The A-word is absent

Pregnant characters in recent U.S. films not only don't discuss abortion, they don't even say the word.

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Tammy Blanchard, playing the pregnant Nina, talks with friend José (Eduardo Verástegui) in "Bella."

In America, about one in five pregnancies end in abortion, according to the latest figures from the Guttmacher Institute. In recent American movies, however, every unplanned pregnancy is carried to term.

From Knocked Up to Waitress to Juno, opening Dec. 14, abortion is The Great Unmentionable, euphemized as "shmashmortion" (Knocked Up), "we don't perform, uh, -" (Waitress), and "nipped it in the bud" (Juno), comedies in which pregnancy is the situation. Abortion is likewise obliquely referenced, if actually considered, in the drama Bella, now in theaters.

"It's as if there's an 'every conception deserves delivery' policy being observed," says Virginia Rutter, senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families, a Chicago-based organization of academics and public health professionals.

To the extent that mainstream movies are a barometer of public opinion, the evidence of America's continued ambivalence about abortion can be found at the multiplex.

"The ground has shifted," says Robert P. George, professor of the philosophy of law at Princeton. "We don't see characters wrestling with the question of abortion as we saw it during the '70s when [television's] Maude weighed the decision whether to keep or terminate her pregnancy."

George, who serves on the President's Council for Bioethics, identifies himself as "pro-life." Yet across the ideological spectrum, scholars and advocates ponder why the procedure that so divides Americans - according to a May Gallup Poll, 49 percent of Americans identify as pro-choice and 45 percent as pro-life - effectively has vanished from the screen.

(According to a related Gallup poll question, 55 per cent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, a figure that has held steady since 1975.)

Since the '80s, when characters in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dirty Dancing (set in the '60s) sought abortions, the Subject That Must Not Be Named has virtually disappeared from Hollywood features. The Cider House Rules, released in 1999 and focusing on an obstetrician-abortionist and his antiabortion protege during the 1940s, may well have been the last mainstream American movie to utter the A-word.

In Europe it is different: The 2004 indie British drama Vera Drake and the 2007 Romanian film Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, which took top honors at Cannes in May, dramatize the peril to women in situations where abortion is not safe and legal.

It may be premature to say that the A-word is Hollywood's new scarlet letter.

"But certainly the heat's been turned up on the subject," observes Beverly Winikoff, a gynecologist and president of the New York-based women's health organization Gynuity. "If you're trying to avoid controversy, then the story line demands that the character keep the pregnancy.

"I was in public health school at the time Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the '70s," Winikoff recalls.

"Then, the advocacy momentum and passion was with those who wanted to make abortion legal. Now the advocacy momentum has shifted sides. The people who have the emotional oomph are pro-lifers."

Perhaps when abortion is illegal, it makes a better story for filmmakers, says Stephanie Coontz, a family historian and author of Marriage, a History, in describing the motivating conflict behind Cider House, Vera Drake, and Four Months.

"When you don't have powerful stories about women whose lives have been derailed by unplanned pregnancy," Coontz says, "there will be a tendency to sweep the subject of abortion under the rug." Historically, she notes, abortions were common among respectable married women in the 19th century and were easier to obtain in the 1930s than in the 1950s.

For George, the Princeton professor, another factor is responsible for abortion's disappearance from the movie screen: the ultrasound.

"Broadly speaking, the question [of abortion] used to be regarded as a matter of woman's choice, it was about a condition," he says. "And while many people still think that way, there are many who don't think of it as a condition affecting women but as developing life in the womb. Sonography has helped change that view."

Indeed, Juno, Knocked Up and Waitress each have a scene where the pregnant woman bonds with the fetus the moment she sees its grainy shadow on the ultrasound.

"Still, I don't think these films have a conservative agenda," Coontz observes. "I think they use unplanned pregnancy as a conflict to propel the narrative."

Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, Bella's writer/director, would agree. "I didn't have an agenda," says the Mexican-born director, whose film's producers include the Main Line's Sean and J. Eustace Wolfington. Monteverde based his drama on a friend who years ago had an abortion.

"I told her to do what she had to do. Afterwards, she carried the pain of abortion internally, but her boyfriend had no pain," he says. "I always wondered what I would do now."

Monteverde acknowledges that "the faith community really has come out in support of my movie" - to the extent that congregations are purchasing blocks of tickets for parishioners. "As a filmmaker I am comfortable with the faith community using Bella as a conversational tool. I am not comfortable with anyone using it to polarize the audience between pro-life and pro-choice."

Filmmaker Tony Kaye (American History X) spent 17 years following the abortion wars for his documentary Lake of Fire, which opened last month in New York and Chicago. "It's impossible to determine which side the filmmaker . . . stands on," Roger Ebert wrote in his review. "All you can conclude is that both sides have effective advocates, but that the pro-lifers have some alarming people on their team."

Kaye identifies himself as "pro-choice," but also thinks "that abortion is killing a developing human being." By phone from London, he says, "Abortion is such an incendiary issue in American because everybody is right."

It's interesting, Winikoff notes - and Gallup data support her - that it "used to be unwed motherhood that was stigmatized." Remember Dan Quayle assailing TV's Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, back in 1992? "Now it's abortion."


Pregnancy and Abortion in Film

From the United States this year

Knocked Up Career girl gets pregnant on a one-night stand, sees it through.

Waitress Abused wife has an unplanned pregnancy, sees it through, has affair with ob-gyn.

Bella Waitress gets pregnant, handsome restaurant chef helps her decide what to do.

Juno High school junior gets pregnant. Abortion or adoption?

Lake of Fire British documentarian follows abortion-rights and antiabortion advocates in the States.

From Europe

Vera Drake (2004) Kindly backstreet abortionist in 1950s London faces arrest.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) An unkindly abortionist agrees to perform the illegal procedure in 1980s Romania.

The '80s and '90s

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) High schooler gets pregnant the first time out; her brother and friend help her get an abortion.

Dirty Dancing (1987) An employee at a family resort gets pregnant, gets an illegal abortion.

Citizen Ruth (1996) A pregnant druggie becomes the poster girl for both sides of the abortion debate.

The Cider House Rules (1999) Kindly abortionist teaches his trade to a protege who has qualms about it.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl.