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