by Susan E. Wills
December 28, 2007
Historians may remember 2007 for different reasons. But for me it was the year when both the U.S. Supreme Court and Hollywood discovered the humanity of unborn children and the existence of abortion alternatives. One need only revisit the Court's past abortion opinions and the movie industry's usual approach to abortion to appreciate the radical course correction this past year.
Beginning with Roe v. Wade, the Court has deftly danced around the reality of what abortion does to unborn children. Words like kill, destroy, and even "take the life" are all but absent from majority opinions. In Roe, abortion meant only "a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."
For the next 35 years, the Court bloodlessly described choice, procedures and "potential life." Even when dealing with the appalling reality of partial-birth abortion in 2000, the Court's majority resorted to sanitized expressions, like calling the baby's skull "fetal calvarium" and referring to tearing off the child's limbs as "disarticulation."
But throughout the Gonzales v. Carhart decision of April 2007, which upheld the federal partial-birth abortion ban, the Court calls abortion "killing" and identifies the fetus as an infant and an unborn child. No longer is abortion treated as a minor, morally unproblematic surgery like removing a mole. It is a decision "fraught with emotional consequence," "a difficult and painful moral decision." And the State has "an interest in ensuring so grave a choice is well informed," even if such knowledge may encourage some women "to carry the infant to full term." There's an alternative to abortion? Who knew?
For the typical treatment of abortion in movies recall "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Dirty Dancing" and that paean to noble, selfless, misunderstood abortion providers "Cider House Rules," and its British counterpart "Vera Drake." The message here is that young women need abortions and providers help them, often at great personal risk.
Fast forward to 2007 where we find four movies dealing with unplanned, problematic pregnancies among three single females and one woman married to a brute. The outcome? Four births and two adoption plans.
Only one ("Bella") could be considered a pro-life, pro-family film. Its motif is that every human has God-given dignity and deserves to be respected and loved, whether an unborn child, an immigrant family, or the usually unseen kitchen and waiting staff at restaurants.
The message of "Juno" is complicated by factors I can't disclose without spoiling the plot. Yet the undeniable humanity of Juno's unborn child is captured through the baby's kicking and through Juno's reflection on a clinic protester's comment: "Your baby has fingernails."
"Waitress" (showing an adulterous affair) and "Knocked Up" (assuming promiscuity is the norm) are not ideal vehicles to illustrate the human dignity of children before birth. But they do send a vital message to the movie-going public: If you're facing an unexpected pregnancy, don't let panic drive you to an abortion clinic. Don't accept abortion as the only answer to your problem. Being pregnant for nine months won't destroy your life; but abortion will destroy the life of another human being. Look around. Your family or friends or caring strangers will help you through it.
This, too, is a message given by many bishops in the United States including, most recently, Baltimore's new archbishop, Edwin F. O'Brien. At his October installation Mass he pledged:
"No one has to have an abortion. To all of those in crisis pregnancies, I pledge our support and our financial help. Come to the Catholic Church. Let us walk with you through your time of trouble. Let us help you affirm life. Let us help you find a new life with your child, or let us help you place that child in a loving home. But please, I beg you: let us help you affirm life. Abortion need not be an 'answer' in this Archdiocese."
This is a message we all can live by.
Susan Wills is Associate Director for Education in the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. To learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities, go to www.usccb.org/prolife.