Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Why Not Get An Abortion?

In my FindLaw column today, I discuss a film, currently in theaters, called "4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days." The title refers to the point during pregnancy at which a college woman, with the help of her roommate, seeks an illegal abortion in Ceausescu's Romania (where abortion, contraception, and sex education were illegal between 1966 and 1989). In my column, I take up the question of whether a person might be both "pro-life" (opposed to abortion) and "pro-choice" (opposed to criminalization) at the same time, suggesting that the underground abortion industry so dramatically rendered in "4 months" makes an argument for this seemingly contradictory position.

In this blog post, however, I want to discuss a different question: why doesn't any of the popular, recent "accidental pregnancy" films -- like "Waitress," "Knocked Up," and "Juno" -- tell us what motivated the heroine of each story to proceed, respectively, with her pregnancy? In "Juno," the main character is apparently persuaded by a pro-life classmate protesting in front of a clinic, who tells her that her fetus already has fingernails. In the other two films, we do not even hear this much of an explanation. In each film, there are plenty of reasons for the woman to terminate her pregnancy -- one is a high-school student, a second is a domestic abuse victim, and the third has nothing in common with the Peter Pan father of the pregnancy (and only coupled with him in the first place because she was so inebriated). Not one of the three appears to want a child, at least in the beginning. Yet abortion is either never considered at all (as in "Waitress") or is considered briefly but then rejected ("Knocked Up" and "Juno").

This strange juxtaposition between these popular films in the modern U.S. and Ceausescu's Romania has led some critics to praise "4 months" as refreshing in dealing with the realities of unplanned pregnancy rather than the fantasy of "happily ever after" that infuses the other films. One crucial distinction that may help explain the disparity between the films is that when abortion is illegal, people do not have the luxury of making a moral decision. They are either compelled by the law to take their pregnancies to term or, if they are desperate enough, they are driven to a back-alley business that is so costly and so dangerous that moral introspection is virtually impossible for those involved. In a time and a place where abortion is legal, safe, and available, by contrast, women do have a choice and can feel the full force of whatever moral implications their conduct entails. When you are being forced to make the "right" decision, in other words, you are unlikely to identify with that decision; it is not truly "yours," after all.

The three films about unplanned pregnancies and happy endings, then, may demonstrate the success of a pro-life movement operating within a pro-choice regime. Though they are doubtless manipulative (without in fact explaining the choices that are made), they are infinitely preferable -- in all of their fantasy -- to the reality of the back-alley.

Posted by Sherry Colb


Caleb said...

I'm afraid I can't give a fully informed comment since I've only seen Juno (and I too felt that there wasn't a whole lot of reason given for her decision), but I'm just wondering how far you would apply your last point. After all, many people feel that theft is a moral issue. If so, should people be free to make the moral choice not to steal? (I promise, I'm not trying to be provocative, just wondering where/how you would draw the line)

Sherry F. Colb said...

Caleb makes a good point, and of course, murder is a moral issue too, so I do not mean to suggest that everything immoral should therefore be legally permissible. I only observe that given the degree of demand for abortion and the human cost of the inevitable black market when abortion is criminal, the contrast between the presumed immorality of abortion among women in the American films and the near-irrelevance of the moral question to the women in "4 months" suggests that criminalization exacts a cost from a pro-life perspective as well.

Howard Wasserman said...

The "success of the pro-life movement in a pro-choice regime" is a specifically rhetorical success. Abortion has ceased to become an option that can be discussed, much less acted upon, in a mainstream production--no studio would make it from fear of the public protest and faux-outrage squawking from the right-wing media. Plus, taking abortion off the table goes a ways towards the message of "motherhood uber alles" that at least is in the subconscious of "Knocked Up." In that sense, the anti-choice forces have "won"--the fact that abortion is legal is somewhat secondary if the option is not really part of the cultural discussion.

Compare, by the way, how we have moved in 25 years from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," where the teen-aged girl becomes pregnant and has the abortion without any real thought being shown on-screen. This could not happen in a movie nowadays.

David S. Cohen said...

A great movie that could easily support this "pro life and pro choice" position that you claim might work for some people is "Motherless." It tells the story of four adults who grew up motherless because their mothers, in subsequent pregnancies that occurred before Roe v. Wade, had illegal abortions and died as a result. Hospitals around the country had entire wards for women suffering from botched illegal abortions.

Like "4 Months...," it's a chilling story about what women really do when abortion is illegal. But, unlike "4 Months...," it occurred here in this country not so long ago.

egarber said...

On the first point (I haven't read your column yet), I think it's entirely possible to take a postion protecting the mother's privacy right, while concluding personally to never choose the abortion path. I may think that a fetus isn't a person, and that the state only has a compelling interest to involve itself late in a pregnancy, but at the same time, my wife and I wouldn't even consider an abortion in our personal decision making. We would always choose to nurture and love that early life-form.

For an analogy, I'd never own a gun, but I support the individual rights defense of the second amendment. Or, I won't likely ever be in a porn flick (never say never! :) ), but I'm pro-first amendment, so I defend the rights of others to take part.

Fast Times. Classic flick!

egarber said...

Now that I’ve read your column, I see that your point is more nuanced than my first impulse. I think that in a way, you’re applying a sort of “but for” rule – i.e., whereby somebody might say, “but for the fact that a horrific black market will result, I favor outlawing abortion.” In this way, it might still be possible to think that abortion is murder AND favor keeping it legal.

That’s a different position than mine, which is based on privacy, etc.

Lesson: Always read the referenced column first! :)

Unknown said...

A great movie that could easily support this "pro life and pro choice" position that you claim might work for some people is "Motherless."

Interesting premise. I cannot imagine the participants could sincerely believe that growing up motherless was worse for them than if they'd been killed in utero (this is not to say that all lives are worth living - only that being motherless does not necessarily deprive life of its value). I suppose if we are to take certain theoretical arguments for abortion seriously, however, they could not have been killed in utero, since whatever was in the mother's womb at the time was not a person and therefore not the person sitting before the director in the movie. I doubt that this would be much of a consolation, either, however.

Of course, none of this is necessarily an argument against abortion, but it does suggest that there are interests other than the mother's at stake. This is true even if the fetus is only a future person. The defender of abortion, therefore, needs an argument to show why the interests of future people ought to be ignored or heavily discounted, one which will not necessarily require us to similary discount the interests of future generations or future selves.

Unknown said...

Just checked out the link to _Motherless_. It appears I misunderstood the movie's premise. I thought it was interviews with children who survived botched abortions in which their mothers died. Apparently it's about children whose mothers died while trying to abort their siblings. Since fetuses do or, at least, could survive botched abortion attempts, the gist of what I wrote is still applicable.

Unknown said...

I haven't seen Waitress so I can't comment on its message concerning abortion, but I think that Knocked Up and Juno haven’t been fairly characterized with respect to this issue.

In Knocked Up, abortion was never condemned as an immoral choice. In fact, abortion was frankly discussed in the movie in a way that was suggestive of “Big Hollywood’s” acceptance of it as an obvious and perfectly reasonable choice for a woman confronted with an unplanned pregnancy. Knocked Up’s heroine chose to have her baby not from a moral rejection of abortion, but it seemed to me, out of rebellion against the conventional wisdom that she wasn’t capable of being a good mother given her age, life situation, and marital status. From that perspective, I took the movie to be more of a post-modern take on parenting, and a critique of society’s failure to provide adequate support for women who take on both professional and parental roles.

In Juno, the filmmakers went beyond Knocked Up in their support for the pro-choice movement. The student protester outside of the abortion clinic was the subject of ridicule. The audience was expected not to take the pro-life position seriously, and to view its arguments as self-evidently absurd to the point of comedy. Juno’s choice not to go through with the abortion was motivated not by the protester, but by the unbearably depressing state of the clinic. Juno adopted the protester’s rhetoric as a tongue-in-cheek way of defending her decision not to terminate the pregnancy to her close friend who never considered the possibility Juno might carry to term. While the movie certainly cast Juno’s decision to have the child and give it up for adoption as a noble one, I never got the sense that she would have been any less admirable had she chosen to terminate her pregnancy. Instead, the movie specifically acknowledged the limited options a teenager has with respect to pregnancy. Only one clinic to which she had access did not require parental consent. And that clinic wasn’t very nice.

If I could take away one overarching theme from both of these films concerning the pro-choice position, it would be that it’s about exactly that—choice. For the same reason these women shouldn’t have been compelled to have an unwanted child, they shouldn’t feel compelled to terminate an unplanned pregnancy either. While I believe an argument could be made that a woman’s decision to keep an unplanned pregnancy, like in Knocked Up and Juno, has been sub-consciously motivated by pro-life rhetoric, this is not necessarily the case. Not every decision to keep an unwanted pregnancy is the by-product of the pro-life movement, and I imagine it would be insulting to a woman who made such a decision to accuse her of embracing pro-life ethics.

Sherry F. Colb said...

I have a quick thought about what Carl said (re future lives' interests). I imagine that most people who prefer to be alive than never to have been born would express relief that decisions -- about abortion, about sex, and about whether to go to a particular school -- were made in a way that gave rise to their existence. So, for example, if a couple had considered waiting until marriage to have sex but instead decided not to wait and then conceived and took the pregnancy to term, the resulting child would probably be glad not only that there was no abortion but also that the couple didn't decide to wait until the wedding to have sex. Nonetheless, it is not clear that the couple should be required or even asked to take into account the interests of that potential life in being born (as expressed by the actual person who was born) when they decide whether to wait until marriage to have sex. If, in other words, one does not attribute *current* interests to a fetus, it would not appear obvious (at least to me) that anything significant should follow from a person's later expression of gratitude or happiness in the fact of his or her birth. Indeed, there is good evidence that although more abortions took place in this country after Roe was decided, the birth rate itself did not drop (which suggests that many of the people now in being would not exist but for their mothers' earlier abortions).

Howard Wasserman said...

I agree with Nathan's final paragraph in real life--pro-life rhetoric does not subconsciously affect most women in making their choices. I disagree with it in the context of Hollywood--I think the pro-life rhetoric has succeeded in making it highly unlikely that any mainstream movie or television show is likely to show a character having an abortion. The uproar (or the anticipated uproar) would scare most producers away from doing this. And to the extent what gets depicted in popular culture does affect our understanding of the world, it might have an effect on the real-world choices that get made.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Sherry wrote:

If, in other words, one does not attribute *current* interests to a fetus, it would not appear obvious (at least to me) that anything significant should follow from a person's later expression of gratitude or happiness in the fact of his or her birth.

You seem to be relying on a principle here that would entail that no future interest could matter to us presently unless it coincided with some present interest. While this is a perfectly coherent view, it does seem to conflict with some fairly common moral intutions, such as that we have reason to care about our own future selves or that we have certain obligations to future generations.

It might be the case at this point in time, for example, that no one presently alive would be better off if we reduced green-house gas emissions, while potentially billions of future people will benefit. If your principle is right and no one now has an interest in reducing green-house gases, then the fact that potentially billions of future people would be grateful if we did so nevertheless should similarly be irrelevant. I think most people reject this conclusion.

Of course, even if the interests of future persons do matter, it's hard to say how they should figure into our present deliberations. Take a variation on one of your points - if we do make drastic changes in how we consume the earth's resources, this will very likely bring into existence a different group of people than if we continued on our current course. I would agree with you here that the mere fact that the future people who would be born if we continued polluting at the current rate therefore have a future interest in our continuing to pollute at the present rate does not give us any reason to do so. But this is true because by reducing green-house gas emissions we are bringing about an even greater benefit to the people who will be born in their place. So we are still taking into account the interests of future people.

How these considerations should be applied in the abortion context is unclear. They seem to suggest that the future person's interest in not having the fetus aborted could be trumped by the interests of some other future person who would be born later and have a better quality of life. Since there is no way to determine whether the mother will in fact have another child, interests like these should probably discounted or even ignored, however.

I'm not sure what all this shows if it's right except that if we want to preserve the commonsense belief that we have certain non derivative duties to future generations and together with your claim that the interests of future people should not be taken into considering abortion, we need some principle that can justify the difference.

drew said...

A great topic and comments are going, a great group of well informed commenters. We had a similar debate on our blog, here is some of what went down:


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