The recent gains made by the pro-life movement in their effort to prevent women from having abortions are dismaying, perplexing, and surprising. Undoubtedly, there are many reasons for this. There is one in particular that I wish to bring up for consideration, not because I believe it to be the most important reason, for I doubt if it is that, but simply because it interests me for its own sake, whatever its significance.
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 on television. And the worst offender is Hollywood. 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, they condemn it. The main way in which abortion is condemned is by omission. It practically never happens. A pregnant woman in a movie almost always decides to have the baby. As a general rule, if you want to see a movie in which a woman has an abortion, you will have to watch one made before the Roe v. Wade decision made it legal. Paradoxically, once abortion was legalized, women in movies began choosing to have the baby. A case in point is the movie Alfie (1966) and its remake in 2004. In the 1966 movie, Alfie gets a married woman pregnant at a time when she and her husband have not been having sex. He helps her get an 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, we are led to believe that the woman had an abortion, but she later reveals to Alfie that she had the baby instead.
The general rule follows this example. If the movie is made before Roe v. Wade, a pregnant woman might have an abortion, or at least try to, but things either turn out badly, or are in some way very unpleasant. 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 A Place in the Sun (1951), a man and woman try to get her an abortion, but when that fails, he murders her. 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 47. Finally, she and her husband tearfully decide to have an abortion. Godfather II (1974) was made just after Roe v. Wade, but set in the 1950s, so it is transitional. In any event, when Kay tells Michael about the abortion, she says, “It was a boy, and I had it killed!”
We are not surprised, of course, that Hollywood would condemn abortion when it was illegal, especially in the movies made while they were still being censored by the production code. The surprise is that once abortion became legal, women in the movies quit having them. They might be tempted to have an abortion, but they usually wind up giving birth. And when they have the baby, all is sweetness and light. 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. In the end, the man and woman have the baby and live happily ever after. 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 also complained about the way Hollywood 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, they are making a case against abortion, which for him would be a silver lining. Given the way unmarried women in movies and television casually have babies, the implicit message is that abortion is unnecessary. Have the baby and be happy, the movies and television shows seem to say.
Although abortions no longer occur as part of the dramatized story, they are sometimes referred to as something that happened in the past. While this cushions the moral implications of the abortion, it still has to be condemned in some way. In Mad Men, 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 House of Cards, we find out that Claire 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.
The great exception to all this is Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). This is the only movie in which a major character, who is sweet and likeable, gets pregnant, casually has an abortion with no regrets, and then lives happily ever after. In other words, in the entire history of cinema, this is the only movie that has a clean conscience about abortion. 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. Nothing like it has been seen since.
Aside from this one exception, ever since Roe v. Wade, whenever women in the movies or television shows contemplate abortion, they struggle with the temptation, but then go ahead and do the right thing by having the baby. In Juno (2007), the title character changes her mind when she gets to the abortion clinic, in part owing to her conversation with an abortion protester, no less. In other words, unlike Fast Times at Ridgemont High, movies have a bad conscience about abortion, and the implicit message is that there is something wrong about having one.
Contrary to what we see in the movies and television shows, plenty of women have abortions, and many of those do so without guilt or regret. I have no doubt that it is a troublesome decision for many women, but I also suspect that a lot of women have abortions without feeling guilty about it at all. My own experience, at any rate, supports that. First, there was my grandmother. She told me that after she had my mother, her fourth child, she was fed up with having children. So when she got pregnant the fifth time, she had an abortion. The tone in her voice was matter-of-fact.
Then there was this married couple I knew, Bob and Karen. Bob told me that Karen had gotten pregnant when they were in college, so they had to get married. I had the impression he was unhappy about that outcome, so I asked him if they had thought about getting an abortion. He said that was something Karen would not consider. On another occasion, I was talking to Karen, and she told me about some of the men she had sex with before she met Bob. “Some of those guys were real losers,” she said. “If any of them had gotten me pregnant, I would have had an abortion.” She gestured with her hand as if she were brushing away a fly. Hopefully, Bob will never know.
Then there was the night a woman and I were overwhelmed by a great passion. We knew what had to be done. There was just one problem. What girlfriends I have had in my life have been few and far between. The last one had been years before, and she had been on the pill. Therefore, I was pretty sure there were no condoms in my apartment. And since her husband had had a vasectomy, she was unprepared as well. While she got undressed, I rummaged around in drawers and cabinets in the vain hope of finding a condom from long ago, but finally she said, “To hell with it, John. If I get pregnant, I’ll just get an abortion.” That sounded good to me, so I quit looking. “They haven’t blown up all the abortion clinics, have they?” she asked, jokingly, as we prepared to throw caution to the winds.
Those are my anecdotes, for what they are worth. Three women, all taking a casual, matter of fact, even humorous attitude about having an abortion. But with the exception of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, such women are nowhere to be found in the movies, except perhaps as very minor characters. If there is another movie or television show out there in which a woman has an abortion without feeling bad about it, my guess is that she is portrayed as immoral or unlikeable. Instead, the movies have promoted the notion that the ideal thing for a pregnant woman to do is have the baby. If she considers an abortion, it is proper, almost obligatory, for her to agonize over it; and if she has the abortion, she will invariably be filled with regrets.
This unrelenting subliminal message from movies and television shows to the effect that abortion is wrong may not persuade those of us who are firmly pro-choice, but it may well have some influence at the margins, and enough so to elect a few extra pro-life conservatives here and there, perhaps just enough to make the difference. There is not much we can do about this cinematic influence, however. At most, we can keep watching the movies and television shows, waiting for the day when women on the screen start having abortions, and doing so without misgivings or regrets. Then we will know that the pro-choice forces have finally gotten the upper hand.