggles.

But there has hardly been a struggle for the abortion image. It simply doesn’t exist in either primetime or mainstream film. The “why” is clear—the image simply has too much power.

Of course there are related issues in the background here. Most filmmakers would easily be classified as pro-choice, and prefer to address the topic from a political, comedic, social or narrative approach that somehow never gets down to the nitty-gritty of what really happens during an abortion, both to the mother and the “fetal tissue.”

Why television producers haven’t done the investigative work with abortion that they have done with every other topic—raw images included, well, that’s a master’s thesis I don’t have time to write here. Great topic for discussion, though, isn’t it? Talk amongst yourselves….

Yet while not believing in “choice” is still not cool in either film or television, there is a strange double helix forming in film and TV—a fascinating dialectic between the story and the images that are starting to be shown.

As politicians used “choice” as their pivot point to the introduction of legal abortion into society, so film and TV artists are now using the same “choice” to begin to present stories of those who choose to have their children. Getting pregnant and choosing to give birth is just another human story, of course, but the tension over the issue is clear in some of these recent films: the lead chooses to give birth, but the attending story has to be coated with “choice,” and a clear pro-life choice is almost never presented without mockery.

The way the decision-making process is handled usually ranges from ignoring the abortion process completely to shellacking the steps along the way with satire, outright mocking, cynicism, or a certain degree of cluelessness. The end is the same in all the films—the woman chooses not to abort and has the child—but the process isn’t handled with seriousness; gravitas is reserved for other issues. Yet the key development is that the story is told, and images of a child in utero—and out—are shown.

Waitress

A hurried pregnancy test seems the common way to kick off a story like this. Seeing a stick and waiting for a plus sign or the equivalent is more inherently visual than having a doctor transmit the news. Waitress (2007) begins that way, and it’s clear from the start that the baby is unwanted. The husband is abusive verbally and sometimes physically, and the pregnancy is the result of a night of drunkenness.

When Jenna (Keri Russell) goes to the doctor’s office to confirm her home test, the camera shows close-ups of a demo baby, a demo baby in utero, a “With Child” magazine cover, and a close-up of an anatomically detailed drawing of a baby in the womb, looking quite developed. The visual emphasis on the child pulls the film toward birth rather than abortion right from the start, as the film highlights a coming child rather than a woman with a “problem.”

Once the doctor confirms the pregnancy, Jenna says she doesn’t want it. He stumbles over the words, “Well, we don’t perform…” and that’s as far as he gets, never saying the word itself. Her response skips right over the thought and emotional process, and she says simply, “I’m having the baby, and that’s that. It’s not a party, though.” That’s the last we hear or even think about termination by her or her friends. The pregnancy has been equated with the child so strongly at this point that the two concepts are inseparable. Jenna’s husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) wants the baby, but that has no serious influence on either Jenna or the film’s perspective. In terms of pro-choice vs. pro-life, it’s a wash: He wants the baby, but he’s a jerk.

Jenna has a couple of moments of doubt along the way. She sees a horrible child acting up in her diner, and she speaks of selling the child to get away from her husband. But that’s not a serious statement (unlike the male protagonist in L’Enfant two years earlier), and neither she nor any of the other characters treat it that seriously. Even when she realizes how emotionally unattached she is (and the film provides several valid reasons for that detachment—her abusive marriage, her financial stress, her lack of hope), she declares, “I respect this baby’s right to thrive”—in incredible statement of support of life in the womb.

Keeping the reality of the child’s humanity in the forefront, the film has her two closest friends gift her with a baby book that encourages the mom-to-be to write her first letter to the baby. Once she begins, Jenna pours out her heart and begins to sift through her thoughts and emotions with a heretofore-unprecedented clarity; the child focuses and directs her as nothing else seems to have. Even as she confesses in a letter about her doubts, fear, and lack of love for the baby, she signs off, “Love, Momma.”

Once she tells her Earl about the baby, he mumbles a semi-coherent mini-rant referring to abortion and the afterlife, but at this point, we would ignore any statement he would make, pro-life or pro-choice. Again, a wash.

When Jenna has the ultrasound (another inherently cinematic story element), she is shown the heartbeat, a popular issue for pro-life people. Perhaps to keep a kind of balance with either the reality of life in the womb or the possible overly sentimental moment, Jenna remarks that the image doesn’t look like a baby yet.

And yet she keeps writing, and writing, and writing. When the baby arrives, her response is an “Oh, my God”—twice. Instead of showing the difficulty of pregnancy, the film turns the reality of the child into an instigator for Jenna to dump her husband and her lover and start a new life. Of course, the thousands left to her by the dying owner of the diner make that possible financially. But the film makes it clear that the child is an empowering agent for Jenna. Instead of imprisoning her, her child brings her instead to a new level of awareness and freedom. This is not exactly the message of most films of the last couple of decades.

Knocked Up

Knocked Up (2007) is far coarser, but similar. “Conventional wisdom” from Hollywood (and by Hollywood, I mean the mainstream American film industry—no pejoratives attached) gives no reason why the attractive, talented, ambitious Alison (Katherine Heigl) would ever carry an unplanned pregnancy to term. Yet she does, against all odds and about half of the obstacles the film allows her to face.

The film is a fascinating blend of lewd, crude and rude, and that “helps” get the pro-birth message through the plot. (It’s the reverse image of the “nice” abortionist portrayed in films such as Vera Drake and The Cider House Rules) The decision-making process for our protagonist, clearly inevitable for the story, distracts us from any pro-life resonance with gross humor, mocking word games on the delicacy of the word “abortion,” and slightly odd and humorous medical professionals. Like Waitress, the decision to have the child holds the plot together and drives its points; unlike Waitress, Knocked Up is focused more on the parents and the effect that the inevitable child’s arrival has on their relationship. While both films address fears and difficulties (remembering that this isn’t Precious, and that Knocked Up is a comedy, and Waitress is a comedic drama), the child is a major player in both films by affecting the parents positively. Waitress’s Jenna finds the strength to dump her abusive husband and seek a new life, and Knocked Up’s Ben (Seth Rogan) grows up, gets a job, works through some immaturities and accepts some responsibility (while Mom learns to chill a bit).

The “bitter pill” of choosing life is sugarcoated greatly in Knocked Up. The doctor confirming the pregnancy is distractingly inappropriate (he has been recommended by Alison’s sister, and notes her resemblance to her while giving her a pelvic exam—an uncomfortable moment for Alison and the viewer alike). The child is called an embryo, which gives us some distance from the reality of it being a human life. Yet the heartbeat is shown, and the doctor drops a line that the screenplay cannily expands upon. Looking at the image of an embryonic beating heart, Alison asks, “That’s it?” The doctor answers, “Yeah—take good care of it,” clearly referring to protection and nourishment.

The film gives the next round to Ben’s friends, who kick off the infamous “shmashmortion” scene, which effectively blunts the gentle supportive encouragement of the doctor. One of Ben’s slacker friends turns to him almost angrily and says, “You know what I think he should do—take care of it!”—clearly referring to abortion. A more sensitive slacker is appalled and says, “You monsters!” and he offers to help Ben raise the baby. This is followed by mockery of his sensitive “baby ears” and the avoidance of what they call “the ‘A’ word.” The sequence ultimately becomes a crude satire on Hollywood’s and society’s hesitance about the word and issue as much as a mockery of their friend’s tender sensibilities. In terms of deflecting attention away from the subject while appearing to address it, the scene works. The issue of abortion is temporarily neutered by sharp satire and cutting dialogue, which keeps the gross humor while deftly dancing around the issue, an absolute necessity for the plot. This is as direct as the film gets on the issue, and the scene now allows the film to explore other aspects of the pregnancy.

The next scene completely echoes the doctor’s words, but yet again from a pro-abortion perspective. Alison’s mother is stunned that she won’t get an abortion and has just one recommendation: “Take care of it.” Emphasizing that “now is not the time” to have a child, Alison’s mother almost makes points for the pro-abortion side, but is undercut by her own story about Alison’s stepsister having an abortion, and “now she has a real baby.” The film makes nothing of the comment other than letting its irony ring as hollow as it sounds. Mom could have easily been a voice of reason here, but instead comes of as concerned, yes, but rather foolish in her thinking.

Right on the heels of that scene comes a tender moment with Ben and his father, who is “delighted” at the thought of having a grandchild: “This is a good thing—this is a blessing,” he says. Unlike the previous scene, this one doesn’t undercut the grandparent’s thinking or motives; Ben’s dad is genuinely moved at the thought, and the film allows us to share that tender joy with him. Lest the film get too sentimental, of course, any possible cloying is undercut by drug references and self-deprecation. What stands out in terms of choosing to give birth, however, is that the idea of a child who will bring joy to the world is not compromised, but allowed to be openly expressed without contradiction or challenge.

As in Waitress, the actual moment of decision to keep the child isn’t shown. Alison calls Ben and simply tells him that she is keeping the baby. He expresses support, and the relationship begins to grow in earnest. As in Waitress, too, the child in Knocked Up brings positive things to the parental table—this time even before the birth. Alison and Ben buy some baby books, followed by a walk where Ben takes her hand for the first time. Alison’s new goal is to have them get to know one another before the birth, at once ironic in its cart-before-the-horse incongruity and touching in its yearning for stability for her, for Ben and for the baby.

It’s at this point that the story plays out along the rails that have been laid down, and the imagery begins to make its impact. It’s as if now that the film has decided that this child is going to be born, it can begin to show it as a developing baby. A title says “16 Weeks” and we see its development in the womb. Ditto at “28 Weeks.” When Alison is weighed (and she and Ben have the inevitable fight-and-supposed-break-up), we see the kind of realistic baby pictures that Jenna saw in the beginning of Waitress. There is even one more mid-distant shot of the baby in an ultrasound image near the end of the pregnancy, a perfect segue into the birth sequence, where the film shifts one last time in its treatment of the child. Just before the birth, it’s discovered that the cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck. The suspense is short, but works to raise our concern for this little person inside Alison, and effectively binds the parents together one more time. The child is delivered from plot-point to baby to human. The closing credits feature a series of vignettes with friends and family enjoying the baby. The crude edginess of the film is the coat it wears on the outside. Yet to tell the story and keep it a comedy, it has a soft pro-birth center it works constantly to hide under its barrage of four-letter words and sexual references.

Capping off the year was Juno, featuring Ellen Page as the title character—a whip-smart teen with an unplanned baby growing inside. Juno plans to abort, but outside the clinic, one of her high school classmates—a pro-life activist—chants, “All babies want to be borned.” Grammatical error aside, Juno gets the message and, moments later, runs out of the abortion clinic, her mind changed—and her friend calls out, “God appreciates your miracle!” Juno then begins a search for the perfect parents to adopt her unborn child.

This change of heart gets “uncomfortably” close to a pro-life moment, because no other reason is given for her sudden change of mind. But the dorkiness of the pro-lifer and her use of incorrect grammar distract the viewer from the directness of the message, and are consistent with the rest of the film’s general tone of satire and snark. Then we quickly move on, all in agreement that we needed to get past this point to Juno’s dealing with her pregnancy, without which of course there is no story.

So while mainstream Hollywood films wee doing a push me-pull you with showing more direct images while dancing around the topic and the key decision not to abort, a Romanian film that garnered the best reviews of the year, also 2007, has leapfrogged Hollywood with one scene. Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, a brilliant film in a neo-realist tradition directed by Cristian Mungiu—clearly shows an aborted fetus. There is no particular interpretation, and it could be interpreted as another protest against the oppressive anti-abortion Communist regime of the late 1980s. But the power of the image is undeniable, no matter the director’s intention. The pregnant woman is shown as being softheaded, immature, selfish and foolish for not arranging for the abortion in a “timely” manner. This clearly reflects back on her actually getting pregnant, though there is no other judgment against premarital sex. But her taking so long (and presenting herself as not as far along as she is) to get the abortion provides the visual climax of the film—a “blob of tissue” that the viewer can clearly see is more than a product of conception. The camera is floor-level while the scene plays out in the area outside of the frame and in the background. The image lingers, and not just in the memory. No American film would be that bold. It might be considered too grotesque. More likely, it is just too uncomfortable.

2007 seems to have been a banner year for carrying pregnancies to term. In 2007’s August Rush, Keri Russell again plays another mom, this time single, who opts to have her child. But against her wishes and without her knowledge (you’ll just have to see the movie), the child is put up for adoption, setting the stage for either a sentimental or mawkish storyline ending in the inevitable reunion. Choosing life is redemptive all the way around here.

Now that the narrative door has been opened, other films and TV shows such as Accidentally on Purpose (2009) starring Jenna Elfman have appeared. Elfman’s character gets pregnant by a younger man and decides to keep the child. Apparently, the choice door can be pushed in the other direction now.

The battle of the image is progressing. Other than the sex act and genuine murder, abortion and its aftermath are the only forbidden images in film and media, except for pro-life persuasion pieces. There is a huge socio-political irony here, of course, as pro-choice producers and directors, who are happy to display nearly anything to strengthen their story, are apparently the most reluctant to go there visually when it comes to abortion. The reasons why are another article entirely.

But there is a power to the image that can’t be contained. In the political world, the development of the sonogram, including 4-D sonograms, is playing havoc with the Supreme Court’s capricious three-trimester division of life. Viability has moved back with advances in medical science. Again, another article. But modern American film is currently containing a fascinating tension. There is always the desire to show—the very essence of the art form, of course—and perhaps a desire to show more—either in terms of something previously forbidden or just new. But now we are producing stories that involve showing images of the unborn—images that have been consciously or subconsciously censored for years. Even slathered in smarmy dialogue or surrounded by naïve or reactionary hicks that help the leads choose to carry to term, these films contain images that have a power greater than plot progression. Sometimes images have a life of their own. In terms of abortion and Hollywood, no matter the views of the actors, screenwriters, or directors, the presentation of these powerful images is unquestionably a move toward the pro-life side.