Abortion in Movies Provide Insight into a Sensitive and Contentious Issue

Generally, the TV news approach toward abortion is reduced to the stark alternatives of “pro-life” (which might more accurately be labeled simply “anti-abortion”) and “pro-choice” (which is understood as a choice between electing to have an abortion or not). The issue seen this way presents an either/or choice, as though that is all there is—which is not the case. The often superficiality of cable news, tends to reinforce these stark choices. There have been movies made for both the big screen and TV which, at least, open up the policy debate about abortion to broader and more complex issues. Abortion addressed in movies, present opportunities to change the political debate to more than just defending or trying to overturn the Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade (1973).

Abortion Goes To The Movies

The Cardinal (1963) starred Tom Tyron, John Huston and Romy Schneider and was nominated for six Oscars. The film centers around a Catholic priest who rises to become a Cardinal. In one scene, Father Stephen Fermoyle (Tyron) has to make the choice of saving the life of his sister or her unborn child, who was conceived out of wedlock. Father Stephen chooses the birth of the child, citing the teachings of the Church, and that leads to the death of his sister during delivery. While abortion opponents might look upon this scene in favorable ways, or, at least, recognize the choice made and believe the right choice was made, others might express anger or resentment that Church doctrine mattered more than the life of the sister.

A movie poster for The Cardinal with a future pope as the movie’s advisor.

This particular part of the movie takes place in the early 20th Century and the impression created is that Father Stephen’s sister had pelvic issues which made it impossible for her to have a normal delivery and a C-Section would deliver the baby safely but kill the mother. Interestingly, Father Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, was listed as the “The Vatican’s liaison officer” for this film. Medical advances beyond the time of this particular scene in the movie no doubt have advanced to point where mother and child might both be saved today. But, besides that issue, the movie presents the Catholic Church as an organization that confronts earthly issues in ways that are not always guided by Church doctrine, trying to set an example for human failings, but an organization filled with its own shortcomings. The Church is seen, for example, essentially ignoring racial bigotry and makes no attempt to confront it.

Father Stephen’s decision that his sister should die to let her baby live may reflect Catholic doctrine but, interestingly, a 15th Century saint, Saint Antoninus, approved of an abortion to save the mother’s life. 1 This challenges the belief that Catholic thinking was always consistent in how it applied Church doctrine to abortion. Elsewhere it has been pointed out that 1869 is a more accurate date from when Church teachings declared abortion a form of homicide. One writer stated, “Up to then Catholic teaching was that no homicide was involved if abortion took place before the [fetus] was infused with a soul, known as “ensoulment.” 2 The belief developed that it was during “quickening” that a soul entered a child. Quickening is considered a moment when a mother feels a child’s movement inside her. In Roe v. Wade, the Opinion of the Court addresses quickening stating, “The absence of a common-law crime for pre-quickening abortion appears to have developed from a confluence of earlier philosophical, theological, and civil and canon law concepts of when life begins. 3 The Cardinal, possibly influenced by the advisory role of a future pope, may have contributed to some of the more adamant views on abortion now– that it needs to be banned under any circumstances. Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News legal analyst and former New Jersey superior court judge, stated, “I believe and it is a question of science and it is a question of faith that a fertilized egg is a human being.” 4 Napolitano is entitled to his opinion, and clearly rejects anything associated with the issue of quickening. In addition, his references to science and faith, well, are nothing more than his loose use of words that need to be questioned on TV news shows rather than allowing statements such as his to go answered. Opinions stated as facts contribute to a hardening of political views which do not help to encourage sides to seek a mutual resolution of the abortion issue.

Some hope that Roe v. Wade might be overturned rests on the premise that five out of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic (Chief Justice John Roberts as well as justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Brett Kavanaugh). Although why that would matter, as though the religious beliefs of Catholics would carry the day and Roe v. Wade would be overturned, ignores the role of the late Justice William Brennan, who was Catholic, and played a role in bringing about Roe v. Wade in the first place. Brennan voted with the majority in that case (7-2). 5

Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (2018).

Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (2018), starring Dean Cain, addressed difficult issues associated with abortion. The movie was funded by crowdingfunding which raised some $2.3 million in 45 days collected from almost 30,000 people. 6 Dr. Kermit Gosnell was a Philadelphia physician who was convicted of murdering three infants born alive. Ann McElhinney wrote the book the movie was based upon and produced and co-wrote the movie script. McElhinney is a columnist for TownHall, which is a conservative website. The film depicts Gosnell as reprehensible, which is the way he should be seen. What the film did not address was that the National Abortion Federation, an association of providers of abortion, rejected Gosnell’s membership following an inspection because his clinic did not meet certain standards. A spokesperson for the Federation stated, “[S]ome women don’t know where to turn. You sometimes have substandard providers preying on low-income women who don’t know that they do have other [safe] options.” 7

Watching the movie could lead some to support the position that abortion should be outlawed in almost any way possible, but the film could have done a service if it addressed the issue that women seeking an abortion will, in some cases, grasp for straws and Gosnell, unfortunately, was that straw for far too many. In the case of Gosnell’s clinic, the Pennsylvania Department of Health last inspected the clinic in 1993. Philadelphia’s District Attorney accused the department of an “utter disregard” for the health of Gosnell’s patients. Gosnell, as well as several employees, were not charged with murder until 2011, 18 years after the last state inspection.

David French, a columnist for the National Review, uses a term “Nutpicking” to refer to the use of extreme examples to represent an entire group 8 Gosnell can easily be used to paint broad brushstrokes against abortion. In the process of doing this, tribalism rears its head and prevents any attempt at breaking down barriers between sides who should be talking with each other. McElhinney’s book and movie may have done their part to strengthen the anti-abortion side, but it did little to help move any conversation that should be taking place forward.

The Cider House Rules (1999) starred Michael Caine (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Jane Alexander. Homer Wells (Maguire) is one of the children who grows up in a Maine orphanage, with the setting being the years leading to the start of the Second World War. Dr. Wilbur Larch (Caine) performs illegal abortions at the orphanage. The fictional Larch certainly comes across as the opposite of the real life Gosnell. Every night he says before the orphans go to bed, “Goodnight you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England!” as a way of expressing his love and affection for the children.

Abortion in Maine on the eve of the Second World War.

Dr. Larch trains Homer in obstetrics and abortions, even though Homer never attended high school. Moral dilemma can be seen in the movie as Homer expresses his disapproval of abortions and states he will not perform them.

Eventually, Homer will take over running the orphanage from Larch, when Larch succumbs to an overdose of ether, something he was addicted to. Larch, it turns out, had fabricated college credentials for Homer, which, with a college degree, convinced the orphanage board to appoint him as director. Homer’s love for the children can be seen in the fact that nightly he calls out the words he heard as a child from Dr. Larch, “Goodnight you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England!”

The undercurrent of illegal abortions that weaves through the movie (based on a book by John Irving) should make anyone watching the movie question what would happen if somehow abortion were nationally outlawed. That might be a stretch, more likely to happen is that abortion would be outlawed in selected states, or different states will have different degrees of restrictive access, which then raises the issue of logistical issues for women who would need to travel to other states to obtain an abortion. Figures are difficult to be too precise about but it is estimated that prior to the United States Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade, 20-25 per cent of all pregnancies ended in abortion. 9 Estimates also place the number of women who died from abortion annually at around 200. That figure might be low since another report placed the number of women who died from seeking abortions at 2,700 in 1930. 10

One of the woman who almost died from an illegal abortion was Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary. She developed peritonitis from an illegal abortion in 1960 and needed penicillin. Travers expressed concern about the anti-abortion movement stating:

The ”miracle of life” those opposed to abortion wish to protect is clearly someone else’s ”miracle of responsibility.” Although they give lip service to adoption, I don’t see these groups giving homes to poor, minority children. If they did, I might feel their sense of morality to be a bit more genuine. Sadly, they seem unconcerned with the grinding poverty others must endure. 11

In the years prior to Roe v. Wade, Jane, or the Jane Collective, was an underground network that operated out of Chicago. It was created by a college student, Heather Booth, in 1965. Initially, the group simply counseled women who wanted abortions where to find doctors who would help them, but over time they started performing abortions themselves. 12 In the years of its existence it is estimated they performed some 11,000 abortions. In February 2019, the governor of Alabama signed a law (called a “trigger law”) that would go into effect if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The law would ban all abortions, except for medical emergencies. Assuming this law, and ones like it in at least nine other states go into effect, one wonders if an organization like Jane might arise again. Ask for Jane (2018) starring Alison Wright and Sarah Steele, is based on the Jane Collective.

Ask for Jane (2018).

Alabama Might Be the Future of Abortion Court Cases

The absolutes on abortion can be seen in the case of Alabama. The author of the bill (Eric Johnson, Alabama Pro-Life Coalition President) wants to see the Alabama law become the test case to overturn Roe v. Wade. His position was challenged by the televangelist, Pat Robertson. Robertson felt that a more nuanced anti-abortion bill would be received favorably by the Supreme Court. An exchange with Ai Shapiro, host of All Things Considered on National Public Radio (NPR) went as follows:

SHAPIRO: How do you respond to that concern that the state of Alabama is overplaying its hand here?

JOHNSTON: Well, no, I don’t think so. And I know that Pat Robertson is a lawyer and a preacher and so forth and been around a long time. But I think he’s very wrong on that. I think this bill offers probably the cleanest presentation of a challenge to Roe that you could come up with because it’s just very simple in its definition of what an unborn child is and in the application of the law merely saying that it’s a crime to perform an abortion.

SHAPIRO: You’re saying because it’s black and white it’s a better case for the Supreme Court to take, rather than something more incremental.

JOHNSTON: Well, you know, incrementally – you can’t address the person who had issue on an incremental basis. If you face head-on what Roe means, you just have to have a very simple bill or a simple statement of law to do that. 13

The Alabama bill does not include exceptions for rape or incest and, in an odd way, a rapist could receive a less severe penalty than a doctor who performs an abortion, which is completely acceptable to Johnston. The politics of reason and compromise are certainly not present here.

Alabama could just end up being the state that gives a peek into the type of abortion related issues that could arise in any post-Roe v. Wade environment if states were free to do as they pleased regarding abortion. The election of Donald Trump and the belief that the right amount of correct-thinking justices eventually placed on the Supreme Court will exist to overturn Roe v. Wade and finally give anti-abortion supporters the ultimate dream they have been hoping for, could end up being a wish that could backfire. The assumption that overturning Roe v. Wade would once and for all end the court battles over abortion, is probably nothing more than a fantasy. Possible legal battles can be gleamed from a situation in Alabama regarding the arrest of Marshae Jones who was charged that she instigated the fight that led to her being shot. In Jones’ situation she was pregnant and a grand jury charged her with the manslaughter of her unborn child. For years anti-abortion supporters have pushed for “personhood” status for the unborn and, in this case, the fruits of that effort contributed to the arrest of Jones. 14 One supporter of this arrest stated, “In the state of Alabama, an unborn baby has the same rights as a living child.” The case against Ms. Jones was eventually dropped but legal issues such as this indicate that abortion is not as simple as overturning Roe v. Wade and then letting each state decide for itself where the chips fall. The signs point to a metastasized legal landscape with abortion issues going in various directions.

Colorado in 1967 became the first state to decriminalize abortion, six years before Roe v. Wade. The bill passed a Republican-controlled state legislature and was signed into law by a Republican governor, something that certainly would never happen today, regarding where Republicans currently stand on the issue. An abortion required the unanimous consent of a three-physician panel. 15

Republicans supporting abortion reform. It seems highly unlikely to expect a Republican First Lady, for example, to show support for abortion the way the late Betty Ford, wife of President Gerald Ford, expressed support for Roe v. Wade in 1975 stating, “[that the issue of abortion needed to be] out of the backwoods and put in the hospital where it belongs.” 16

A Reagan moment that can be uncomfortable to some of his most ardent supporters.

It should be noted that California passed a law allowing abortions, also in 1967 several months after Colorado although restricted after the 20th week of pregnancy. The governor who signed that law was Ronald Reagan. Republicans, conservatives, admirers of Reagan can do all the mental gymnastics they want to rationalize Reagan’s involvement. Despite whatever reasoning these supporters of Reagan feel the need to do, Reagan was still the governor who signed the law. Later Reagan stated that abortion was “a subject I’d never given much thought to.” Regardless of that sentiment, after abortions climbed from 518, the year the law went into effect to some 100,000 in 1975, Reagan’s last year as governor, then he seemed to give it some thought. 17

Movies Address Support: Often A Necessary Ingredient for Wanting a Child

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) starred Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Judge Reinhold and is, for the most part, a typical movie about high school students with sex on their brains. What stands out in this case is that sex led to the unintended consequence: pregnancy. Stacy (Leigh) lets Mike (Robert Romanus) know that she is pregnant and wants an abortion, and wants him to pay half the bill for the procedure. In the end Mike fails to come up with his half of the money, but the movie gives the impression that Stacy goes ahead with the abortion as she is seen crossing the street from the bowling alley where she was meeting friends to the abortion clinic.

This poster is not showing anything about abortion.

In the movie, we might assume that Stacy goes on to graduate. In looking at 2011 as just a typical year, 1.3 million high school students dropped out. In the case of girls dropping out of school, 30 per cent cited being pregnant as the reason. In one study 51 per cent of teen mothers received their high school diploma compared with 89 percent of their classmates who were not mothers. 18

Juno (2007).

Juno (2007) starred Ellen Page, Michael Cera Jason Bateman, and Allison Janney. What stands out about this movie is the tremendous amount of family support Juno (Page) receives when she lets her father and stepmother know she is pregnant. Initially, she planned to get an abortion but changed her mind after visiting the clinic. She then decides to have the baby adopted by a couple she meets. After that falls apart, she decides to keep and baby and try to make a life with Paulie (Cera) who desperately wants to be part of Juno’s life. Contrast Paulie with Mike, the slacker who could not cover half the abortion bill, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Juno’s support system.

Juno is an uplifting movie, but needs to be seen in light of the support system that Juno has surrounding her. Contrast Juno’s situation with that of a pregnant 26 year old, whose real life sounded nothing like Juno’s support system:

So this is going to sound pretty messed up. I am 26 (27 in less than 2 weeks). I have a relatively good job that while doesn’t make a ton of money does make up for the lack of pay by the really nice benefits package. Although I just started in May and am still under probation for a year. I had whom I thought was an amazing man whom I was planning on marrying. We had been together for almost three years when I found out I was pregnant. Thinking he would be excited he then tells me that he isn’t happy in our relationship and that he has been seeing someone else. He told me to get an abortion and moved out of the home we had shared for two years. I have not seen or heard from him since.

I guess if I had a family to turn to it wouldn’t be so bad but I haven’t spoke to my father in almost 10 years and my mom is 1000 miles away taking care of my grandmother who has dementia. I do have two sisters and a brother. My brother lives in Toronto with his wife and 2 kids, My oldest sister lives in Virginia with her teenage daughter her husband just passed away less than 3 months ago. And my youngest sister has a five year old son and just had a baby girl last month. She is the closest sibling to me but she still lives nearly 2 hours away. As far as friends go we moved to Kentucky about 2 years ago, while I have met some really nice people. I know they will help me out in the extent that if I need a baby sitter every once in awhile and they will probably plan a baby shower but beyond that I doubt they will be the kind of support I need. 19

In the case of this girl, she had her baby but required a government health insurance program for her baby and qualified for food stamps.

Obvious Child (2014) starred Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, and Richard Kind. Donna Stern (Slate) gets pregnant after a one-night stand with Max (Lacy). Her decision to have an abortion is made and at no point is the impression ever created that there is any doubt in Donna’s mind that she will not go through with the procedure. Eventually, Max shows up to accompany her to the clinic and the abortion is performed. The film carried the odd description of being described as an “abortion comedy.” Somewhat like the movie Juno, Donna has the support of friends and family, and Max who impregnated her. Juno and Obvious Child, two movies which show pregnancies that go in different directions, both but with friends and families embracing the choices made. Gillian Robespierre, the writer and director of the movie said that, “[There] were movies I enjoyed [but felt they] “rubbed the wrong way by the misrepresentation of women on screen when it came to unplanned pregnancy. They just didn’t feel true.” 20 In many ways Obvious Child was in response to movies such as Juno, where the decision to eventually go through with the pregnancy and keep the child took a tortured path. An advisor at a women’s health clinic, made a statement regarding the decision to have an abortion, which can be seen as challenging Robespierre’s premise :

For some women, an abortion is the lesser of two evils, the choice they can live with most easily when confronted with the difficult dilemma of an unintended pregnancy. The anti-choice folks seem to think legalized abortion invites women to terminate, as if women would line up around the block to end their pregnancies just for the fun of it. They don’t realize that many women, if it were possible to change some other life circumstances to make having a baby a realistic option, would choose to carry to term. Nor do they see the genuine regret these women feel because having a baby is not possible. 21

Revolutionary Road (2008) starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Unlike Juno there is nothing uplifting about this movie. Set in the late 1940s, the movie started with Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) meeting and then eventually marrying and having two children. Life becomes somewhat disillusioned for both of them and they prepare to move to Paris to somehow recharge their lives. But before a move can be made, April becomes pregnant and she decides to have an abortion. Considering the time period it is not clear how she would get one but, nevertheless Frank violently objects and a series of events shows a marriage in decay. Finally, April decides to perform a vacuum aspiration abortion on herself (sometimes called suction aspiration where uterine contents are removed through the cervix). This goes badly and continuous bleeding leads her to call an ambulance. Frank arrives at the hospital, but the end is near for April as she dies from blood loss.

Movies such as Revolutionary Road lead to issues of what can happen if some states return to pre-Roe v. Wade days. Part of the problem with using an expression such as “pro-life” is that it might not really be pro-life. In many ways attempts to severely limit abortion sound more like: Hey girlie, you got pregnant live with it. A former state legislator (Republican) use to say a joke frequently, which carried a great deal of truth. The joke goes: What do you call a government critic? It’s someone with a driver’s license, they just don’t know where they are going. 22 Telling someone that they cannot have an abortion and simply leaving it in the abstract sense that life is important but not following through on what happens after that high school student who may not graduate or low income office worker takes home her baby, hoping she can qualify for some government assistance programs, fails both mother and child. In 2014, 60 per cent of abortion patients were in their 20s. 59 per cent of abortion patients already had at least one child, which does not sound like these women are indifferent to life. 23

A Private Affair (1992) starred Sissey Spacek and Aidan Quinn, was a made-for-TV movie and was based on the real-life story of Sherri Finkbine who was the host of a Phoenix TV version of a children’s show, Romper Room in the early 1960s (which was on a number of local TV stations around the country with different hosts on each of them). Finkbine took thalidomide, a drug aimed at helping morning sickness which her husband got in England on a business trip. The drug was not approved for sale in the United States. As Finkbine stated, “I had inadvertently while pregnant taken a drug that would force me to give birth to a limbless child, a child, as it turned out, that would be just a head and a torso.” This would have been her fifth child. After her abortion, the couple subsequently had two more children. The movie does a good job addressing the turmoil that she was confronted with after it went public that she was planning to have an abortion . The Phoenix hospital where she was scheduled to have her abortion, subsequently backed out because of the publicity. Eventually, she flew to Sweden to get an abortion. The turmoil, she and her family went through, in 1962, is addressed well in the movie. In addition, TV news is presented as not interested in explaining or understanding in any complex way, rather the sensational is more important. In one scene a TV reporter asks her, “What does it feel like to kill your baby?” The movie does a good job showing TV news coverage as superficial and shows some of the police protection she needed from the threats she received although the extent of the threats she received was not addressed. 24 Finkbine, in 1966, discussed the thousands of letters she received, some supportive, other not so. As Finkbine put it regarding the threats:

Sherri Finkbine on Romper Room. She would not return to the show after her abortion.

The actual horror of the situation was brutally compounded for me by the thousands of pieces of hate mail we received. It is unbelievable really that so much hate could be spewed in the name of religion. The worst letters—and I do admit that I am overly sensitive and always have been, but the worst ones were those that threatened the lives of my husband and my children. How people can be so unfeeling towards thousands of hungry, needy, homeless babies yet so concerned with the welfare of one obscure mass of tissue just absolutely amazed me. The Vatican newspaper passed judgment on us, although we are not Catholic, and they pronounced us in very bold print as murderers. Other letters screamed at us, “I hope someone takes the other four and strangles them because it is all the same thing.” From Long Beach somebody told me, “I hope God punishes you for your murderous sin.” A Chicago minister warned me that it was his duty as God’s holy prophet to inform us that God would pour his wrath upon us and our family if we failed to heed Him. 25

Well before cable TV news became a 24-hour a day event, TV news could fail to provide little more than the headlines without substance.

My Body, My Child (1982) was also a made-for-TV movie starring Vanessa Redgrave, Jack Albertson, and Joseph Campanella. The premise evolves around Leenie (Redgrave) a middle-aged Irish-American who gets pregnant. She already had three grown children. Because she was diagnosed incorrectly, the medication she was on and too many x-rays led to damage to the developing fetus. Leenie is faced with a conflict between giving birth to a child with severe defects versus her Catholic beliefs. Her sister reacts to the thought of abortion by saying, “you’re thinking of murder.” Leena responds by saying, “If you were in my shoes what would you do.” The sister says, “the baby has a right to be born” with Leena saying, “well and whole.” At the end of the movie, Leena’s father tells her of the night her mother died and that he let her pull out the IV in her arm so she could end her life. 26 It is not clear what decision Leena ultimately makes, to go to term and deliver her baby or have an abortion. The dilemma that Leena faces, adds a human element that is frequently missed on TV news coverage. TV news focusing on protests, for or against, a few speeches, here and there, some talk by opponents and supporters who usually add nothing particularly new, but the confusion and distress that women such as the real-life Sherrie Finkbine or the fictional Leena faced, are lost. There is truth in a statement made by Mike Huckabee (a minister and former governor of Arkansas and father of President Trump’s former Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee) when he said, “[the abortion debate generates] more heat than light.” 27 In the case Huckabee, however, it is questionable whether he has contributed much in the way of light, more likely heat.

Abortion in movies was not just covered primarily in the years after Roe v. WadeWhere Are My Children (1916) is a silent movie starring Tyrone Power, senior (the father of Tyrone Power known from movies in the 1940s and 1950s). Lois Weber, who co-wrote and produced the film was America’s first woman director. The opening of the film states, “The question of birth control is now being generally discussed. All intelligent people know that birth control is a subject of serious public interest. …Can a subject thus dealt with on the printed page be denied careful dramatization on the motion picture screen?” 28 The basics of the movie addresses a doctor who performs abortions on wealthy women, not just poorer ones. The district attorney who is prosecuting a doctor for distributing birth control literature, finds out through the trial that there is another doctor who performed abortions and one of those woman who received an abortion was his wife. She had one and possibly more and that a number of her friends had also gone to the doctor to have abortions. In addition, a maid receives an abortion but it goes badly wrong and after she makes her way back to the mansion where she worked she dies from the procedure. One way of looking at the movie is to see women with financial means surviving abortions but poorer ones putting their lives on the line.

Where Are My Children movie poster.

Movies open up ways to look at abortion beyond the labels that permeate the debate. In the case of Where Are My Children, a viewer can lack sympathy for the district attorney’s wife who simply wants an abortion because a baby would interfere with her social life. Sherri Finkbine and the fictional Leena present more compelling struggles that can go with the decision to have an abortion.

The Hyper-Charged Climate and Film

Rain Without Thunder (1993) starred Betty Buckley, Jeff Daniels, and Steve Zahn. This is a fictional account of a future America where abortion is considered “fetal murder.” In this environment in order to get an abortion a mother, Beverly Goldring (Buckley) and her daughter, Allison (Ali Thomas) are imprisoned at the Walker Point Center for seeking an abortion outside the United States. The film presents America in the year 2042 where a gradual weakening of civil liberties over time has led to an extreme situation outlawing abortion. New York state has passed a law against going abroad to obtain an abortion, with the law called “fetal kidnapping.” Eventually a trial ensues in which the African American District Attorney, Andrea Murdock (Iona Morris) may be motivated to prosecute mother and daughter with racial disparities hanging over the case. The Goldring’s had traveled to Sweden to obtain an abortion and, obviously, this option is not going to be available to a large section of poorer African American women. In the end fetal kidnapping becomes the charge, even though the Swedish clinic reports that it was determined that Allison’s fetus had been dead for some three weeks before the procedure.

Currently, in the United States, minority women are five times more likely to terminate a pregnancy contrasted with white women. One reason for the disparity may be due to minority women having less consistent access to health insurance and, therefore, birth control. 29 No doubt a number of abortion opponents also favor restrictions on Medicaid (the combined federal/state funded health program for the poor and indigent) and removing the Affordable Health Care (ACA) system, or Obamacare as it has become to be known. Restricting access to Medicaid and eliminating the ACA, which has reduced the number of uninsured, would increase the number of uninsured and therefore probably increase the desire for abortions among minority women.

A lobbyist for an organization lobbying both Congress and the state legislation to restrict abortion pushed for increased funds for Medicaid to have more poor women on Medicaid to encourage them to not seek abortions. As she explained it, her position was not supported by legislators, both at the Congressional or state level, who opposed abortion, but also favored restrictions on access to Medicaid. Politics should never be seen as a rational activity. Passion has a way of trumping reason. Again the, hey girlie, you got pregnant, live it mentality has a way of prevailing. 30

Citizen Ruth (1996) starred Laura Dern as Ruth Stoops. The film also stars Swoosie Kurtz, Mary Kay Place, and Tippi Hedren. The basic premise of the film is that Ruth (Dern) gets pregnant from an, apparent, ex-boyfriend. There is next to nothing redeeming about Ruth, this is an individual who will do anything to become inebriated or get high, all this while, apparently, somewhat involved in the lives of her four children. It is while she is arrested for drug use that she finds out she is pregnant, again, and the judge suggests that he would consider a lesser sentence if she obtained can abortion.

Citizen Ruth movie poster–a light hearted comedy with deep undercurrents.

Ruth becomes the center of a battle between the two opposing sides on abortion, with financial inducements being offered to her by the competing sides to have or not have an abortion. On the day she was to have an abortion, she has a miscarriage. She still heads to the clinic since she wants the $15,000 she has been offered to go ahead with the procedure. It was the last scene of the movie that should catch the attention of those actively, and oftentimes aggressively, involved in this tug of war over abortion. Ruth climbs out a window at the clinic and runs away. Despite the notoriety of her face on television, she is ignored by the two sides as they hold competing heated demonstrations outside the clinic.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Juno, Revolutionary Road, Obvious Child, Citizen Ruth, My Body, My Child, all involve white women. A study that examined how abortion has been addressed on TV shows, for example, stated, “[A]bortion stories misrepresent the demographics of women obtaining abortion and their reasons for doing so, overrepresenting younger white women and underrepresenting women of color, poor women and mothers.” 31 The movies discussed here were not part of this study, but reflect the views of the study. My Body, My Child might be the exception. 2018, however, might have been a turning point year for TV shows addressing abortion with more minority women becoming the focus. 32

It may be common to refer to polarization as a way to briefly describe political discourse in America. But the notion of failing to address issues by both sides and pontificating as though only your side mattered is far from new to human nature. In Plato’s Republic there is a discussion, if it can be called that, between Thrasymachus and Socrates over the issue of justice. Neither man ever really addressed what the other raised, but talk past each other. We can assume that nothing was solved but positioning oneself to defend a stand and not give in an inch was very much in play, which should sound familiar regarding much of what passes for political discussion on cable TV news shows.

180 (2011) is supposed to be a documentary film. It was produced by a New Zealand evangelist named Ray Comfort. Comfort’s film basically argues that Hitler had the Holocaust and abortion in the United States is what he called the “American Holocaust.” On YouTube this film has received close to six million views. In other words, it is a film which adds to the polarization that Plato identified in the Republic.

Films addressing abortion in more recent years (Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, was release in 2018 discussed in this essay) are all over the map regarding how they address abortion. Little Woods (2019) starred Lily James, Tessa Thompson, and Luke Kirby focused on the difficulties of obtaining healthcare in the United States. Deb (James) wanted to take her pregnancy to term but the expenses associated with giving birth, considering she lacked health insurance, led her to get an abortion. Little Woods is a difficult film to enjoy with Deb’s sister (Thompson) as a drug dealer who uses that occupation to raise money for her sister’s abortion.

Unplanned (2019) stars Ashley Bratcher and Brooks Ryan. Abby (Bratcher) was a Planned Parenthood clinic director. The film is based on the memoir accounts of Abby Johnson. The film depicts the gruesome side of abortion. After Abby witnesses an abortion at 13 weeks of pregnancy, which shocks her, she has a change of heart which leads her to join efforts to end abortion. Planned Parenthood sued her for releasing information on then and Johnson filed a Whistleblower countersuit claiming the Texas facility (which closed in 2013) filed more than 87,000 reimbursements for fraudulent claims.

Unplanned has been financially successful, which might lead to more movies like this one.

Unplanned received a R rating, while the movie’s producers had hoped for a PG-13 one from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). This led to criticism by the film’s producers, claiming bias on the part of the MPAA, but they accepted the rating to not slow the release of the film. Vice President Mike Pence has tweeted his support for the film, which has done well at the box office hitting #4 in domestic box office sales the weekend it opened. There has been criticism regarding its accuracy (both from a medical perspective, as well as information about Johnson’s working relationship with Planned Parenthood), which should not undermine some of the movie’s content. One review of the movie stated:

“Unplanned” isn’t a good movie, but it’s effective propaganda — or, at least, it is if you belong to the group it’s targeting: those who believe that abortion in America, though a legal right, is really a crime. It’s hard to imagine the movie drawing many viewers outside that self-selected demographic. “Unplanned” preaches to the pro-life choir, and it does so by making a case against abortion that’s absolutist and extreme, at certain points twisting “facts” into a narrative of conspiracy. (Planned Parenthood is portrayed as a corporation as profit-driven as Standard Oil.) 33

Considering that this review appeared in Variety, which is widely read, it, in fact, may have done a disservice to broader attempts to try to get both sides of the abortion issue to figure out how to talk with each other. Another review of the movie—which was not a review as the author of the piece stated, is an indication of the hardened positions on abortion:

“Unplanned” which has earned about $13.7 million in limited release over the last two weeks — more than twice what it reportedly cost to make — is a fascinating bit of cultural ephemera, but not because of anything that’s actually in the movie. (To be clear, I haven’t seen it and this isn’t a movie review.) From the subject matter to the script to the marketing, “Unplanned” is infused with right-wing grift, a pure exercise in the craft of exploiting reactionary impulses to separate fools not just from their money, but from common sense. 34

It is probably incorrect that the only people choosing to see the film were already committed to positions against abortion. Public opinion polls show that since the mid-1990s, the percentage of the public that supports abortion as legal has fluctuated between 51-60 per cent. 35 Yet, the public that supports abortion as legal under any circumstances is only 25 per cent, while legal with some restrictions rises to around 40 per cent. Illegal under any circumstances has the public around 15 per cent. In other words, the public is not as hardened in its views as opposing camps might assume. Even in Alabama, which has a harsh trigger law waiting in the wings for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, shows four in five voters opposed to such harsh laws. 36

The growth of the cable news industry, CNN, MSNBS, Fox News, have contributed to a heightened polarization, which can prevent any rational discussion from emerging. Segments that might last three to eight minutes with anywhere between two, three, four, or five people trying to get in no doubt very important points, does next to nothing but adds to a level of babble and little enlightenment. One report finds that America’s media environment is more polarized than other Western countries. While online sources (Facebook or the Internet) matter, the report states:

One surprising finding is that populists prefer to use television news compared with non-populists and are less likely to prefer online news. These data will support those who argue that the role of social media has been overplayed when explaining the rise of Donald Trump compared with the part played by supportive television networks like Fox News. 37

Populists are those individuals who are more political engaged so more likely to vote. This report, however, has one bright spot: Donald Trump as President has increased the importance of what might be called, mainstream journalism, for more Americans. This 2017 report had 38 per cent of Americans trusting news from reliable sources, which was five points higher than the year Donald Trump was sworn in as President.

There Was Some Hope for Common Ground, Maybe It Can Return

The late Daniel Boorstin, a well-known historian and twelfth Librarian of the United States Congress, referred to a term “hyperreality” in his book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. This was a book published in 1962, well before cable TV news came into prominence to further reduce political discourse. By this term, Boorstin meant that real events were divorced from anything that looked real. Many of the films discussed in this essay help readers understand that thoughtful discussion might actually be possible regarding abortion. In a media environment that is hyper-accentuated by daily rhetoric that is divorced from any foundations in the nuances of everyday life, one has to wonder if there is a hope that a level of conversation that looks like it might head somewhere can be achieved.

For a brief period, some hope seemed to emerge in the form of what became known as Common Ground. In the Fall of 1989, Andrew Puzder published an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch which addressed the need for the two sides on abortion to find a way to come together. Puzder is the former CEO of CKE Restaurants and Donald Trump had nominated him to be Secretary of Labor but Puzder withdrew his nomination after it became clear Republicans lacked the votes to confirm him in the United States Senate. At the time that Puzder wrote his article, he was an attorney in St. Louis. That article led to a meeting with a pro-choice activist, which laid the groundwork for a meeting and, subsequently, an organization aimed at bridging the abortion divide. Soon after Puzder published his article, a therapist, Laura Chasin, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called friends together to create The Public Conversation Project. There is an organization that currently exists by the same name that began in 2010 which was started by Pulitzer Prize winner, Ellen Goodman and others that addresses end-of-life issues, but these two organization sharing the same name are different. 38

Soon there was a loosely developed organization with chapters in cities such as Dallas, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. The more formal title was Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. In 1994, a meeting took place in Washington to try to make some progress. This was not the first time this had happen. Fifteen years earlier at a similar meeting, abortion opponents displayed the body of a fetus, which led to the meeting quickly coming to an end.

While Chasin and Puzder, among others, were doing their best to bring sides together, in the summer of 1991, two sisters, both supporting the competing sides of the abortion issue, met a member of Operation Rescue, an organization which supported vigorous protests against abortion. Together the three formed a similar organization, with the same name, Common Ground, that led to thirty-one women meeting in San Francisco six months later. These women included opponents, supporters, and those sitting on the fence regarding abortion.

A familiar scene outside clinics performing abortions.

Eventually, a brochure was developed for these loosely united Common Ground organizations in different cities which included what might be called their motto, “lower the fence at least enough to look into each other’s eyes.” Some movement on both sides working together could be seen when a “civility agreement” was worked out regarding protests at clinics preforming abortions in Ohio.

It is difficult to precisely pin down when this movement to bring people together fell apart, although a minister in St Louis involved with that city’s Common Ground chapter felt that once the term “partial-birth abortion” became a focus of the anti-abortion movement then it became increasingly challenging to work together. 39

A 1994 episode of Seinfeld titled The Couch, has Elaine dating someone she recently met, Carl, until she finds out he opposed abortion. Carl’s line of reasoning (which sounds surprisingly like the supporters of “trigger laws” passed in states, waiting for Roe v. Wade to be overturned) was, “You know someday…we’re going to get enough people in the Supreme Court to change the law.” This might be a place to start to try to revive something along the lines of the Common Ground movement.

During the 2012 Presidential campaign between then President Barack Obama and the Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Romney said something that perhaps did not receive the attention it deserved. When asked, regarding his opinion about Roe v. Wade Romney responded, “[I]n my view, if we had justices like Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia, and more justices like them, they might well decide to return the issue to states as opposed to saying it’s in the federal Constitution. …Do I believe the Supreme Court should overcome Roe v. Wade? Yes, I do.” Carl in the Seinfeld episode represents a common misbelief that many have about Roe v. Wade, that overturning this court case would lead to abortion ending everywhere. In other words, close to the movie Rain Without Thunder. What Romney said is more like the trigger laws waiting in the wings for a post-Roe v. Wade climate which might lead to a patchwork of abortion laws with states all over the map on what they would and would not allow.

Often missing from cable TV news when abortion is covered in the usual superficial ways, is any discussion of Supreme Court opinion writing. People getting their news from TV (any not doing enough serious reading) might assume that those few words in any three minute segment that addresses any Supreme Court case, cover the basics of what they need to know—far from it. Supreme Court opinions can go on for pages (including footnotes, in addition to concurrent opinions and dissenting opinions). How an opinion is actually written can determine what the political and legal landscape might look like in a post-Roe v. Wade world. Imagine if an opinion forced states that currently have trigger laws waiting on their books for that day when, and if, Roe v. Wade is overturned, to increase state government assistance to help women denied abortions who carried their pregnancies to term against their choice. In other words, the onus would fall on state governments to do a great deal more than they currently do. Since states would be going in dramatically different directions regarding support for or very strict opposition against abortion, we might assume that any court case would simply not let the states do whatever they wanted. Justices might need to struggle with the real possibility that some women, depending on where they lived, would continue to have access abortion, while others would be denied that opportunity. Could justices simply look the other way and assume a degree of benevolence on the part of some states that severely clamped down on abortions? In the Supreme Court case, Department of Commerce v. New York (2019), Chief Justice John Roberts writing the court’s opinion referred to a quote from a Court of Appeals judge who wrote in a 1977 case that judges “are not required to exhibit a naïveté from which ordinary citizens are free.” 40 The government critic joke by a state legislator applies here.

An argument has been made (challenged by others) that legalized abortion nationally beginning in the 1970s contributed to a reduction in the crime rate in the 1990s. Since a number of unwanted pregnancies did not happen then young men likely to commit crime were not born. 41 That homicide rates for young men went dramatically up in the late 1980s may undercut some of this reasoning, since, technically many should not have been born if Roe v. Wade was in 1973 and we were then seeing these killings when the teenage years hit in the late 1980s. The point gets beyond the crime rate issue to one where the consequences of a post-Roe v. Wade environment matter: An increase in unwanted births means what exactly? Will there be a need for more public services, more special education in public schools, more vocational training, more birth control counseling? This is a question that would seriously need to be addressed, unless, of course, the attitude is one of hey, girlie, you got pregnant, live with it. Here, again, the government critic joke applies.

It would be nice if we could rely on cable TV news, which spend 24-hours a day to do the news to provide substance and development but these stations often consist of 30 or 60-minute shows which are more likely to repeat material from previous shows. Since enlightenment will not be coming from these cable news stations, we are forced to rely on the movies. In Swing Vote (1999) a made-for-TV movie, Joseph Kirkland (Andy Garcia) joins the Court, after the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. In this fictional environment, the Court has turned abortion back to the states, leaving them free to do what they want. The movie centers around Virginia Maples (Lisa Gay Hamilton) who has an abortion performed in Alabama, before an anti-abortion law goes into effect. Despite the timing of her abortion, she is charged with first degree murder, which seems too far-fetched but thinking about the types of legal issues that would arise in a post-Roe v. Wade environment, unfortunately falls to a TV movie, and not the news. Garcia, toward the end of the movie states, “Alabama has a right to regulate abortion but only as part of a comprehensive plan for child care.” 42 The hey, girlie, you got pregnant, live with it, approach to anti-abortion is challenged well in a made-for-TV movie.

Alternative to Abortion Programs: A Possible Hope for Compromise

A number of states fund Alternative to Abortion programs. Ray of Hope is a Missouri government funded Alternative to Abortion program. This program helps women who qualify based on their relationship to the poverty level. The web site, however, leans toward questionable language rather than detailed explanations regarding what women can expect from their services. In fact, detailed explanations rather than vague headlines might encourage more women to want their services. 43 Texas has established a program somewhat similar to Missouri’s, but a criticism of the Texas program is that as these Alternative to Abortion clinics start to grow in number, and receive state funding, programs designed to prevent pregnancy in the first place, which would reduce the need for abortions, are having funds cut. A Houston obstetrician stated, “They are taking money away from family planning and giving it to centers that are dealing with the aftermath, with people who are already pregnant. It just doesn’t make sense.” 44 Arizona has pushed to create a similar program. Cathi Herrod, an advocate for this funding stated, “The family health pilot program is modeled after a successful program in Texas that found good success at reaching women who wanted to know about abortion alternatives, but they just did not know how to find out that information.” 45 The Texas success that Ms. Herrod points to may be more about wishing thinking than about actual success. Certainly, it is normal to point to anything that can support ones position, even if it is questionable.

The point is to level some criticism at the organizations that are operating many of these programs, some push for abstinence only, which is fine but probably should not be part of this program. In addition, most of these organizations have strong anti-abortion positions. Beyond the organizations themselves, there is opportunity here to possibly revive some of the spirit that sparked the Common Ground movement in the first place. Organizations that provide the same Alternative to Abortion services but are more neutral in their stance might lead to Republican and Democratic state legislators working together to increase state funding to make these viable and effective organizations. How far beyond delivery will women, or families, be helped? A more extensive program can be expected to see costs rise significantly. In other words, the idea is good, the organizations that are involved currently should be replaced.

How do we move to a point where those supporting abortions can also support an Alternative to Abortion program, while those opposed to abortions recognize the importance of government to help finance programs such as this rather than simply push for legislation restrictive of abortion? An attitude of “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable” will not help. The Andrew Puzder letter in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch needs to be replicated on some level with a response on the other side.

A Cable News Show Handles An Abortion Issue in the Usual Way

One reason that we may not see the rebirth of Common Ground organizations, which can play a useful role in bringing sides finding a way to come together, is the growth of cable TV news. Fox News does it part to contribute to a hyper-partisan environment with its evening shows that shout loudly while contributing little of substance, but it is difficult to see much from CNN or MSNBC. As one study put it regarding CNN, MSNBS, and Fox News, “These ideologically opposed channels have contributed to the well-recognized trend of media polarization.” 46 Furthermore this study referenced MSNBC’s move toward a counterpart to Fox News’s hyper-partisanship:

MSNBC does not share the “political operative” structure of its conservative sister station [Fox News], despite its equally partisan content. The channel began without the intention of becoming the liberal counterpart to Fox News. Instead, …the network stumbled into its current role when it found liberal content highly profitable. …[T]he pivot toward liberal content [occurred during] George W. Bush’s second term, when Keith Olbermann’s partisan diatribes against the president garnered ratings previously unseen for the network.

Executives then moved to hire proudly liberal talent like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes in order to build upon the higher ratings created by Olbermann. The decision paid off, but it also symbolized a deeper realization about the nature of contemporary news television decision-making. 47

In looking at one night in May 2019 for the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, the appearance is created that some substance was addressed regarding a situation where Missouri is trying to shut down the last clinic in the state that performs abortions. Maddow mentions that the Missouri governor “signed one of these draconian new abortion bans that all the Republican-controlled states are passing now.” 48 There is no discussion regarding the specifics of the law which bans abortions beyond eight weeks of pregnancy and carries stiff penalties for doctors who violate this law, which was set to go into effect three months after the bill was signed into law. There is no discussion regarding any likely court challenges and what they would rest upon. Maddow further noted that ten years ago there were ten clinics in the state that performed abortion, but there is no discussion on what happened in these past ten years to get the state to the position where only one clinic is left. In other words, specifics are missing from this evening’s show.

Rachel Maddow with the St. Louis clinic in the background.

Continuing to address her coverage that evening on the situation in Missouri, Maddow stated, “This is clearly a pivotal moment for Missourians and for really most of the country.” Why this is a pivotal moment is not explained. It would seem that seeing the elimination of the other nine clinics over the past decade might just be equally as pivotal since those clinics would have been geographically positioned around the state to provide convenient access for women in need. Maddow also refers to the Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) which Maddow somewhat accurately points out established a “national definition of undue burden.” Considering that Missouri had ten clinics and now has one and the state wants to eliminate that one, then how is undue burden actually understood? Maddow makes no attempt to even address undue burden as, perhaps, not as legally clear as she seems to assume. The Opinion of the Court in this case runs approximately 42 pages including footnotes, but Maddow managed to reduce it to a few sentences, which is part of her problem. Essentially, developing a clear or more accurate understanding of the case takes up a great deal more effort than Maddow devoted to it. This is one of the problems of TV news coverage, it is often barely more than headlines only. Imagine trying to understand how to address overturning Roe v. Wade but, at the same time, needing to take into account the Casey ruling and how it addresses the issue of undue burden. A general public might be allowed the convenience of simply believing that only Roe v. Wade needs to be addressed and no other court cases matters, justices to not have the luxury of such fantasy thinking.

Further complicating any attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade, is the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989). Missouri passed a law attempting to regulate abortion and in the preamble (which is considered a philosophical introduction to the law but separate from the law) stated, “the life of each human being begins at conception [and] unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being.” While this case allowed states to increase their regulation of abortion, the Court sidestepped the issue of when life begins with the Opinion of the Court stating:

It will be time enough for federal courts to address the meaning of the preamble should it be applied to restrict the activities of appellees in some concrete way. Until then, this Court is not empowered to decide . . . abstract propositions, or to declare, for the government of future cases, principles or rules of law which cannot affect the result a to the thing in issue in the case before it.

In other words, here lies future Court cases. Would a case to overturn Roe v. Wade need to return to issues raised in the Webster case? A public that simply wants Roe v. Wade overturned but has no understanding that a Court decision would probably need to address both the Casey and Webster decisions is a public that shows little understanding of legal and policy issues. Once again, the government critic joke applies.

It might be possible to say that Maddow did her best in the time allowed to her, after all this is TV and time is important. But, did she, or for that matter basically any other TV new host, do their best to provide some enlightenment on the abortion issue? No! What is missing is to provide some appreciation to a public that does not have the time to study the intricacies of Constitutional Law, that issues such as abortion are, in fact, incredibly complex. TV hosts such as Maddow need to take the time to repeatedly explain to viewers that TV news cannot do justice to the abortion issue and then provide some insight how they can learn more on their own. When Frontline on PBS addresses an issue, at the end of a show they let viewers know they can go to the show’s web site to find more information. A remark by Groucho Marx provides something of a warning label for television: “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.”

If a public is kept as uninformed as possible based on TV news coverage of abortion (and a number of other issues, for that matter), how can it be expected that they develop the necessary insight to understand that absolute views for and against abortion do no good and the country will continue to lead to sparring back-and-forth for the foreseeable future. Waiting for one side to win and the other to concede defeat will not be happening—plan on a future looking like the present.

Movies, perhaps unfortunately, can provide us with ways to delve more deeply into the complexity and human side of issues associated with abortion. Too bad we can expect so little from TV news.

Works Cited

  1. http://www.religiousconsultation.org/News_Tracker/where_does_God_stand_on_abortion.htm
  2. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/catholic-church-teaching-on-abortion-dates-from-1869-1.1449517
  3. https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/410/113.html, see Section VI of the Opinion
  4. https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=tv+news+abortion+is+murder&qpvt=tv+news+abortion+is+murder&view=detail&mid=C8E580898D7296865D19C8E580898D7296865D19&&FORM=VRDGAR
  5. https://qz.com/1324757/supreme-court-nominee-brett-kavanaugh-is-religious-just-like-all-the-sitting-justices/
  6. http://www.gosnellmovie.com/about/
  7. https://www.bet.com/news/news/2011/01/20/paabortiondrdisregard.html
  8. https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/06/americas-most-educated-engaged-citizens-are-making-politics-worse/
  9. https://www.npr.org/2019/05/20/725139713/what-abortion-was-like-in-the-u-s-before-roe-v-wade
  10. An OB/GYN I knew in St. Louis (now retired) explained to me why he learned to perform abortions. One night he was working in the ER in a well-known St. Louis hospital and a girl came in requiring immediate treatment. She had used an object, possibly a coat hanger, to self-induce an end to her pregnancy. The doctor told me that the sad irony of the situation was that she was not pregnant but had destroyed her Uterus and could never have children. It was after that that he arranged to spend time at a facility in New York City to learn how to perform abortions. This gentleman always came across to me as quite religious and always remembered that night in the ER, never wanting to see it repeated. When it became known that he performed abortions, since he was involved with a Supreme Court case, he told me he had his car set so that it could be remotely started, fearing that a bomb might have been placed under the car.
  11. https://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/10/opinion/my-abortion-then-and-now.html
  12. https://www.npr.org/2018/01/19/578620266/before-roe-v-wade-the-women-of-jane-provided-abortions-for-the-women-of-chicago
  13. https://www.npr.org/2019/05/16/724089804/author-of-alabama-restrictive-abortion-bill-wants-to-revisit-roe-v-wade-decision
  14. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/30/usalabama-woman-marshae-jones.html?login=smartlock&auth=login=smartlock
  15. My late wife who died twelve years ago was an OB/GYN. One evening she discussed with me a patient she had seen earlier that day. A woman in her mid-50s had her Fallopian tubes tied, which meant pregnancy was out of the question. My wife told me that usually this was done in cases of women who suffered from severe Endometriosis (chronic pelvic pain caused by lesions found on organs such as the ovaries, bladder or intestines). In the case of this patient, there was no sign that she had Endometriosis. The patient told my wife that she wanted an abortion in the state she lived in in the years prior to Roe v. Wade, and her state also had the three-physician panel approval system. The panel (all male) agreed to her abortion as long as she agreed to have her tubes tied.
  16. hhtp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQMh2SOAxg
  17. https://saynsumthn.wordpress.com/2018/09/05/prior-to-roe-abortion-legalization-by-state-1960s-and-1970s/
  18. https://www.progressivepolicy.org/blog/the-drop-out-crisis-and-teen-pregnancy/
  19. https://forums.thebump.com/discussion/9097781/pregnant-and-absolutely-no-support-system
  20. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01movies/jenny-slate-in-gillian-robespierres-obvious-child-child.html
  21. https://www.fwhc.org/abortion/1000ab.htm
  22. This comes from conversations the author of this article had with a state legislator. Interestingly, similar sentiments were voiced by other legislators. The public, or rather a segment of the public may want legislators to do something, but clearly do not think through what is required. A “I said it, you do it” attitude seems to be sufficient and clearly that is not the case
  23. https://www.guttmacher.org/report/characteristics-us-abortion-patients-2014
  24. This movie can be found on YouTube.
  25. http://documents.law.yale.edu/sites/default/files/BeforeRoe2ndEd_1.pdf, pp. 15-16
  26. My Body, My Child (1982) can be found on YouTube.
  27. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/common-ground-on-abortion_b_222795
  28. Where Are My Children (1916) can be found on YouTube.
  29. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/abortions-racial-gap/380251/
  30. This is based on my interviewing the lobbyist who was a former student of mine and who, subsequently, received her law degree.
  31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26658154
  32. https://www.ansirh.org/sites/default/files/publications/files/abortion_onscreen_2018.pdf
  33. https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/unplanned-review-1203175761/
  34. https://www.salon.com/2019/04/12/unplanned-and-shameless-hit-anti-abortion-movie-is-a-total-right-wing-grift/
  35. https://www.pewformum.org/fact-sheet/public-opinion-on-abortion/
  36. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/05/28/alabama-state-legislators-are-wrong-about-their-voters-opinions/?utom_term=.a616f6f742b3
  37. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2019-06/DNR_2019_FINAL_1.pdf , p 24
  38. http://www.co-intelligence.org/S-beyondabortiondebate.html
  39. The author interviewed this minister several times and invited her to campus to discuss the work of the organization. She pointed out that difficult choices had to be made with the limited financial resources available to the St Louis Common Ground organization to help women who wanted to take their pregnancies to term.
  40. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/27/opinion/supreme-court-census-trump.html?ribbon-ad-idx=3&rref=opinion&module=Ribbon&version=context&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&pgtype=article
  41. http://freakonomics.com/2005/05/15/abortion-and-crime-who-should-you-believe/
  42. Swing Vote (1999) can be found on YouTube.
  43. http://rayofhopepcm.com/
  44. https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-ascendant-abortion-alternative-industry/
  45. https://www.abc15.com/news/state/arizona-lawmakers-introduce-two-bills-to-fund-family-health-pilot-program
  46. http://harvardpolitics.com/covers/organized-polarize-cnn-fox-news-msnbc-roots-partisan-cable-television/
  47. Ibid.
  48. http://www.msnbc.com/transcripts/rachel-maddow-show/2019-05-28, this is the transcript from May 28, 2019.

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  1. Ms.Keeney

    In the 80’s women had more rights then today. I had an abortion in the 80’s and no one….let me repeat….no one had a problem. Good luck today.

    All the fetus fetish extreme religious right bigots saw to that!

    • Joseph Cernik

      There’s a reply I added to another comment addressing my late wife was was an OB/GYN. Also a footnote addresses a patient she had.

  2. Family guy produced an unequivocally pro-choice episode. It was banned by the right wing American establishment. So much for the First Amendment when it conflicts with what religious America wants.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with this article, shared with colleagues and friends.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I appreciate you enjoying it. There’s a reply I added elsewhere addressing my late wife who was an OB/GYN.

  4. I can’t believe anybody actually really cares about another person having an abortion. It seems very nosy. What happened to ‘my rights end where your nose begins’ ?

    • Joseph Cernik

      Abortion is addressed through politics and many people hold their beliefs tightly, which can get in the way of developing policies that moderately-thinking people can live with.

      • I cannot believe someone really cares about another person killing or raping another person. It’s just so very nosy. What happened to ‘my rights end where your nose begins’ ?

        • Well killing another person and raping another person are hardly comparable to a legitimate medical procedure that is widely practiced throughout the world.

          Also killing and raping another person is clearly an infringement of their rights.

          What a dreadful analogy.

        • Joseph Cernik

          I’m a little confused by this Comment.

  5. Has the pro-life message ever been made in a Hollywood movie by someone who isn’t:

    a) a placard waving imbecile
    b) a poisonous witch
    c) the bad guy

    That’s not a challenge, where I think I know the answer. I’m genuinely curious.

    • Joseph Cernik

      Well, Juno can be seen as pro-life but in a way that shows more than just a pregnant woman on her own.

    • Porfirio

      Overall, films like Juno and Knocked Up present a pro-life narrative. The central characters don’t stand around outside abortion clinics waving placards, but the central characters are implicitly pro-life.

      • Cristen

        If Juno was pro-life, she wouldn’t have even considered an abortion, she get’s freaked out by the pro-choice girl, having an abortion is not an easy thing to do and I guess some people would let finger nails comments stick in their head

        • Joseph Cernik

          I think it shows the difficulty of making a decision. The movie Obvious Child, had the main character deciding to get an abortion soon after realizing she is pregnant and never looking back. In that sense Juno shows a difficult decision process.

    • I actually disagree. I believe both those films depicted a pro choice outlook. ‘Choice’ by definition means it’s okay to choose to keep the baby if you feel that is the best decision to make, regardless of your reasoning.

      • Joseph Cernik

        The Common Ground movement I discuss saw “choice” this way.

  6. I know it is TV and not movies, but I feel Netflix’s House Of Cards and HBO’s Six Feet Under deserve an honourable mention as examples of pro-choice recent media.

    • Joseph Cernik

      The number of movies I ran across addressing abortion is too numerous to count. I picked ones that helped me to raise issues I felt were important.

      • Katrice

        Both Degrassi (next generation) and Friday Night Lights were very sensitive in their handling of the issue. On FNL, you even get the sense that although Tammy is personally uncomfortable with the idea, she listens to Becky and lets her make her own choice.

    • Francie

      Netflix and HBO are not part of the Hollywood machine.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I just couldn’t keep adding movies or Netflix shows for the sake of mentioning them. I was trying to use certain movies to help raise issues.

  7. Great article. I find it humourous that both sides of this debate demonized and call the other immoral. Right to Life call Pro-Choice “anti-Life”, and Pro-Choice call Right to Life “anti-Choice”. There seems to be bias and zealots on both sides. The louder one side derides the other just comes across as insecure, and really I think the public are just sick of having either ideology and the negativity attitudes shoved in our faces. Let people go about their private lives in private, because really they’re going to decide one way or another privately. Most people are more concerned about putting food on the table, and would prefer to spend their entertainment money escaping reality rather than being dragged deeper into it.

    • Joseph Cernik

      This was a part of my article I left out regarding my late wife, which I think helps to show the difficulty of the issue–we tried to help, essentially, on both sides of abortion:

      My late wife was an OB/GYN and performed several abortions. The first—and we talked about each of them—came as a result of a phone call from a therapist. The therapist had been seeing a patient who was a lesbian and became pregnant on a dare from her girlfriends. When my wife saw her, what stood out in her mind were the stitches on her arms where she repeatedly tried to kill herself with a razor: She had no intention of giving birth. The second abortion came about as a result of a girl who became pregnant from a man she met in group therapy. He proclaimed he was “pro-life” and that if she wanted an abortion then he suggested she kill herself in the process. The third abortion involved a woman from India. Her husband was in a medical residency program and after she had an amniocentesis, which determined she was pregnant with a girl, he threatened to leave her in the United States unless she had an abortion. A fourth abortion involved a woman who worked at a well-known Missouri restaurant. She became pregnant from a man she was dating and after informing him that she was pregnant, he left her. She informed her manager that she was pregnant and, unlike the support system in Juno, he threatened to fire her.
      While these few abortions stand out, remembering them well, there were situations, two stand out, where we helped patients of hers see themselves through to delivery. My wife had a way of bringing home stray cats and dogs, but in her they were patients in need. In the first situation the patient wanted an abortion, I guess assuming it was an easy thing to have one well into the Third Trimester. My wife’s response was usually, “What are you crazy, feel your stomach!” In this situation, the girl was living with her mother and her mother kicked her out of the house, no Juno support system here. My wife called me at my office and asked if we could let her live in our spare bedroom and after she delivered she would move in with her sister who lived across the country in another state.
      The second situation started out like the first but led to a great deal of anxiety. In this situation, the woman’s husband wanted her to have an abortion. As with the first woman we put up, she was well into her Third Trimester. Apparently, in order to taunt her, he would put his pistol on the kitchen table and then spin it, saying if it pointed at her he would shoot her. She wanted to take the pregnancy to term and planned to divorce him. Initially, her staying was fine, again in our spar bedroom. But about two weeks into her stay and at least a month from delivery, she called her husband, possibly to reconcile and let him know where she was staying. The anxiety came from our concern that we had five small children at home and we did not know his state of mind or how serious he was about using his pistol. I kept imagining bullets coming through our front window. We informed the police, not much they could do and we knew it. We also informed some of the neighbors just to be on the lookout for his truck. I always remember that the people who had a “vote pro-life” sign on their front yard, were the most hostile to our predicament. Being told that she had delivered her child and was moving in with family elsewhere in the country was a tremendous relief. Whenever I see people protest against abortion, I wonder if they fit the definition of a government critic, as understood by a former Republican state legislator.

  8. If she choose to have an abortion in Juno, there wouldn’t be a storyline.

    • Joseph Cernik

      Well, the movie Obvious Child was the response to Juno.

    • The point is not that she chooses not to have one, but why, and the reason she decides against having one is because of some nonsense an anti-choice protestor said outside. That is an obscene message to send to girls.

      • Joseph Cernik

        I was under the impression that she decided to have an abortion soon after becoming pregnant. Interesting how we saw the movie so differently.

        • Ute Rodrigues

          The film isn’t sending a message to young girls, any more than it’s sending a message to young boys to develop a tic tac addiction like Bleeker’s. Juno’s decision not to have an abortion is totally in line with her character and it makes sense within the film. She’s a child and her choices are decided by silly and slightly surreal things, like imagining a fetus with fingernails. I would say that in real life our most important choices are often swayed by such trivial thoughts.

          It’s unfair to say that this qualifies as an “obscene message” just because you disagree with it. That kind of film analysis belongs on American right-wing talk radio.

          • Joseph Cernik

            I don’t think anyone is saying choices are made lightly. Movies such as Juno and Obvious Child show some personal decision-making.

    • stan lee

      Just like in Ted, If that teddy bear was just an ordinary teddy bear….and Billy Elliot if he couldn’t give a toss about ballet.

    • I haven’t seen the film.

      But from how its described it sounds as if the issue is less the message it sends to young women, and more the message it sends to anti-abortion-clinic protestors. Namely that your protests both work and have good outcomes.

  9. Amyus

    A powerful and challenging article that will undoubtedly create a lot of debate amongst commenters.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I tried to get away from the “choose a side and defend it” approach.

  10. It’s kind of amazing to me that we seem to have gone from the idea of abortion as a rare procedure of last resort to being pretty much the expected outcome of any unintended pregnancy, unless the woman has a very strong incentive to do something else–and all in the span of a single generation.

    • Joseph Cernik

      In my essay you’ll see that is referred to estimates that in the years before Roe v Wade, it is estimated some 25% of pregnancies ended in abortion. I know my late wife, as an OB/GYN figured that estimate was off the mark and that it was higher. She lectured on ways that women induced an abortion (which I can’t remember the specifics of what she said). Frequently we socialized with other women who are OB/GYNs and discussed figures on abortion historically, again seeing what they believed to be high figures. In some ways abortion has come out of the shadows. I discuss this in my essay on William Buckley and his show “Firing Line” on The Artifice.

  11. It seems like Hollywood has regressed or is pursuing a more conservative agenda all round. I’ve really noticed an increase in the number of films with a moralistic tone over the last few years.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I’m not always sure it’s easy to classify which way the wind is blowing. There is, however, a movie being made titled “Roe v. Wade.” The indications are that it will be a heavily conservative approach. Apparently, there has been problems with some actors backing out after agreeing to be involved and, I guess, some script writing changes because there were concerns that information was being presented as factual when it is not.

  12. I think public opinion on every subject is polarising wildly these days. There seems to be no common ground between right and left on any topic whatsoever, and the amount of hatred both sides spew at each other is incredible.

    • Joseph Cernik

      TV news does not help to present ways to address the issue, instead cable news, in particular, just reinforces sides.

  13. Hollywood is not an education service. It is a profit seeking industry giving people what they want.

    If there was money in making films sympathetic to abortion they’d be made as quick as a flash.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I tend to agree, although in this essay I tried show how certain movies can help to see abortion in less absolute ways.

    • No. For a start, Obvious Child film has done very well financially. Also, movies that featured abortion in the past did extremely well. You might have heard of this tiny little film called Dirty Dancing?

      Studios simply don’t make films anymore featuring abortion because Hollywood – and America in general – has gone much more to the right in the past 25 years.

      • Joseph Cernik

        I thought of using Dirty Dancing, but abortion was more of a side issue in that movie so I did not use it.

    • You’re missing the possibility that Hollywood might be wrong about what type of movie will make money. Erring on the side of maintaining status quo and not taking risks (even when entirely warranted) is something endemic to big business.

      • Joseph Cernik

        All businesses makes decisions and they are not always right. We can see both sides on abortion in different movies so not clearly only one side and that’s it. Why. I think, I wanted to look at a number of different movies.

    • Well, let’s consider the opposite.

      An example is The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials trilogy) where studios thought the anti catholic themes wouldn’t sell so they tried to tone them down. However the books had already shown there was a viable market for the story. It seemed Hollywood just didn’t want to anger any christian groups.

  14. I am pro choice, however, saying it is not a big deal is also a terrible message. I have known two women who have had abortions (there are obviously more who have not told me) and they suffered from mental health problems afterwards. Of course many haven’t but it should not be taken lightly.

    In reality though these are movies, should there be a team moral judges (presumably a masters in gender studies is mandatory) saying what should and shouldn’t be allowed?

    • Joseph Cernik

      There is a Reply to a Comment I posted earlier on my late wife who was an OB/GYN and several abortions she performed but, at the same time, we took in women in need who wanted her to perform an abortion. By them staying with us they could take their pregnancies to term.

  15. I really hate the creeping anti abortion sentiment these days. I find it shocking that in the US at least there is so much of it around. I am lucky I know about all the various contraception methods as I was taught about some and I worked in a Chemists as a teen. I have never needed an abortion thankfully and I intend for it to stay that way, That said I would fight for a woman’s right to have one. I really hope the UK does not follow suit with the protests in the same way.

    • Joseph Cernik

      A good article to read, Farhad Manjoo, “Abortion Pills Should Be Everywhere,” New York Times (August 3, 2019).

  16. I’m totally pro-choice, but abortion is a big thing.

    Juno was a comedy that covered serious issues, and that’s a good thing.

    A film that covered abortion is unlikely to be comic, and it would be pretty weird if it didn’t portray abortion as a major life event, even if it’s the right choice.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I refer to a movie “Obvious Child” which was billed as an “abortion comedy” sort an odd statement.

    • Tyra Doran

      I’ve had two relationships that ended after an abortion, despite everything being fine up to that point. It’s not a big deal to the world, but i’s a big deal to those involved. A bit like having a baby.

      • Joseph Cernik

        In an earlier Reply to a Comment, I discussed my late wife, an OB/GYN and several abortions she performed under difficult circumstances. But, at the same time, we helped several of her patients take their pregnancies to term.

  17. 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a brilliant film about illegal abortion in Romania. Part of its greatness is its ambivalence – it should disconcert pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I’ll need to look it up, I am not familiar with it. Thank you.

    • clarkKent

      It’s a brilliant film, but as a pro-choicer I didn’t find it disconcerting wrt my beliefs.

      It said to me that the girls should have had the right to make their own choices, so they didn’t have to interact with rapist/criminals who would financially fleece them, wouldn’t have to leave it so late that it became more traumatic than it needed to be, and wouldn’t have to dispose of a foetus in a bin.

      • Joseph Cernik

        Again, this now has been interested to see the movie.

  18. Hollywood could do a better job portraying abortions.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I hope that several of the movies I discussed might provide some insight.

  19. Mac Pennington

    Wanna see a film w/a balanced take on abortion? Try Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, made before he was mega-financed in H’wood. T’warn’t no side happy w/their depiction in that film. It can also be viewed as a comment upon how a local issue becomes a cause celebre, thanks to the swooping down of ideologues and demagogues.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I discuss the “Citizen Ruth” movie in this article–particularly the ending which I found quite good.

    • weljell

      Citizen Ruth is great. And don’t act like Alexander Payne has become some kind of mega-financed Hollywood director either. From your comment you would think that now he was making superhero movies. His movie Nebraska was so much more politically savvy about America than just about anything I’ve seen lately.

      • Joseph Cernik

        Citizen Ruth just did a good job presenting the abortion issue–particularly the last scene.

  20. Did you consider High Fidelity? The main female character had an abortion, didn’t tell her partner about it, and seems generally ok in life. Great film!

  21. I’m not religious and I’m pro-choice, but abortion does seem like a pretty big deal to me. I’m a man, so maybe I’m moralizing at my convenience. Anyway, there seems to be genuine uplifting drama in a character choosing to have a baby, rather than the alternative plot lines. I think perhaps the politicization of the issue in the US over the last 30 years has lead to some deep, personal thinking about it, and that may be one reason for record low numbers of abortions now. As uncomfortable as that possibility might be for some to accept (including me, really).

    • Joseph Cernik

      As you can see from the way I wrote this article, I tried not to come down hard supporting one side or the other. I think that’s a normal attitude that most people have–to avoid extreme positions, which makes resolving the issue so difficult.

    • Clement

      I think the reason you think its a big deal is partly (note that word) because it is secret. Large numbers of abortions are performed, but you would never know that from the media or from “small-talk”.

      • Joseph Cernik

        Statistics show the number of abortions going down. From around 1980 to 2014 about drop by 50%.

  22. Interesting article with a lot of valid points.

  23. I remember when the character Jane Tennyson had an abortion at the beginning of one of the Prime Suspect series – I thought at the time, and still do, that an American cop show would never put a character in a similar situation. The shit storm that would erupt from the Christian Right would be enough to tank any show that dared to show abortion in a positive light or as another medical procedure – the wackadoodle’s power is on the wane, but in the past three decades they have created so much noise and hysteria that Hollywood ran scared.

    Also, Hollywood is usually a couple of steps behind the rest of society – easily cowed people never lead anything – least of all, societal change.

  24. Why is it important for Hollywood to tackle the abortion issue in movies. Their movies are for entertainment not social health programmes. As soon as they do that the pro choice movement will be accusing them of promoting abortion. I think they have it just right at the moment. They mention the topic if its necessary for the story line.

    • Why is it not important for Hollywood to tackle the abortion issue?

      Their movies are unfortunately not only for entertainment, they also promote a certain ideology -all films and work of art do-, and they influence people -they always have- whether we realise it or not. (Look at the Werther effect) So, it’s a good thing to have people pointing it out when the message they repeatedly convey can be damaging.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I don’t see abortion in movies as a problem–and I think it should be addressed. What I hope for it a political conversation that is not simply us versus them as a result. Politics is, or should be, about different sides working to resolve issues. Now, as it stands there is nothing but stalemate. Hopefully, movies can contribute to breaking the stalemate.

    • Joseph Cernik

      See Reply to Randee. I think I addressed your concern.

    • Joseph Cernik

      See my Reply to Georgene, I hope that helps with what I was thinking as I wrote this essay.

    • Joseph Cernik

      See my Reply to Georgene I hope that helps regarding my thinking as I was writing this essay.

  25. Georgene

    Hollywood was never pro-abortion. Consider the original AIRPORT movie where the herione’s consideration of abortion is a wicked thing; by the end of the film she comes to her senses and will have the child. Hollywood studios are a reactionary, war-loving, woman-hating cartel. It was ever thus.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I hope that through the movies I addressed that diversity on abortion is seen coming from movies, not simply one approach.

  26. Cogent, and perhaps a little too even handed for the tastes on either side. I would suggest — since this essay shows your deep and abiding interest — that you check out another unlikely source: “There’s Always Vanilla,” the only intentional comedy directed by the late George A. Romero, more widely known as the visionary horror director behind “Night of the Living Dead” and its progeny. One of the lead characters on wanted pregnancy is perfor all to the main thrust of the story, and it is definitely not a “women’s picture” by any stretch of the imagination, but it is definitely not either the horrific action picture of the type that typified much of Romero’s overall work, yet it does have the pointed social conscience that is an undercurrent throughout all of his best motion pictures. In this case it is the predicament of a woman in that era right before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion across the country and specifically in Pennsylvania whereto it is the back alley abortionist she must turn. Worth a look.

    • Joseph Cernik

      I’m unfamiliar with this movie, I’ll check it out. Thanks.

  27. Knocked Up would have been a really short movie if Katherine Heigl’s character had gotten an abortion. When Jonah Hill’s character suggests an abortion, he’s derided as heartless by a complete moron. That’s not a strong statement against abortion.

    • BreadyDude

      And if I remember correctly, they didn’t even say the word, the called it “shmermortion” or something.

      • Joseph Cernik

        I thought of including Knocked Up but had trouble seeing it as addressing abortion, just an OK comedy (I really didn’t particularly like this movie).

  28. Joseph Cernik

    I had thought of referring to Knocked Up but, well, we make choices when writing.

  29. Interesting article

    • Joseph Cernik

      Thank You. I hope you felt it gave you a different way to look at the abortion issue.

  30. I agree with this totally.

  31. Stephanie M.

    Major kudos for covering such a contentious issue, and so thoroughly, too.

  32. Joseph Cernik

    Thank you I appreciate your comment. It’s easy to take one side or the other and nothing more. The problem with that is I don’t see it as contributing to anything useful. As some of my footnotes and replies to comments indicate I have had more than just an academic interest in this issue. Because of my late wife I saw some of this on a different level.

  33. Watched this movie many times!

  34. Joseph Cernik

    I hope you enjoyed my discussion of the movie. I’m not sure which one you’re referring to since I covered several–and had to limit my essay since I came to realize that abortion is covered in a number of movies.

  35. I often show The Cider House Rules to my Existentialism and Ethics classes as a way to introduce the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre.

  36. Joseph Cernik

    An excellent movie addressing ethics.

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