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The subtlety of right-to-life tropes

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In the much talked-about movie Obvious Child -- which finally opens in Winnipeg this weekend -- Donna (Jenny Slate), a young aspiring stand-up comedian, has a drunken one-night stand and gets pregnant. What she does next, in Upworthy parlance, may shock you.

Donna decides to have an abortion. And nothing bad happens to her.

Indeed, the debut film from writer/director Gillian Robespierre is the abortion rom-com we've been waiting for. When it comes to modern onscreen depictions of abortion, a happy ending is still very hard to come by. As Amanda Hess writes in Slate, "movies about modern women fail to regard their hard-earned constitutional right as an unambiguously positive development."

Before 1973's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision in the U.S., films that dared to tackle abortion overwhelmingly showed the procedure ending in death -- from complications during or after the procedure, yes, but also from murder or suicide. Post-Roe vs. Wade, there are many films and TV shows that feature modern women who are pregnant and, to quote Sex and the City's Miranda Hobbes, "need not to be" -- but these women, able to exercise their reproductive rights, are still required to make the "right" choice. And that choice is rarely ever abortion, unless it's under an exceptional (and therefore socially accepted) circumstance.

"Post-Roe, a woman who considers an abortion can only maintain sympathy in the eyes of the viewer if she's been impregnated by a villain (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), if she suffers stark physical or emotional consequences from the abortion (Absence of Malice), or if -- at the last minute -- she decides that she can't go through with it (Blue Valentine)," Hess writes. "These movies tell us that it was wrong for laws to dictate what a woman ought to do with her body, but now that she has the choice, she should choose to give birth."

Then, of course, there are the films and television shows that ostensibly "deal" with abortion, but their protagonists are spared from having to actually make a choice, saved by the bell in the form of a late period (Girls) or a miscarriage (Citizen Ruth). In other cases, a movie's entire plot hinges on the protagonist seeing an unplanned pregnancy through (Juno, Knocked Up). In Knocked Up, abortion -- referred to as a "shmashmortion" -- isn't presented as a real option for Katherine Heigl's character, outside of an oblique reference to "taking care of it."

Even the best examples fall short. On a 2003 episode of HBO's Six Feet Under, 17-year-old Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) decides to have an abortion, the experience is depicted as a normal, routine procedure -- one that one in three American women will have in her lifetime -- and Claire returns to her life, only to have a daydream about her fully developed baby boy in the afterlife.

Our culture has certain requirements of a woman who has an abortion -- on screen and in life. She is expected to be remorseful. She is expected to be sad. Maybe even filled with regret. And she is expected to suffer. Her anguish may be physical or mental, but it is anguish nonetheless. She shouldn't "get away with it." And she definitely shouldn't feel happy or relieved about it. (That point was made very clear this past spring when a woman named Emily Letts decided to film her abortion to show other women it isn't scary. The video, which went viral, was met with vitriol from people who called it a "snuff film" despite the fact it only shows a close-up of her face. We've all seen pro-life placards that are more graphic.)

That "Trojan horse moralism," as writer Dana Stevens so vividly called it, rife within pop-culture depictions of abortion often plays directly (and obviously) into anti-choice narratives, but it also plays more insidiously into certain pro-choice narratives, shaped by "I'm pro-choice, but..." arguments made by people who are pro-choice with an asterisk. You know, people who believe that abortion is something that happens to someone else and they'd never, ever find themselves in that position because they are "not that kind of girl." People who believe abortion is a viable choice for some women (a sexual assault survivor; a woman who will die if she doesn't have the procedure, etc.) but not others (the slut who should have kept her legs closed).

Imposing one's morality onto another person's bodily autonomy is a big part of the anti-abortion playbook, which, according to a pair of researchers from the University of Ottawa, is changing. Paul Saurette and Kelly Gordon released a study in 2013 titled Arguing Abortion: The New Anti-Abortion Discourse in Canada that found anti-abortion discourse is shifting away from legislation-focused, anti-woman, religious and fetal-centric rhetoric in favour of a "pro-woman" tone that avoids "appealing to religion" to defend its position and eschews the fetal-centric argument in favour of a new one: the "abortion harms women" argument.

So how, exactly, are anti-abortion activists attempting to convince women abortions are harmful for them? The researchers noticed an emphasis on psychological and physical harm, noting "there is a very strong rhetorical attempt to frame the anti-abortion position as based in definitive scientific and medical studies and statistics" -- but often in appearance only. Saurette and Gordon point to an article posted on MP Maurice Vellacott's website that "has the appearance of scientific validity but tends to conflate random correlation with causality."

From the article: "Since the 1970s, there has been a marked increase in North America in the number of abortions and repeat abortions, which may explain the significant increases in pelvic inflammatory disease, uterine hemorrhage, sepsis, pain due to endometriosis retained fetal or placental tissue, and the increasing evidence of an abortion-breast cancer link."

The researchers also point out this medicalization strategy is used when discussing psychological harm -- i.e. the so-called post-abortion syndrome, which is not formally recognized by the medical community yet is widely used in anti-abortion discourse. Seems "Won't someone think of the children?" has been replaced with "Won't someone think of the hysterical women who don't understand the decision they're making?"

From where I'm sitting, these are new tools of an old oppression under the guise of being "pro-woman." All the more reason we need films such as Obvious Child to help de-stigmatize what is a common -- and, in this country, legal -- procedure.


Jen Zoratti is a Free Press columnist who writes about women and popular culture.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 3, 2014 A7


Updated on Wednesday, September 3, 2014 at 10:17 AM CDT: Corrects typo in quote

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