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).