Newsday, November 10, 2004
see this film on abortion
By Marie Cocco
The president says he wants to launch an era
of good feelings as he starts his second term,
to govern for all Americans and not just his
base of supporters.
Inaugural goodwill is likely to be fleeting,
since Chief Justice William Rehnquist is sick
with cancer and an early defining moment of
a second Bush term may be the nomination of
a new Supreme Court justice, with abortion
rights the flashpoint. Nonetheless, in the
spirit of post-election reconciliation, I have
a tip for the president: One night soon in
the White House theater, settle in with some
popcorn (no more pretzels, please) and "Vera
"Vera Drake" is a period piece about
a period we would do well to remember.
The Mike Leigh film is set in working-class London
in the 1950s, where Vera lives the sort of
life political candidates - the president included
- elevate to heroic proportion. She is a cheerful
and efficient middle-aged woman who works hard
as a maid in the homes of the affluent, drops
by unfailingly to check on an ailing neighbor,
tends to her elderly mother. She has an affectionate
marriage with her husband, Stan, a mechanic,
and dotes on her two adult children - spending
time and careful attention to become a successful
matchmaker for her wallflower daughter.
Between scrubbing, cooking and brewing many pots
of tea, Vera has another metier. She performs
abortions for poor women and teenagers at a
time when they are criminally banned.
And so the movie immerses us in the moral ambiguity
that surrounds abortion, yet somehow never
gains an airing in our public discourse. Vera
is an ordinary woman who does what seems to
lie an extraordinary distance outside her own
She violates the law, puts women's health at
risk from her rudimentary procedures and keeps
this life secret from her close-knit family.
She takes no money for her services, seeing
herself as "helping young girls"
- just another of her charitable ways. When
she finally is caught, her emotional breakdown
is triggered by fear for her family, so accustomed
to relying upon her.
The movie is not a pro-choice polemic. There
are no arguments about the rights of fetus
or woman. "Choice" is not a word
in any character's script.
The women Vera helps are fearful and desperate.
Vera's own trust is abused by a childhood friend
who, it turns out, is taking money for procuring
clients without Vera's knowledge. When the
daughter of a comfortable matron for whom Vera
cleans is raped on a date and becomes pregnant,
she secretly obtains an abortion from a doctor.
But it is allowed only after the young woman
sees a psychiatrist, who pronounces her mental
health sufficiently unstable.
This is a portrait not of right or wrong in black
and white, but of a confused state of affairs
that can only be painted gray. And this is
the murky terrain on which we all will stand
if the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe
v. Wade is one day overturned.
For there is one certainty about abortions: Making
them illegal doesn't stop them.
Affluent women will continue to obtain abortions
from legitimate medical providers; poor women
will turn to the Vera Drakes, and worse, of
their neighborhoods. In the United States in
the 1950s and 1960s, estimates of illegal abortion
ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
has estimated that in 1972, when some legal
abortions were available in some states, 130,000
women underwent illegal abortions; 39 of them
died. The toll was vastly reduced from early
in the century - abortion was listed as the
official cause of death for 2,700 women in
These deaths have no role in the president's
talk about a "culture of life." Nor
do the lives of would-be Vera Drakes, or those
who submit to them. If abortion is again illegal,
would we prosecute the people who perform them,
the women who have them, or both? We do not
Does the president? Has he thought about it?
This is all I ask of him now, before a Supreme
Court nomination that could set the nation
on a divisive and potentially deadly course.
Please think about it.
Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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