Abortion as a framing device throughout film history

August 12, 2011

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Vera Drake is a mother and an abortionist in Mike Leigh's 2004 film of the same name.

Abortion has been a hidden theme of movies since the silent era. The plots often involve girls from the lower tracks of society who get pregnant and are trapped or betrayed by their boyfriends, lovers or families.

A moralistic tone sets up an image of “bad” girls for whom abortion becomes the horrifying and inaccessible resolution to their condition – a punishment for their “sin.” In George Stevens’s 1951 film, A Place in the Sun, Alice – a factory girl played by Shelley Winters – finds herself trapped when the attempt to get an abortion fails as George, her boyfriend, played by Montgomery Clift, betrays her for society girl Elizabeth Taylor.

To culturally shift abortion in film from an element in often heavily moralistic and melodramatic plotlines to more realistic premises was gradual, and took almost 50 years. The feminist movement in the 60s and 70s, the so-called “kitchen-sink” drama of British film, and more mature takes on sexuality in the work of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman were important accelerants to this process.

Mike Leigh inverts the stigmatizing view of abortion by presenting a sympathetic portrayal of an abortionist in his 2004 film, Vera Drake. The film is set in post-World War II working-class London. Vera Drake, married with two kids, helps out her neighbors, visits her aging mother, takes care of her family, and does housecleaning jobs. But there is a dark side: Vera is an abortionist. We first see her calmly induce a miscarriage. Soon we see her take off for other working-class neighborhoods, sent there by Lily, who dabbles in the black market.

Leigh contrasts this with Susan, the daughter of one of Vera’s wealthy employers whose house she cleans, who becomes pregnant after a date-rape. In contrast to the back-door abortions practiced by Vera Drake, Susan has her abortion in a well-managed clinic.

The crisis starts when one of Vera’s “interventions” has complications. As Vera and her husband celebrate the engagement of their daughter, the police descend on the house. The family knows nothing of Vera’s secret life as an abortionist. And Vera has no idea that Lily, who refers her to the women in trouble, has been making money from the abortions.

A social, economic and political framework also fuels Cristian Mungiu’s 2008 Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In the mid-1960s, president Nicolae Ceaucescu decided to boost Romania’s population. All contraceptives were banned. The Draconian law left illegal abortions as the only option. In the first year, the birth rate doubled. Then it began falling again. The reason: over 22 million abortions were carried out in the years after the contraceptives ban.

Mungiu sets the story at a college dorm in 1987. Otilia and Gabita are roommates. Gabita is pregnant. Otilia collects money from her school friends, heads for a hotel and then is off to meet Bebe, an illegal abortionist.

When the stone-faced Bebe discovers that Gabita is further along in her pregnancy than he’d been led to believe, he raises his price. He wants not only money, but sex from both women before he’ll proceed.

After “getting paid,” he inserts a probe and injects a fluid, and tells the two roommates what to do when the fetus is rejected. But Otilia has to leave the hotel to go to the birthday party for her boyfriend’s mother. Trapped at the dinner table of the well-to-do, she is traumatized by not being able to leave to go back to the hotel where she left Gabita sleeping.

The grayness and darkness of the settings and Mungiu’s stretching of time forces the audience to feel the anxiety of waiting and of being trapped in an oppressive society with little choice. In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu propels the idea that abortion laws are a weapon of corrupt male and political power.

Milos Stehlik’s commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.