Newsday, November 10, 2004

Bush should 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 Drake."

"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 moral boundaries.

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 1930.

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 know.

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 cocco@newsday.com.

 

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