YOUNG MAN. Wow! Look at that sunset!
YOUNG WOMAN. Yes, so pretty. I have something wonderful to tell you.
YOUNG MAN. Don’t keep me in suspense. What is it?
YOUNG WOMAN. You’re going to be a father!
YOUNG MAN. (surprised but smiles) Are you kidding?
YOUNG WOMAN. No. Even though I’m four months pregnant, I’ve saved telling you for the right moment. We’re going to be parents.
YOUNG MAN. Hurray! Even though we’re not married and still living in a tiny room at my grandparents’ house, this is the best news ever!
YOUNG WOMAN. Even though neither of us are working because of the town’s 15% unemployment rate, everything will work out fine.
YOUNG MAN. Even though I’m just eighteen and you’re seventeen and we’ll have only 80% of our brain synapses until our mid-twenties,1Bill Bryson, “The Brain,” The Body. we’ll have no problems making informed, adult decisions on matters affecting the rest of our lives.
YOUNG WOMAN. Even though I’m still in school, there’s always home schooling. People are so willing to help!
YOUNG MAN. Even though my grandparents can’t get around that well, they’ll be overjoyed to babysit for hours at a time.
YOUNG WOMAN. Even though the sonogram revealed problems with our child, we will give thanks for him every day.
YOUNG MAN. No way else to say this. It was meant to be.
What’s missing from this touching discussion? Abortion. Affectionately referred to in the entertainment industry as “the A-word,” abortion is not even considered by characters in most mainstream shows about unplanned pregnancy. Only once have I seen it handled in an almost-sympathetic light. In the frisky series Shameless,2Shameless, S6:E2 “#Abortion Rules,” aired Jan 17, 2016. Fiona, the twenty-something matriarch, gets an abortion. But her teen sister Debbie gets pregnant at the same time and decides to have her child, effectively “balancing” any negative audience responses to Fiona’s abortion.
The Guttmacher Institute reports that in 2013, 24% of teen pregnancies resulted in abortion. Of course, these are only reported figures. The real figure may be as high as one third. In addition, there were probably many more who wanted abortions but couldn’t get them, or were talked out of them by parents or religious zealots. That such a large demographic is excluded from most portrayals of unplanned pregnancy is a cruel triumph of narrative management. My above “even though” list of mitigating reasons may be formidable, but in situations where the feet could hit the stirrups, they don’t mean shit. It’s just assumed that all unplanned pregnancies result in successful – and joyous – births. But as blues singer Irma Thomas once sang, “you know what they say about the word ‘assume.'”
Three recent films present deeply compelling dramatizations of abortion. Two are set in the sixties when it was illegal, and one is set in the twenty-first century, just before Roe V. Wade got overturned. They are not “pro-abortion” any more than today’s crop of mainstream films are “pro-life.” Most productions you see on broadcast cable are too wimpy on the issue to take an oppositive stance. While not religious per se, they could probably be shown on Up TV with the insertion of just a few Godly edits. These three films are just well-acted, realistic, historical, and (for some) occasionally disturbing viewings. But in this current climate, they should be required viewing.
Call Jane. Directed by Phyllis Nagy. Written by Hayley Schore, Roshan Sethi. Produced by Claude Amadeo, Robbie Brenner, Lee Broda, Michael D’Alto, Kevin McKeon, David M. Wulf. Distributed by Roadside Attractions. 2022.
Call Jane is about The Jane Collective, an underground citizens action group that operated from 1969 to 1973. (For some reason, the film is set in 1968.) Joy, a middle class American housewife, learns that her pregnancy is life-threatening. She tries to get a therapeutic abortion, but doctors at the local hospital refuse to provide one, a common stance back then. She searches for an illegal abortion but when she finds one, realizes it’s run by seedy characters in unsanitary conditions. While walking away, she accidentally discovers a handbill about The Janes, a group that provides underground abortions to pregnant women. The film is well acted and (somewhat) suspenseful and presents a believable version of community, as the woman help each other and provide service to both middle-class and poor clients. At no point do the characters regret what they’re doing or betray other members. The women truly act as a collective and reach hard decisions in conference, rather than from the top down. This is how policy changes typically happened in activist groups of that period. No real existential crises to the group occur, nor do dramatic reversals threaten the characters; however, this is a docudrama and not a suspense film. Still, its narrative doesn’t flag for an instant. The characters are so vividly drawn and realistic in their reactions that you believe in them and their decisions. There is also a merciful dearth of sentimentality.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Directed by Eliza Hittman. Written by Eliza Hittman. Produced by Lia Buman, Rose Garnett, Tim Headington, Sara Murphy, Alex Orlovsky, Elika Portnoy, Adele Romanski. Distributed by Focus Features. 2020.
If Call Jane is a celebration of the triumph of community activism, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is all about going it alone. And being only seventeen. And being from a poor mining town in Pennsylvania. In realist tradition, writer Eliza Hittman plunks her directorial finger flat on the pulse of the typical. Fearing she’s pregnant, Autumn discovers that the women in the local crisis pregnancy center are so conservative and family-oriented they are worse than useless. They are dangerous guardians of the status quo. They try to cajole her against even considering pregnancy termination. They lie to her. She summons up some reservoir of inner strength and stays unaffected by their pious urgings to give birth. For example, when they show her creepy sonograms of her “beautiful child” in utero, she leaves their center and doesn’t return. She doesn’t tell her clueless parents, but instead goes to New York City with her cousin Skylar to obtain a legal abortion. They feel zero guilt about stealing money from their jobs to pay for bus tickets there. Everything rings true about what they do and how they react to each crisis. Their sullen ‘ tudes, their inchoateness, the way they adapt to each obstacle thrown in their way. They are even undeterred by a massive (and all too typical) Pro-Life demonstration in front of the New York Planned Parenthood clinic. This film depicts probably their first mature act and how they adaptively learn while doing it, without help from anyone. They are like the children in It (2017), who must go it alone to vanquish a monster. Nobody learns a lesson, nobody plunges into paroxysms of regret, no one finds religion and repents. The film is subtle and understated at times. The scene in which it received its title is trenchant and poignant, and during it, the lead character barely says a word.
“Young people shouldn’t have to go through such hoops,” your inner sense of justice may cry. Yet here it is, plunked in front of you like a traffic jam in a blizzard, faithfully zeroing in on current events without once harping on them. From this film we learn that the prime-time narratives we’re shown about unplanned pregnancies are only a small percentage of actual cases, and that we’ve been constantly lied to. And in an era when state legislatures are debating on whether to legally equate abortion with murder, people need to learn its lesson.
Happening is about an abortion that Noble Prize-winning author Annie Ernaux went through when she was still in school in France in the early sixties. It was based on her 2000 novel of the same name. Since abortion was illegal in France until 1975, much of the drama stems from the inherent tension spawned by this harsh history. Anne, the lead character, feels she cannot trust anyone with her plight. Her classmates, her parents, even the doctors she goes to are possible risky confidants. She is supremely isolated, receiving virtually no help from anyone throughout this ordeal. Unplanned pregnancy is uniquely alienating even now, but back then doing something about it could mean a jail sentence, both for the abortionist and the victim. Scene after scene show her interactions with her peers and parents as sometimes poignant, sometimes scary. There’s one in the school’s communal shower in which her fellow students shun her for being a “slut.” She starts dissociating from events happening around her. A simple dinner table scene shows her as simultaneously with her parents and apart from them. Some scenes are hard to watch, but the film is undeniably powerful and worth seeing.
As true to history all three films are, not one of them probes the etiology of antiabortion sentiment. Where does it come from? Who benefits from it? Many people blame the Catholic Church (or other conservative religions) for their pigheaded obstructionism. Through their vocal support of right-to-life organizations, they are certainly culpable. Oddly, they don’t appear in two of these three films.3In Call Jane, the Catholic Church appears in one scene as a positive (!) participant. But are they really the originators of this strident and divisive movement? Many historians believe that religion is not the wellspring of the antiabortion movement, but merely its muscle-bound propaganda arm. At most, it is the third arm in the military-industrial-religio triad. Far right organizers can usually count on klatches of religious fanatics to parade in front of clinics with gruesome photographs on signs. Others believe that the cause is rightwing plutocracy, now in ascendancy in today’s unipolar world. It is they who benefit from the destabilization and impoverishment of working people when they fail to get the abortions they need. A frantic desperate person is not likely to point fingers at bureaucrats during public hearings on citizens’ rights. Since the late seventies, religious reactionaries have been weaponizing abortion as a hot-button issue, along with family values and “making America great again.”
One day they’ll be an on-target film about corporate America’s involvement in the antiabortion movement. I would stand in line for that.
- 1Bill Bryson, “The Brain,” The Body.
- 2Shameless, S6:E2 “#Abortion Rules,” aired Jan 17, 2016.
- 3In Call Jane, the Catholic Church appears in one scene as a positive (!) participant.