Blue Denim (1959)

Not many movies have a colored fabric for their title.  I had to think back sixty years to try to figure out the point of this one.  Clearly, the title of Blue Denim is supposed to suggest blue jeans.  If memory serves, this item of clothing was primarily worn by teenagers back in those days, not like today, where adults commonly wear them too.  But then, we might ask why the title of this movie isn’t Blue Jeans, which almost was the title for a while.  Well, the movie was based on a play, and my guess is that “jeans” was just too lowbrow, whereas “denim” gave it some tone, and so the movie eventually followed suit.  But the title Blue Denim is more than just a synecdoche for teenagers.  It is also a displacement from the subject of the film, which is abortion, something unmentionable in the movies at that time.

When the movie begins, Arthur (Brandon De Wilde) has found out that while he was at school that day, his father took his dog to the veterinarian and had it put to sleep.  Art realizes that the dog was old and sick, but he is upset that his father didn’t discuss it with him.  His father says he wanted to “spare” Arthur the pain of being part of that decision.  This tendency to overprotect teenagers is one of the themes of this movie. The lack of communication between teenagers and their parents is another.  Unfortunately, these failure-to-communicate scenes are excessive and irritating, the worst parts of the movie.

This scene with the dog also prepares us for the idea of abortion.  Putting it out of its misery is euthanasia, killing something for its own good, typically toward the end of life.  Abortion is killing something at the beginning of life, more for the good of the mother than the unborn child, though sometimes for its sake as well.  And, of course, whereas it was a dog that was euthanized, only humans have abortions.  Nevertheless, the one sets the mood for the other.

A little later, Arthur’s best friend, Ernie, comes over on the pretense that he and Arthur are going to do some studying together.  In particular, he is going to help Arthur with biology.  Arthur’s mother wants to know what biology is.  Well, it’s the study of life, of course, and it is hard to believe Arthur’s mother would have to ask.  The conversation becomes awkward, however, and Ernie dances delicately around the subject.  You see, in this movie, biology is the study of sex.  Thus informed by circumlocution of what biology is really all about, Arthur’s mother says she is glad Arthur is shaky in the subject, as if his ignorance of sex will keep him from getting into trouble.

In any event, it’s all a ruse.  Ernie and Arthur go down to the basement whereupon Ernie produces beer and cigarettes, which they consume while playing poker.  Did you ever notice what great hands people get in the movies?  This is ordinary draw poker, and on the first hand, Ernie has aces up, but Arthur wins with three sixes.  In any event, while playing, they act tough and use profanity.  Of course, not much profanity was allowed under the Production Code, still in force at that time, so we hear the word “damn” a lot.

Ernie deals the cards fast and slick.  He’s obviously been around and knows a thing or two about the ways of the world, on which he holds forth for Arthur’s benefit.  He speaks disparagingly of the man Arthur’s older sister is going to marry, referring to him as a loser.  “These days it takes talent to learn how to slip and slide around,” he says.  “Do you know at school, one out of six guys is going steady?  One out of six, trapped!  It’s one thing for a guy to go way out, but these guys ain’t never gonna get back.”

I never thought of going steady as being the end of a teenager’s freedom when I was in high school, but Ernie apparently sees it as the stage just before an official engagement.  But then, he allows that maybe it’s for the best that Arthur’s sister is getting married, that the dentist she is going to marry is probably saving her from the evils of this world.  “Some old white slaver could have come along and picked her off like a naked grape.”  Arthur laughs at the idea, but Ernie continues:  “This town’s full of it:  gambling, dope, prostitution, smuggling, illegal operations.”  There it is, the euphemism for abortions.  This gets Arthur’s attention.  Ernie tells of how a guy he knows got his girl in trouble, and he was the one who had to steer him to a doctor who would perform the operation.

Enter Janet (Carol Lynley) through the cellar door.  Ernie realizes that three’s a crowd, so he leaves.  After a little conversation, Arthur and Janet kiss for the first time, and they are so inept at it that their noses get in the way.  It’s hard to believe that they will soon have sex, but before the week is out, they do, especially after Arthur drops the tough guy act and admits that he has never been with a girl before.  Since they only do it one time, the real-life chance of her getting pregnant would be low.  But since this is a movie, we know it’s a certainty.

Three months later, Arthur finds out the truth when he catches Janet reading about pregnancy in the library.  He goes to Ernie for help.  Now it’s Ernie’s turn to drop the tough guy act.  He lied about being the guy who steered another fellow to an abortion doctor.  Moreover, he tries to talk Arthur out of it, saying it’s illegal, it’s murder, and it’s dangerous.  Janet might die, he argues, because these abortionists are inferior doctors.  Still, he knows enough to set things up.  Earlier, Janet asked him to write a note in her father’s handwriting excusing her from the class she cut to go to a movie.  After Arthur steals a check from his father’s checkbook, Ernie forges that to get the money to pay for the abortion.

Ernie and Arthur send Janet on her way alone, at the insistence of the nurse who blindfolds her after she gets in the car.  Then Arthur’s father finds out about the forged check and the reason for it.  There is a lot of melodramatic rushing around trying to find out where the doctor is in order to stop the abortion, accompanied by a Bernard Herrmann score.  It reminiscent of the score for Vertigo (1958), made the year before, so I guess a little of it bled into this movie.  In the play, Janet has the abortion, but the Production Code would not allow for that, so she had to be rescued in the movie version.

After Janet is brought back home, her father and Arthur’s parents talk about how Arthur and Janet will have to get married.  Arthur’s father talks about how his son will have to give up all hope of becoming an engineer or a lawyer.  And we know from an earlier conversation Arthur had with Janet that he wanted to be a somebody and not a nobody.  In fact, it’s even worse than not going to college.  Arthur will have to drop out of high school.  Later in the movie, Arthur tells his mother that he can get a job working in a gas station.

However, when Janet recovers from the sedation that the abortion doctor had administered, she says she does not want to force Arthur to marry her, that it was her fault she got pregnant.  They leave it at that for a while.  Later, Ernie tells Arthur that Janet is leaving town to go live with her aunt.  Presumably, the idea is to have the baby where no one knows her and then give it up for adoption.  Now we have another melodramatic scene of running around trying to catch up with Janet on the train so that she and Arthur can get married instead.

Let us reflect on this for a moment.  We understand why Janet was prevented from having an abortion in the movie version of the play.  But exactly what is wrong with her giving the baby up for adoption?  That way, she could resume high school the following year, and Arthur could go to college.  And they could still get married.  And yet, in the entire history of abortion movies, Juno (2007) is the only one I know of in which the girl has the baby and gives it up for adoption.  All I can figure is that in Blue Denim in particular, and in abortion movies in general, it is considered wrong to have the baby and give it up for adoption.  Unlike an abortion, doing that has never been illegal, no one has ever said it was immoral, and it is no more dangerous than giving birth as a married woman.  Moreover, this is exactly what a lot of people that are pro-life would advocate.  And yet, we sense that this must in some way be taboo as well, as if it is a repudiation of motherhood and the blessed event.  Up till now, I had regarded Juno as just another pro-life movie, but now it appears that it was something of a breakthrough movie as well, the first to approve of giving up the baby.

All right.  So, the abortion is out and giving the baby up for adoption is out.  Arthur and Janet will get married.  I thought that at the end, Arthur’s parents would tell their son and Janet they will support them, letting the couple live with them while they put Arthur through college.  After all, Arthur’s older sister is getting married and will soon be moving out, so there would be plenty of room.  But that doesn’t happen.  Their future is as bleak as the “straightjacket” Arthur’s father says it will be, recalling Ernie’s earlier remark about being trapped.  In every other abortion movie I have ever seen, if the girl has the baby, she typically marries the father, and they live happily ever after.  If she has the baby without marrying the father, she still lives happily ever after.  This is the only one that ends on a sour note.

Apparently, there was a need for compromise.  On the one hand, the abortion is prevented, and to show its approval, the movie had to allow for some kind of happy ending for Arthur and Janet, one that is sentimental about love.  On the other hand, the movie needed to condemn premarital sex.  To that end, their life together must be one of economic hardship.

Unplanned (2019) and Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (2018)

Unplanned is a pro-life movie distributed by PureFlix, the production and distribution company that gave us God’s Not Dead (2014), and if you’ve seen the latter, you’ll know what to expect from the former.  It is the sweet, loving, pro-life Christians pitted against the mean, selfish, abortionists.

The movie is based on a book by Abby Johnson, telling of her personal experience with abortion and her work at a Planned Parenthood clinic until she converted to being pro-life.  She goes to work for Planned Parenthood thinking she is helping women avoid abortions, but is eventually told that things like birth-control and counseling are not what’s important, because it’s abortions that bring in all the money.  And they need to meet their new growth target by doubling the number of abortions in the upcoming fiscal year.  When Abby protests that Planned Parenthood is a nonprofit organization, she is told, “Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model.”  And just in case we still have any doubts that Planned Parenthood is evil, we are informed that George Soros supports the organization.

The movie intends to be persuasive, but not in the manner of a discursive argument.  The question of when human life begins is only touched on, just to enough to give us a sense of Abby’s overall view of things.  At a family gathering, Abby says that life begins with viability, before which it is just undeveloped tissue.  Others object that viability changes with technology.  Her mother disapprovingly says that life begins at conception.  But we can expect no more than that from a movie.  If a movie is to persuade, it must do so dramatically and through images.

Dramatically speaking, conversions can be persuasive.  Typically, there is an appeal to an experience one has had that others have not, and it is hoped that by relating that experience to others, they can be converted as well.  In the case of Abby, her experience is that of having had two abortions herself and working at a Planned Parenthood clinic where she witnessed an actual procedure.  It is this latter experience that differentiates her from most of us.  Lots of women have had abortions, but few have worked in an abortion clinic.

The experience consists of two sorts:  pain and gore.  As for pain, in the scene where Abby participates in an abortion, the young woman having the procedure is crying from the pain, notwithstanding the pain medication she was presumably given.  I am guessing that the point of this is to discourage women from having an abortion.  But if the pain of having an abortion is supposed to be an argument against this procedure, then it is undermined later when Abby has a baby and seems to undergo even greater pain from childbirth.

Abby also goes through the pain of having abortions herself:  the first being a surgical abortion; the second, a chemically-induced abortion, using RU-486.  The latter is portrayed as being excruciating, especially soon after taking the pills, followed by eight weeks of cramping.  If it’s really as bad as all that, then I guess women would be well-advised to opt for a surgical abortion instead.

The second part of the experience is the gore.  We get to see a fetus sucked out through a catheter, and after Abby takes the RU-486 pills, we get to see gobs of embryo fall out of her vagina onto the floor or being dumped into the toilet.  The we see her sprawled out on the bathroom floor surrounded by embryo blood and goo.

I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination how Abby eventually quits Planned Parenthood and joins a pro-life organization, bringing joy to the hearts of her family at the return of their prodigal daughter.  Instead, I’ll comment on something about the movie that surprised me.  My pro-life friends are always harping on late-term abortions, and one has recently started expressing moral outrage over what he calls “after-birth abortions.”  Whereas people that are pro-choice are perfectly comfortable with abortion-on-demand during the first trimester, doubt and uncertainly increase the further along a woman gets in her pregnancy.  And it is there that a lot of pro-life advocates choose to make their case, sensing weakness in the pro-choice position during the later months.

I expected this movie to focus on that as well.  In fact, I had recently seen Gosnell:  The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, which is all about that sort of thing.  According to this movie, if Dr. Gosnell, who ran a filthy, disgusting clinic, was a little late getting around to performing an abortion, the drugs that the technicians had already administered would sometimes result in the fetus/baby coming out before he got there, still moving, still alive.  No problem, Gosnell would just grab some scissors and snip the spinal cord.  However, what he was doing was illegal, and he is now spending the rest of his life in prison for murder.

At first, I thought this movie might be pro-choice.  After all, this was about illegal abortions.  However, the movie argues that pro-choice advocates are the real villains, because it was fear of them that led Republican Governor Tom Ridge to end annual inspections of abortion clinics, allowing Gosnell to operate with impunity.   Furthermore, at Gosnell’s trial, a Dr. North testifies as to how legal abortions are performed.  As she goes into detail, the look on her face shows signs of distress, almost horror, as if it never occurred to her before what a terrible thing she had been doing, notwithstanding the fact that she had performed thirty thousand of them, making it clear that the distinction between Gosnell’s illegal abortions and those of the legal sort is insignificant.

Anyway, I thought Abby’s moment of truth would come when she witnessed the Grand Guignol of a late-term abortion of the sort Dr. North described.  Much to my surprise, all the abortions in Unplanned are in the first trimester.  There is reference later in the movie to a new facility that will allow for more abortions to be performed up to the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy, but we see none of that.  In a way, this makes sense.  When pro-life advocates make their case against late-term abortions, they are implicitly conceding the field to those that are pro-choice when it comes to early abortions.  Instead Unplanned is determined to attack abortions in the place where pro-choice advocates feel secure, in hopes of putting an end to all abortion.

Though I have said that this movie intends to be persuasive, yet I doubt those who made it are under any illusions that those of us who are pro-choice will actually change our minds.  They probably don’t even expect us to watch this movie.  I did so out of curiosity.  Rather, it is intended to strengthen the resolve of those that are already opposed to abortion.  In fact, my pro-life bridge partner said she was especially eager to see this movie.

Where Are My Children? (1916)

Where Are My Children? is an early twentieth century movie about birth control, abortion, and eugenics.  Its aim was to promote birth control among the inferior masses, lest they breed excessively, while discouraging abortion among the rich, lest their superior traits die out from lack of offspring.

Fearing that a dramatic presentation of these issues as one might find them in the natural world would be insufficient to the case, the producers of this movie thought it wise to support them first with a metaphysical prologue:

Behind the great portals of Eternity, the souls of little children waited to be born.

So, just in case you were wondering, man does have an immortal soul, and it preexists his own body.  But then we are informed of a few things you probably never even thought of:

Within the first space was the great army of “chance” children.  They went forth to earth in vast numbers.  Then came those sad, “unwanted” souls, that were constantly sent back.  They were marked morally or physically defective and bore the sign of the serpent.  And then in the secret place of the Most High were the souls, fine and strong, that were sent forth only on prayer.  They were marked with the approval of the Almighty.

Of those who believe people have immortal souls, many suppose that all souls are equal, the difference between one person and another being solely a function of the body, in combination, perhaps, with the exercise of free will.  But not so, according to this metaphysical prologue.  Some souls, long before they come to occupy a body, are better than others:  some are “fine and strong,” some are “morally or physically defective,” and some, presumably, are just middling, the “chance” souls.  I’m not sure how a soul can be physically defective, by the way.

Anyway, this prologue having been completed, we have now been suitably prepared to descend to Earth where we are introduced to Richard Walton, the District Attorney, who believes in eugenics.  As he looks upon the proceedings of a criminal court, where people are being convicted and sent to prison, he sadly remarks to an acquaintance, “These poor souls are ill-born.  If the mystery of birth were understood, crime would be wiped out.”

Now, let’s see.  These souls he refers to cannot be those approved of by the Almighty, sent forth on prayer.  And they cannot be the ones that were sent back, because here they are in the courtroom.  They must be those “chance” children of the first space.  Apparently, the word “chance” is being used to convey the idea of inferior people having babies, not because they want children, but because they have sex without giving it any thought.  We can’t help but wonder at this point:  are the poor inferior because they have inherited inferior traits from their parents, or are they inferior because they were given inferior souls?  Or, possibly, to mix eugenics with soul-metaphysics, are inferior souls inherited?  Perhaps this is what Walton means by the “mystery of birth.”

Walton then reflects sadly on the fact that “his wife was childless.”  This is immediately followed by a scene dripping with self-indulgence.  Mrs. Walton is relaxing outdoors, supine upon a pillowed chaise lounge, eating bonbons, which she shares with her three dogs.  Mr. Walton arrives home, and shortly after, his sister and her husband arrive for a visit.  She has a baby, and the intertitle informs us of its significance:  “Walton’s sister had contracted an eugenic marriage and her first child was a source of great interest.”

The scene shifts back to the courtroom, where Walton is trying a Dr. William Homer for the crime of distributing literature recommending the use of birth control.  Walton reads from sections the doctor’s pamphlet, which advances several arguments.  First, unwanted children are the cause of much evil in the world.  Second, pregnant women often seek abortions in their desperation, which in many cases results in their death.  Third, there is a hint that unwanted children acquire syphilis from their low-class mothers, resulting in blindness and insanity.  The doctor goes on to tell of the misery he encounters in the slums, including suicide and wife beating, owing to the fact that birth control is illegal.

There are a few things worth noting about this trial.  First, Dr. Homer does not deny that he broke the law.  His argument is that it is a bad law, that birth control should be decriminalized.  I suppose he is hoping for some kind of jury nullification.  Second, we hear only the doctor’s side of the story.  We never hear Walton giving his final summation to the jury.  Now, that summation might simply have been, “The defendant admits he broke the law.  I rest my case.”  However, it would have been interesting to hear arguments supporting the law, perhaps in the form of references to the Bible or to the disturbing idea that if people have access to birth control, they will have sex just because it feels good.  But we never hear such arguments.  The closest thing we get to the other side of the issue is a shot of the elderly judge shaking his head in disgust.  Finally, the intertitle tells us that a jury of all men finds Dr. Homer guilty.  This reference to a “jury of all men” implies bias, the idea being that it is women that suffer most from unwanted pregnancies.  Taking it all together, we must conclude that this movie was primarily interested making a case for legalizing birth control, not in presenting a dramatically interesting trial.

Meanwhile, on another pillowed chaise lounge lies Mrs. Carlo, Mrs. Walton’s best friend, who is most unhappy.  We know she is pregnant, because the winged soul of her fetus hovers over her shoulder.  Mrs. Walton comes over for a visit and, finding out about Mrs. Carlo’s situation, recommends that she see Dr. Malfit, whom Mrs. Walton has used before.

It may be wondered why these rich women, who were willing to have illegal abortions, would not use birth control to prevent pregnancy in the first place, something Dr. Malfit would have undoubtedly been willing to traffic in as well.  I suppose that is because most forms of birth control available at that time would have required the cooperation of the husband, and we are given to understand that these rich husbands are desirous of having superior children.  Of those forms of birth control that would not require the complicity of the husband, it might not have been easy for the woman to sneak it.  In any event, as a practical matter, birth control, especially as it was in 1916, when this movie was made, would not have been completely effective, so that the occasional pregnancy would still have had to be dealt with.  Dramatically speaking, however, this movie seems to want a neat dichotomy on this subject:  to associate birth control with the inferior masses only, and to promote it as a good thing; to associate abortion with the rich, and to discourage it as an evil.  The reason for both being eugenic, to improve the human race by limiting the number of inferior births while increasing the numbers of those that are superior.

When Mrs. Carlo has the abortion, we see the soul of the fetus returning to Heaven, and the intertitle says that one of the “unwanted” ones has been sent back.  Is this supposed to be a soul in the second category?  It was unwanted all right, and it was being sent back, but there was no indication that it was morally or physically defective, or that it had the sign of the serpent.  Maybe the idea is that the mother’s immoral character had tainted the soul, thereby giving it that serpent sign.  Recall further that the prologue said that the unwanted souls are “constantly” being sent back, which means it happens over and over again.  Apparently, God knows which women will have an abortion in advance, and so when they get pregnant, he sees to it that the fetus gets a soul from the unwanted category.  Anyway, Mrs. Carlo can go back to being a social butterfly without the nuisance of having to raise a child.

Mrs. Walton’s brother Roger comes to visit her, and at the same time, the maid asks if her daughter Lillian can stay with her for a while.  In short order, Roger seduces Lillian and gets her pregnant, a winged soul hovering over her shoulder.  She tells Roger of her plight, and he asks his sister for help.  She is horrified to find out that he had sex with a woman.  Today, we are used to the idea that premarital sex is perfectly acceptable, while abortion is something that many people regard as a great evil.  But in this movie, married women like Mrs. Walton see nothing wrong with having an abortion, but they recoil in horror at the idea of fornication.  And the movie would seem to share this attitude, as can be seen in what follows.  Mrs. Carol finally gives Roger the name of Malfit, and he takes Lillian to the doctor’s office.  But whereas countless married rich women received abortions from him without harm, this abortion for an unmarried working-class woman is botched.  Lillian dies as a result, cinematic punishment for what an intertitle called the “wages of sin” when first depicting her pregnancy.

Walton finds out what happened, and he brings Malfit to trial, where he is convicted.  Before being taken away to prison, Malfit hands Walton his ledger, which has records of abortions performed on his wife and those in her social circle.  He returns home and finds those very women gathered together in his home.  He says he knows why none of them have children and that he should bring them all to trial for manslaughter.  After they leave, he asks his wife the title question, and then expresses outrage that he, an officer of the law, must shield a murderess.

Just before finding out that her brother had gotten Lillian pregnant, Mrs. Walton decided she would have children, since her husband wanted them so much.  But the damage done by the abortions has rendered her forever barren.  And so, we see her and her husband growing old, with images of the three children they would have had if she had not aborted them.

The movie’s case in favor of legalizing birth control is twofold:  it would ameliorate the suffering of the poor, and fewer inferior children would result in less crime.  And the case it tries to make against abortion is twofold as well:  it is dangerous for poor women, and it results in rich women having fewer superior children.  But notwithstanding this movie’s presumption that rich people have superior traits worthy of being passed on to their offspring, what is presented to us dramatically hardly persuades us of this conceit.  The women are just lazy and pampered, and the men seduce lower-class women, getting them pregnant.

Of course, the best movie dealing with these issues is Idiocracy (2006).

It’s Alive (1974)

In movies that have a pro-life message, like Knocked Up (2007) or Juno (2007), a woman gets pregnant and the possibility of abortion is contemplated but ultimately decided against. Then the woman has the baby, and everything turns out for the best. In movies that have a pro-choice message, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) or Obvious Child (2014), a women gets pregnant, has an abortion, and everything turns out for the best. It’s Alive, however, does not merely have a pro-choice message. It has a pro-abortion message, which is to say the movie is anti-baby. A woman gets pregnant and the possibility of abortion is contemplated but ultimately decided against. Then the woman has the baby, and it is a monster.

No sooner does the horrible creature exit the birth canal than it kills every doctor and nurse in the delivery room. It escapes from the hospital and starts killing everyone it meets. At one crime scene, a detective mentions that his wife is upset because she is eight months pregnant, and his being on the case bothers her, especially since she lost their first baby. To this the other detective, who is obviously lacking in tact, says that people who don’t have children don’t know how lucky they are.

Lenore (Sharon Farrell), the woman who has the baby-monster, was taking birth control pills for thirty-one months before she got pregnant, and the suggestion is made that the pills were what caused the baby to develop into a monster. This might seem to be a disconnect. How can the movie be both pro-abortion and anti-birth control at the same time?

The answer is that it is not birth control that is evil, but rather it is the pharmaceutical company that manufactured the pill. The company representative is worried about a possible lawsuit, and he convinces Lenore’s doctor that he too may be in jeopardy, and therefore it would be better if the baby-monster is killed so that it cannot be studied for medical purposes, which might reveal the company’s and the doctor’s culpability.

Frank (John P. Ryan), Lenore’s husband, comments that when he saw the movie Frankenstein, he thought the monster’s name was Frankenstein, but when he read the book, he realized that was the doctor’s name. In other words, it was not the monster of that book who was the cause of all the evil, but the doctor. And that is the case with this movie: the baby may be the monster, but the doctor that created the monster is the villain.

The baby-monster instinctively tries to make its way back to its parents. Lenore, and eventually Frank too, come to love the baby-monster, and they want to keep it and raise it. People that are pro-life often argue that pregnant women that decide not to have an abortion and have the baby instead will come to love it, as if love were the ultimate justification. But, as this movie points out, love is not an unqualified good. In fact, sometimes love is just wrong. In such cases, love is something we are better off without. So, the fact that a woman will love the baby if she has it does not mean she would not be better off having an abortion.

Anyway, Frank tries to escape with the baby-monster to keep the police from killing it, and then, when surrounded, tries to talk them into letting it live. But when that fails, he throws the baby at the evil doctor. When the police let loose with a fusillade of bullets directed at the baby-monster, they end up killing the doctor too.

In the last scene, the police detective gets word that another woman has had a baby-monster. See what happens when you don’t get that abortion.

Hollywood vs. Abortion

It has long been a standard complaint by conservatives that there is a liberal-media bias, not only in the presentation of the news, but also in the dramas and sit-coms we see in movies and on television. In 1992, Michael Medved published Hollywood vs. America, in which he indicted Hollywood for its assault on our values and virtues.  Through its various movies, he argued, Hollywood makes fun of religion, undermines marriage, promotes promiscuity, and bashes America.  The movies are violent, foul-mouthed, offensive, and degenerate.  The book makes for a really great read.  One thing Medved does not do, however, is accuse Hollywood or the television networks of promoting abortion, for the very simple reason that they don’t.  In fact, for the most part they condemn it.

There are four ways in which movies can condemn abortion:  (a) The movie can portray the woman who has the abortion as immoral or unlikable; (b) abortion can be shown to be harmful; (c) abortion can be associated with misery and regret; or (d) the movie can show us how having the baby is a rewarding experience that makes everyone happy.

In order to properly analyze Hollywood’s attitude toward abortion in the movies, we must distinguish among three different types:  (1) Movies made before 1973, when abortion was illegal, (i.e., before Roe v. Wade); (2) movies made after Roe v. Wade, but in which the story takes place before that decision, when abortion was still illegal; and (3) movies in which the story takes place after abortion had become legal.

Not surprisingly, movies made when abortion was illegal, especially those covered by the Production Code, in effect until 1968, invariably condemned abortion by one or more of the four methods listed above.  In A Place in the Sun (1951), for example, a man gets a woman pregnant and then tries to get her an abortion.  When that fails, he murders her.  In Detective Story (1951), several women have died from botched abortions.  The abortionist is pursued by a police detective, who then discovers his own wife had an abortion from that doctor.  He is so disgusted that their marriage is all but ruined.  But then he gets killed in the end anyway, asking his wife to forgive him in his dying breath.  In Peyton Place (1957), a young woman is raped by her stepfather and gets pregnant.  A doctor refuses to give her an abortion, but then she falls and has a miscarriage.  This is a typical Hollywood solution:  deny the woman the abortion, allowing her to remain free of sin, but then give her the benefit of an abortion through a substitute.  In The Interns (1962), a doctor steals some pills to give a woman an abortion, gets caught, and is no longer allowed to practice medicine.  In the television show Maude, the episodes “Maude’s Dilemma, Parts I and II,” (1972), the title character worries about the fact that she is pregnant at the age of forty-seven.  Finally, she and her husband tearfully decide to have an abortion.  In Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), a man and woman have a one-night stand and she gets pregnant.  She wants to get an abortion, but he decides against it because he does not trust the abortionist.  They end up falling in love and getting married instead.  This has become the favorite Hollywood ending, the woman choosing not to have the abortion and living happily ever after.

One possible exception is Blue Denim (1959).  A teenage boy gets a girl pregnant.  First, she almost has an abortion, but her father and the boy’s parents prevent it at the last minute.  Second, she almost goes away to have the baby, presumably to give it up for adoption, but at the last minute, she and the boy decide to get married.  They love each other, but there is one sour note.  His parents talk of how his chances of going to college and becoming an engineer or a lawyer are foreclosed.  In fact, he will not even be able to finish high school.  The boy says he’ll get a job in a filling station or something.  I thought that at the end, the boy’s parents would tell them they will support them, letting the couple live with them while they put the boy through college.  But that doesn’t happen.  Their future is as bleak as the “straightjacket” the boy’s father says it will be.  Apparently, there was a need for a compromise.  On the one hand, the abortion is prevented, allowing for a partial happy ending where they will get married and keep the baby; on the other hand, teenagers in high school having premarital sex had to be condemned and shown to have bad consequences, thereby precluding a completely happy ending.

In the second type of movie, the ones made after 1973 but set during the illegal period, abortion is still presented negatively, though somewhat more sympathetically.  Godfather II (1974) was made just after Roe v. Wade, but set in the 1950s.  When Kay tells Michael about her abortion, she says, “It was a boy, and I had it killed!”  Such defiance on the part of a woman, saying that she had the abortion and she is glad she did, would never have been allowed while the Production Code was in force.  In fact, this was the first movie in which someone actually used the word “abortion.”  Nevertheless, Kay is pretty much miserable for the rest of the movie.  In Dirty Dancing (1987), a movie set in 1963, a young woman suffers from a botched abortion.  In Cider House Rules (1999), which takes place in Maine mostly during World War II, an abortionist is portrayed as being basically a good guy, but is sort of a pathetic character that is addicted to ether, eventually dying from an overdose.  His protégé is against abortion, but ends up reluctantly performing one on a woman who is a victim of incestuous rape.  In Mad Men (2007-2015), we find out that Joan had an abortion when she was younger, but she is redeemed:  she decides to have the baby when she gets pregnant again, in conformity with the preferred Hollywood outcome.

It is not surprising that movies set before Roe v. Wade would present abortion negatively, for that was a time when not only was abortion illegal, but also when it was shameful for a woman to have premarital sex in the first place.  What is surprising is that in the third type of movie, made after the sexual revolution and the legalization of abortion, Hollywood still condemns abortion.  A pregnant woman almost never has an abortion in this third type of film, deciding instead to have the baby.  A case in point is the movie Alfie (1966) and its remake (2004).  In the 1966 movie, which belongs to the first type, Alfie gets a married woman pregnant at a time when she and her husband have not been having sex.  He helps her get an illegal abortion, and is deeply distressed to the point of tears when he looks at the fetus lying on the table.  He later talks to a friend about the unborn child, saying that he “murdered him.”  In the remake, which belongs to the third type, we are led to believe that the woman had a legal abortion, but she later reveals to Alfie that she had the baby instead.  That part could have been left out of the movie and we would never have missed it.  But Hollywood went out of its way to say, “We were only kidding about the abortion.  She had the baby.”

In Knocked Up (2007), a friend of the father-to-be suggests an abortion.  But so taboo is the subject that he can only utter something that rhymes with “abortion,” at which point the father-to-be quickly dismisses the idea.  The woman he got pregnant has the baby, and she and the father become a loving couple.  In Juno (2007), the title character changes her mind about having an abortion when she gets to the clinic, in part owing to her conversation with an abortion protester, no less.  She ends up having the baby and giving it up for adoption.  Then, she and the boy whom she had sex with end up being happily in love.  But this movie does more than merely encourage women to give a baby up for adoption rather than have an abortion.  It also makes the case that there is nothing wrong with being a single mom at the same time. The husband of the adoptive couple is portrayed as immature.  Just before the baby arrives, he tells his wife he wants a divorce. The wife decides to go ahead and adopt anyway, and we see her happily holding the baby in the hospital.  So, the movie is saying that both giving up the baby for adoption and being a single mom are good alternatives to abortion. In Murphy Brown (1991-1992), the title character gets pregnant and decides to have the baby and raise it herself, since the man who got her pregnant has an aversion to being a father and husband.  This show was made famous when Vice President Dan Quayle criticized it for disparaging the importance of fathers in raising children.  Michael Medved, whom I referred to above, also complained about the way movies and television promote the idea that being a single parent is just fine, as in the case of Murphy Brown.  But he overlooked the fact that in so doing, the movies are actually making a case against abortion by showing it to be unnecessary, something one would think Quayle, Medved, and other pro-life people would welcome.  Given the way unmarried women in movies and television casually have babies, the implicit message is that there is absolutely no need for a woman to have an abortion.  Have the baby and be happy, the movies and television shows seem to say.

On the other hand, when an abortion does occur in this third type of movie, it is condemned by one or more of the first three methods listed above.  In The Last American Virgin (1982), after a boy gets a girl pregnant, he refuses to have anything to do with her.  Another guy, who is in love with her, manages to come up with enough money for her to have an abortion, after selling some of his possessions and borrowing money from his boss.  But after she has the abortion, she gets back together with her former boyfriend, who wants her back now that she is no longer pregnant.  The guy who helped her get the abortion ends up looking like a fool.  Obviously, she is no good.  In House of Cards (2013- ), Claire, a ruthless woman with no scruples, has had three abortions in the past, and for that she is punished:  when she realizes she wants to be a mother, she finds out it may be too late.  Of course, the old abortion-substitute method is still useful.  In Citizen Ruth (1996), the title character is a pregnant lowlife, who becomes caught up in a tug of war between pro-choice and pro-life groups.  The movie goes between the horns of the dilemma by having Ruth miscarry.

There are two great exceptions to Hollywood’s condemnation of abortion.  The first is Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).  This the rare movie in which a major character, who is sweet and likable, gets pregnant, casually has an abortion with no regrets, and then lives happily ever after.  The movie has a remarkably clean conscience about abortion.  When her older brother finds out that she is having an abortion, he completely supports her, which goes against the stereotype of the older brother that is puritanical about his sister’s sex life.  I was stunned when I saw this movie.  Mistakenly, I thought that a milestone had been reached in movie morality. But I was wrong, for it was completely anomalous.  Movies soon reverted to the standard formula:  having an abortion is bad; having the baby is good.

Over thirty years had to pass before there was a second exception to the rule that movies usually condemn abortion, Obvious Child (2014), and what an exception it is.  This movie not only portrays abortion in a positive light, as in the case of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but it also expresses utter contempt for the pro-life point of view.

I always focus more on the content of a movie than on formalist considerations, but I could not help but notice that the movie was filmed in a 2.35:1 ratio, the widescreen format typically used for action movies, instead of the more common 1.85:1 ratio that tends to be used for romantic comedies. This movie intends to present its pro-choice message in a big way.  Speaking of romantic comedies, that is exactly what this movie is.  Donna (Jenny Slate) is a struggling comedienne who does stand-up, and she is just as funny offstage as she is on.  Her humorous take on life persists throughout the film, and even her abortion provides material for one of her comedic routines.  People who are pro-life need the subject of abortion to be taken seriously, and this movie refuses to do that, treating it instead as something to joke about.

When the movie starts, her boyfriend breaks up with her right after one of her performances, and for a while she is upset.  Then she meets Max (Jake Lacy), and she has the best one-night stand you ever saw.  But you know what that means.  In movie logic, if a woman has sex with a guy just once, she gets pregnant.  She goes to an abortion clinic to make sure, and when the test comes back positive, she says she wants an abortion.  The doctor tries to talk to her about options, but Donna says she is not interested in hearing about those options, and simply wants an abortion.  In this way, the movie snubs the pro-life alternatives.  Speaking of which, we never see the outside of the abortion clinic, and thus we never see pro-life people hurling insults and carrying signs saying “baby killer” and whatnot.  The movie ignores them, much in the way Donna ignores the options the doctor keeps mentioning.

Donna is a Jew.  This is important for two reasons.  First, it allows for a crucial joke to be told.   Because Donna’s humor is always about stuff going on in her life, when her boyfriend breaks up with her, her depression over the breakup enters into her performance.  Supposedly she bombs, but actually her jokes are still funny.  And one of her jokes is about the holocaust.  If she were not a Jew herself, such a joke might have come across as anti-Semitic.  But being a Jew, she is inoculated against that charge.  So, why does the movie need a holocaust joke anyway?  This movie makes its attacks on the pro-life movement not through direct argument, but through the association of ideas.  A lot of pro-life advocates try to equate abortion with the holocaust, arguing that abortion clinics are like the showers at Auschwitz.  This movie undermines that argument by treating the holocaust itself as material for humor, refusing to take that analogy seriously, just as it refuses to take abortion seriously.

Second, it allows for a cultural contrast between her and Max.  When Donna first meets Max, a friend comments that Max is very much a Christian.  This is ominous, because we associate the pro-life movement with Christianity. Therefore, when Max comes back into her life after she has decided to have an abortion, we expect that when he finds out, he is going to take a strong pro-life position, waxing sentimental about the baby, and being appalled that she would even consider doing such a thing.  But as it turns out, he is all for it, completely upending our expectations.  In a similar way, when Donna tells her mother about her situation, her mother tells her about the illegal abortion she had in college, which worked out fine and was for the best.  And Donna’s roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) is also an abortion veteran, with no regrets.  In other words, no one in the movie represents the pro-life position.  It is deemed unworthy of consideration.

Much of the humor in the movie is scatological.  There were several fart jokes, on and off stage, including a scene in which Max urinates outside while accidentally farting in Donna’s face.  There is a joke about what fluids do to a woman’s panties, a joke about diarrhea, a joke about anal sex, and a funny scene in which Max steps in shit.  When Donna’s boyfriend breaks up with her, he does so in a unisex restroom, and there are several references to his “dumping” her. Furthermore, when Donna and Nellie are in the bathroom doing a pregnancy test, Nellie sits down on the toilet to have a bowel movement.  I have no problem with bathroom jokes, but they keep appearing so relentlessly throughout the movie that it becomes clear that they are intended to have some kind of significance.  Their purpose is to get us to form an association between the embryo and fecal matter.  The message of this movie is that having an abortion is just a way of taking a reproductive dump.  Therefore, whereas the pro-life people argue that the embryo is a human being and that killing it is murder, this pro-choice movie answers that the embryo is just waste material that needs to be excreted.

Finally, abortion is shown to be perfectly compatible with romance.  The abortion takes place on Valentine’s Day, and Max brings Donna flowers and accompanies her to the clinic.  He says it is the best Valentine’s Day he has ever had.  Later, when they are back home and she is recovering from the procedure, they decide to watch Gone With the Wind.  This, coming at the very end of the movie, is emphatic by position.  They are going to watch one of the great romantic movies of all time, and it is just the right movie for these two lovers, who we believe will eventually get married and live happily ever after.

As effective as this movie is in making its pro-choice case, I suspect that Hollywood will play it safe in the future and continue to make movies that condemn abortions when they occur and reward women who have the baby instead.

On the Question of Fetal Pain

Planned Parenthood has had some bad publicity of late. Doctors who work for Planned Parenthood have been videotaped discussing the selling of aborted fetuses for medical research. There seem to be several aspects of this that people find objectionable.

The first is that what the doctors did or were offering to do was illegal. If it was illegal, then that is a matter for prosecutors to pursue, not me. Apart from the legalities, it would not bother me if the doctors were trying to make a profit for their organization by selling the fetuses. I realize that Planned Parenthood is a nonprofit organization, but you get the idea. Call it “fund-raising” if you like. Whatever words we use, if selling the fetuses would help Planned Parenthood with its finances, and the fetuses that were sold would benefit medical research, I’m all for it. After all, if they make enough money selling fetuses, then maybe the government will no longer have to fund Planned Parenthood, which should make Republicans happy.

Moreover, it wouldn’t bother me if the women who have the abortion get a cut of the take. If it were sufficiently remunerative, some women might purposely get pregnant in order to sell their fetuses. That might strike some as being venal, but if it would be useful for medical research, then it’s all right with me.

The second problem that some people have with this is that what the doctors were describing was gruesome, what with all that talk about crunching and crushing the fetuses, which reminded me of some of the Grand Guignol lines in the movie Re-Animator (1985), as when Dr. Hill demonstrates the removal of the scalp while comparing it to peeling a large orange. This is mostly a matter of being squeamish, analogous to the way we feel about corpses. Most people will treat the dead body of a loved one with tenderness and respect until they get it buried. We know it will soon rot, but we don’t want to even think about that, let alone see it happen. One reason a person might be reticent about donating his body to science is the thought of that body being hacked to pieces by a bunch of callous medical students.

But even if we are squeamish about how our own body or that of a loved one will be treated after death, it is none of our business if someone else is willing to let his body be used for medical research after he dies, however much we might be repulsed by a description of what happens to that body when he does. And so, if the woman who has the abortion is willing to let her fetus be crunched and crushed for the greater good of mankind, that is no different from allowing her own body to be subject to its own form of gruesomeness for similar reasons.

Some people further objected to the fact that one of the doctors was seen enjoying a hearty meal while discussing the manner in which the fetus would be handled. There are those who are sensitive to disturbing thoughts while they are eating. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer tells of what a pity it was that the cook had an ulcer on his shin, because cream pudding was his best dish. But others would not be bothered at all by the similarity in color and texture of the pus from sore and pudding in the bowl. Furthermore, long experience had probably inured the doctor to the crunching and crushing, which was probably for the best, because if she could eat while discussing such matters, she could probably perform abortions without flinching, which would be better for her patients.

Third, there is the question of the pain that might be felt by the fetus during an abortion. And let me pause here, by way of parenthesis, to comment on a somewhat paradoxical fact about human nature. The feeling of sympathy that we experience when someone is in pain is part of our social nature, its primary function being to motivate us to tend to his needs, to alleviate his pain if we can. But there are some people who care only about eliminating the disturbing feeling of sympathy, and care not one whit about the other person’s suffering as such.

I knew a woman once who was bothered by mice and had set out mousetraps. One night while she was home, the trap sprung. As so often is the case, the trap did not kill the mouse immediately, and it started squealing in pain. She couldn’t stand it. She said she became hysterical and started screaming, so much so that her neighbors came running over, thinking she was being assaulted. As far as she was concerned, that was the end of the story. “What happened to the mouse?” I asked. “Oh, the guy from next door threw the mouse in the trash can in the backyard,” she answered with indifference.

Out of sight, out of mind. It reminded me of my parents. We had mice in the house where I lived as a teenager. I suggested they get one of those traps that does not kill the mouse, but only captures him in a cage. Then he could be released in a distant field the next day. But that was too much trouble, my parents averred, and so they put out the usual sort of traps. Whenever a trap caught a mouse, however, they would hear it squealing and go berserk, running out of the room while yelling at me to get rid of it. Their idea of getting rid of the mouse was for me to put it in the trash can, just like the woman in the story above. But that would mean the mouse would still be in pain for who knows how long. Rather than allow for that, I would cut off its head. My parents not only did not understand why I did that, but they even thought it was cold-hearted of me to do such a thing. In short, there are people who do not mind if a person or animal suffers, just as long as they do not have to see it or hear about it.

Recently, the possibility of fetal pain during an abortion has become an issue. In general, those who are pro-life want to use the possibility of fetal pain to make abortions illegal after, say, twenty weeks of pregnancy. They could argue in favor of mandatory anesthesia, but I figured that they did not want to simply require that fetuses be anesthetized during the procedure, because that would be conceding too much to the pro-choice camp. They would rather use the pain of the fetus to make late-term abortions illegal than have such abortions become more palatable by making them painless. However, I was perplexed that people who were pro-choice were not advocating anesthesia themselves.

Now I know why. Montana considered a bill that would have required anesthesia for fetuses after twenty weeks, which sounds good to me, but a lot of people who were pro-choice objected to this becoming law. They saw it as another instance of politicians coming between a patient and her doctor, of unnecessarily adding to the cost of the procedure, and as based on the unscientific notion that a fetus can feel pain.

As for the part about the existence of fetal pain after twenty weeks being unscientific, that is partly true, but partly beside the point. There is something intrinsically unscientific about pain or any subjective state, because we cannot observe such states directly, save in our own individual case. This fact was the basis for behaviorism: since consciousness could not be observed, it was reasoned, it should be left out of psychology altogether, if that discipline had any hope of being scientific.

We can reason by analogy, of course. If my pain correlates with certain neurophysiological states, then if those same neurophysiological states occur in someone else, we may infer that he is in pain too, especially if he says, “Ouch!” But the more difference there is between me and some other organism, the less confidence I have in the analogy. For a long time, it was thought that babies did not feel pain and thus did not require anesthesia for surgery, only a paralytic to keep them still. It has only been since the mid-1980s that anesthesia for infants has become universally standard practice in America. In centuries past, vivisectionists experimented on animals by cutting them open without any kind of anesthesia either. No matter how much that animal struggled or cried, many vivisectionists maintained that animals did not feel pain, that their responses were merely reflexive. In other words, if you cannot utter the words, “I am in pain,” you may be in for a rough time.

Ernst Mach once noted that in studying physics, one ingests a lot of metaphysics. He could have said that about science in general. Many a metaphysical belief has been mistaken for a scientific fact, and claims about whether an animal, a baby, or a fetus can feel pain is just such an example. In some cases, assumptions of convenience may play a role. People tend to assume as true whatever suits their purposes. When Congress was considering the banning of incandescent bulbs, to be replaced by CFLs, which contain mercury, the question arose as to whether the disposal of CFLs would result in a harmful accumulation of mercury in landfills. The answer given to this concern was that people would take the burned out bulbs to a recycling center. Oh sure! Some people may do that, but most do not. The only reason anyone would believe something so unrealistic is that it was convenient to assume as much.

I fear that many people who are pro-choice believe that fetuses feel no pain during an abortion because it is a convenient assumption. Just as pro-life people don’t want to say that abortions are all right if fetuses are anesthetized, pro-choice people are afraid that certain abortions will become illegal if they concede that fetuses can feel pain. What we are likely to end up with is a standoff, in which neither side gives way. The losers may be the fetuses that are denied the anesthesia they deserve.