Abortion With a Smiley Face
Updated: Jan 21
Review of the movie "Obvious Child." This review was first posted on August 14, 2014.
For those who consider themselves pro-choice, you would think they’d greet the recent debuts of Emily Letts and Gillian Robspierre with enthusiasm. Ms. Letts, as you’ll recall, recently posted a video of her abortion procedure on the Internet, along with an upbeat piece in Cosmopolitan explaining why she had filmed it. Gillian Robspeirre wrote and directed a romantic comedy, Obvious Child, which tells the story of a stand-up comedienne named Donna Stern who decides to have an abortion after she gets pregnant from a one-night stand.
Both works feature a hip, intelligent, twenty-something single woman who neglected to use birth control (or whose lover neglected to use it). Both works are un-abashedly pro-choice, or more accurately, pro-abortion. In them, you won’t find any of the messy agonizing and difficult decision-making that, for decades, pro-choice advocates have insisted are part and parcel of every abortion choice.
In her Cosmo piece, Ms. Letts said she wanted to show a “positive” abortion story, and help women “stop the guilt” that they “inhale from all directions.” Ms. Robspierre’s aim was to make a comedy about “a confidence-based abortion [with] very little stigma of judgment and shame crowding it.”
In short, they’re trying to re-shape the abortion debate by insisting that abortion is no big deal -- it can be warm and fuzzy, the stuff of cheerfully-colored Cosmo articles, stand-up comedy routines, and romantic movies with hopeful -- if not happy -- endings. Letts and Robspierre have ripped the mask of tragedy off the abortion question. In its place they’ve put a yellow smiley face sticker.
Part 1: Rubber-stamping the decision
Should first-trimester abortion remain legal? Is abortion always the right decision? Is it ever a wrong decision? Is it solely a woman’s choice, or do others have a legitimate say? Is abortion a tragedy? These are all separate questions that are often debated different ways even by those who find themselves on the same side of the political spectrum.
Letts and Robspierre are collapsing these separate questions into one official party line: Pro-choice doesn’t just mean upholding the legality of abortion. It now requires that the woman make the decision completely on her own, without any input from anyone -- except those who unreservedly support her decision to abort. That means nobody -- especially her lover -- must ever second-guess her. All must unconditionally endorse her decision, lest they find themselves on the same side as those “weird old white men in robes [who] get to legislate our c**ts,” as Nellie (a secondary character) put it, referring to judges.
Letts’s video-selfie encapsulates this approach beautifully. There is no mention of anyone else having any input into the decision, no real discussion of whether she had actually explored other options, such as marriage or adoption. What did her lover have to say about it? We don’t know because we don’t even know who he is. Her video and Cosmo piece center on her and only her. The opinions of family and friends don’t count, except insofar as we are assured that they’ve provided Emily Letts with lots of support. In other words, they’ve done their jobs by rubber-stamping her decision, and have now earned the right to pat themselves on the back for being so “supportive” of a woman’s right to choose.
Obvious Child echos a similar sentiment. When Donna is contemplating whether to tell her lover, Max, that she is pregnant and seeking an abortion, Donna’s best friend, Nellie, exhorts her not to. “You don’t owe him anything,” Nellie insists.
Max finds out anyway, and accompanies Donna to the abortion clinic. In the waiting room, Donna asks: “Are you okay with this?” “Yeah, of course,” Max says, mustering up the kind of I-want-whatever-the-woman-wants attitude that feminists wish all men would unfailingly display. Never mind that earlier in the movie Max said he would like to be a grandfather one day. Why, then, does he blithely go along with his lover’s abortion and pretend it is not the foreclosing of one of his life’s goals? At least there could have been some serious discussion between Donna and Max. In my view, he comes across as an obsequious, automaton fantasy-male who had better toe today’s pro-abortion party line (even if it means suppressing his own desires), lest he risk tarring himself as a hopeless sexist oppressor who really hates all women.
Here’s another example of rubber-stamping the decision to abort. When Donna tells her mother (the hyper-efficient, career-oriented Nancy) that she’s pregnant and has decided to have an abortion, Nancy replies: “Thank God. I thought you were going to tell me you’re moving to L.A.” Nancy then discloses the fact that she herself had an abortion in college, and she apparently has no regrets about it. Teary-eyed hugs follow. Abortion now becomes a bonding-point between a mother and daughter, without any ambiguity or any wistful regret that maybe another child in the family would have been a good thing. There is no inkling from Nancy that giving birth to Donna was a decision that has brought great joy into many people’s lives (especially to Nancy’s life, one would hope), and that the same will be true for Donna if she decides to continue the pregnancy. There is no hint that marriage and child-rearing is a valid, fulfilling option for a 20-something, college-educated woman. Abortion is presented as the only logical choice.
For decades, pro-choice advocates have been arguing that the abortion decision is fraught with agony and difficulty. Huffington Post writer Jonathan Kim mentions this in his glowing review of Obvious Child. He is careful to point out that “popular culture needs to do a much better job of showing the reality of what abortion is for millions of women: a difficult, emotional, but ultimately prudent decision made after a lot of careful deliberation, soul searching, and evaluation . . . Abortion isn’t something to be bragged about or taken lightly.” Of course, he ignores the fact that Obvious Child does in fact take it lightly, and that the movie shows none of the careful, soul-searching deliberation he claims is the reality of abortion. Predictably, he spends the remainder of the review gushing what a great movie it is.
If the decision to abort is in fact so difficult and weighty, as Kim and many pro-choice advocates claim, why does a woman have to make that decision alone, as Letts and Robspierre argue? Why shouldn’t a woman seek input -- and even dissent -- from others? After all, women routinely seek advice on other monumental decisions, such as where to go for college, whether to break up with the current lover, which job to take, which car to buy, where to live. Women and men know that they need honest input from others -- not rubber stamping -- in order to make a good decision.
My answer is that new generation of pro-choice advocates doesn’t really believe abortion is tragic or agonizing, or even monumental. It’s just a medical procedure that should be “positive” and “confidence-based,” to use the vocabulary of Letts and Robspierre. If it’s not really an agonizing decision, then it doesn’t require the input of anyone else. Emily Letts certainly doesn’t show any agony about her decision. Neither does Donna, except for a short montage of her tossing and turning on her bed. After that, it’s back to comedy and dark humor. Here is a telling moment: Donna is waiting to go onstage to do her comedy routine. Her friend Nellie says: “You’re gonna kill out there.” Donna wisecracks: “I actually have an appointment to do that tomorrow.” Is that a macabre throw-away line, or does she really believe it, somewhere deep inside? If the latter, then maybe the movie should have explored that.
Abortion-as-comedy is a clever move, and it is a sign of how blasé the issue has become since Roe v. Wade. Once abortion loses gravitas and becomes the stuff of positive video-selfies and hip rom-coms, opposing it becomes more difficult. If you dare to argue, as feminists used to, that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare (with “rare” being just as important as “safe” and “legal”), well, you’re an old-school oppressor. Only the “safe” and “legal” parts count these days (along with the obligatory rubber-stamping I mentioned earlier). That’s why the moral ballast has to be jettisoned.
Part 2: Tragedy and Choice
Abortion is tragic. But tragedy is separate from legality. It is possible to support the legality of first-trimester abortion, to make the case that it is sometimes the right decision for some women, and yet still regard it as an undeniable tragedy. This was the position of the pro-choice movement for a long time.
The tragic aspect is irrefutable. Need proof? You can go on the internet right now and find politically-neutral websites where women share their post-abortion stories. All the ones I read were filled with sadness, and many also included guilt and deep regret. There is such a thing as post abortion stress syndrome (PASS), although that’s not something the pro-abortion crowd likes to acknowledge.
In the 1980s, when I was a college student, I volunteered as a pro-choice escort at an inner-city abortion clinic near where I lived. I wanted to be politically involved in an issue that was getting a lot of airtime. At the time, I shared the fashionable hatred of the Moral Majority, President Reagan, the Catholic Church, and the pro-life movement.
This particular clinic was a favorite spot of the pro-lifers who lined the sidewalks holding their graphic signs and loudly exhorting women to consider adoption. (The fact that the pro-lifers tried to dissuade both black and white women equally from having an abortion gives lie to the common charge that pro-lifers -- who at that location were overwhelmingly white -- were racist). Many of the young women we escorted to the front door of the clinic were teenagers, nervous and scared and in despair. Sometimes a girlfriend or sister was there for moral support. Occasionally I saw the boyfriend by her side, but only occasionally. These women were mostly on their own. You couldn’t look at their scared faces and not feel sorry for them.
I understand why someone like Emily Letts (who works as an abortion counselor) would want to minimize the pain and agony these women experience. Letts believes that by making her own video and trying to show abortion in a more positive light, she is helping to alleviate their suffering.
But I’m not sure that minimizing this pain and agony is good idea. What if it’s really true that abortion is a difficult decision? What if we fully acknowledge the tragedy, no matter how compelling the reasons for seeking one? What if post abortion stress syndrome is real, and lasts for decades? If you find yourself agreeing with any of these propositions, then the happy-face spin of Letts and Robspierre sends a false message.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not here to dictate what emotions a woman “should” feel before or after the decision. I am not qualified to give advice on how to deal with it – that is up to competent therapists who have clinical experience in this area. In any case, the First Amendment reigns supreme. If you want to make video-selfies, movies, cartoons, or tasteless jokes about abortion, that is your right, and no government or organization should have the power to shut you down.
But wishing away any negative emotion attached to abortion (even if it’s merely aversion, reluctance, or distaste) is a disservice to everyone.
Here’s why. When you minimize the downside of abortion, when you reduce it to a medical procedure, when you joke about the snuffing out of a life (how ever nascent and potential you think it is), when you turn it into a comedy routine devoid of moral debate, you not only deny the reality of what untold numbers of women experience, you also encourage women and men to be less responsible, less proactive. Freeing abortion from any moral significance encourages both sexes to make important decisions more lightly than they should. It implies that it’s okay to be less conscientious about using contraception, less choosy about partners, less serious about thinking about how sex and a pregnancy can change not just one woman’s life, but the lives of her friends and family, or a family that would gladly adopt the baby.
I’ll bet that these same folks who want to minimize the guilt over abortion would never support minimizing the guilt of those who fail to recycle trash or reduce greenhouse gases. They’d never want racism to be de-stigmatized. They want the bigot to feel the full brunt of shame for making racist remarks, as the Donald Sterling incident proved a few months back.
My point here is that abortion supporters who buy into the smiley-face worldview presented by Letts and Robspierre are not against guilt and shame per se. They’re only against them with regard to abortion, because they don’t regard abortion as a big deal.
But for those in the uneasy pro-choice middle, for those who subscribe to the “safe, legal and rare” trinity, for those of us who know someone who has had an abortion (and accept her decision, yet still wonder what all our lives would have been like had she decided differently and we now had another child in the family to love)—for us the tragedy is undeniable. Papering it over with smiley faces and jokes won’t change that, no matter how many glowing reviews and YouTube hits there are.