No Laughing Matter
We tend to be visual people. Scientists estimate that 60-65% of us are visual thinkers. There’s a good reason. About 40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain run through the eye’s retina. The brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. It’s why visual aids like power-point slides and three-dimensional models are so effective.
Given our learning preference, it’s not surprising that in making entertainment choices, we gravitate to movies more than books. And when it comes to movies, it’s “pick a card, any card.” Whether action, adventure, fantasy, crime, historical, science fiction, there’s a category for every taste. Of course, no list would be complete without comedy, and more particularly, “rom com” – the romantic comedy. They are intended to be funny movies about a love story that ends happily. Within the movie industry, they’re big sellers; since 1978, the top 100 rom coms have grossed well over $12 billion. That converts to lots of moviegoers and so lots of potential to influence the ways moviegoers think. Even lighthearted movies leave an impression.
This past summer Hollywood released for limited engagement Obvious Child, a rom com with a twist. It’s been called an “abortion romantic comedy.” Real life comedienne Jenny Slate plays aspiring stand-up comic Donna Stern, who in quick succession loses her day job and her boyfriend (he’s sleeping with her best friend). Overwhelmed, Stern gets drunk, meets a guy, and gets pregnant. She promptly decides to have an abortion, and her view never changes. A friend encourages her, she having also had one: “I never regret it.” Stern confides in her mother, who admits that she had an abortion. Stern builds her upcoming abortion into a nightclub act. When a friend encourages her before the act to “kill it,” Stern’s responds, “I actually have an appointment to do that tomorrow.” The movie shows Stern at the clinic, where she is sedated and peaceful when the machines are turned on. Nothing more about the abortion is shown. As for the guy, he is supportive and accompanies her to the clinic. By movie’s end they have grown closer. Life goes on – except for the baby, the movie’s forgotten character.
Reaction to the movie has been unsurprising. Though Slate says that Obvious Child is not an “agenda movie,” Planned Parenthood’s president called it an “an incredibly funny, honest & smart movie about abortion.” NARAL Pro-Choice America’s president held a special screening for NARAL supporters. Movie reviewers have described it as “uproarious,” “hilarious,” and the “modern romantic comedy we’ve been so desperately waiting for.” In an interview with Slate, TV host Jimmy Fallon said that Obvious Child made a serious subject “lighthearted” and “funny.” And why not – Slate says that her character had a “regret-free abortion.” So, what’s the problem with making a comedy about abortion?
Plenty. The movie dulls our consciences to the evil of abortion. God gives us consciences so that we may lovingly apply His life-affirming laws-one of which is that we may not take innocent human life. Stern knows that she will kill her child, but the movie turns the abortion into the subject of a nightclub routine. So how serious could it be? The movie insulates Stern with women who have obtained abortions and outwardly appear no worse for it. Stern experiences some sadness, but by movie’s end she seems okay and even has a new boyfriend – the father. The message: abortion is not bad after all. A moral high ground erodes.
And by treating the unborn baby as a non-entity, the moving steers viewers from considering the baby’s potential in life or from being disturbed by his execution. Change the story line just a bit. Suppose that Stern chooses to have an abortion because genetic testing suggests that the baby will likely become gay. She works the abortion into her comedy act, complete with gay jokes. Planned Parenthood would probably still love the movie. After all, profit is profit. But would anyone call that movie “uproarious,” “lighthearted,” or the “romantic comedy we’ve been so desperately waiting for”? Would anyone even dare to make it?
Though Obvious Child tries to appeal to women, in fact it is grossly unfair to women. Supermodel and actress Jennifer O’Neill criss-crosses the country telling of her abortion experience. “I had an abortion and paid for it all my life until I healed and am now able to help other women.” Scores of women have offered heartbreaking testimonies about their experiences. Melisa became pregnant while taking medications and was afraid of having a child with birth defects. Now she can’t forgive herself. “Since my abortion I haven’t been the same. I just think that I didn’t want my baby to suffer . . . but it wasn’t my decision. How could I be such a coward.” Luz learned the hard way that “[a]bortion does not protect me. It hurt me in every aspect of my being.” Sarah and her boyfriend raised money for her abortion. Once at the clinic, she disregarded her mother’s advice to not look at the ultrasound. It made things much worse. In the following days, she felt okay at first, but things changed. She couldn’t understand why she began to feel so low. “I turned to self-mutilation because I felt that I deserved to be punished. And in all honesty, I still do.” The dead baby’s father wants her to move on, “[b]ut I don’t think that I can, and I don’t know if I ever will. All I know is that it hurts.”
In the broken lives of countless women (men, too) lies the movie’s greatest fallacy: the notion of a regret-free abortion. Until the day we die, there will be a tomorrow, and another, and the weeks, months, and years that follow. There will be time to see and hear and think. There will be time for seeing newborn babies or watching children at play and no longer be able to bear a child. There will be time for wishing that the family size were larger. Time for not having a child’s support when a spouse dies or leaves. Time for sitting in a wheelchair at a nursing home – alone. There are decisions that cannot be undone, and cannot be forgotten, no matter how hard we try. Regret-free abortion? Only if we can predict the future. But we can’t.
Some things are funny; others never will be. No rom com can change that truth.
Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.