The Guardian (London), October 24, 2004
Drake Movie About Backstreet Abortion Opens
New York loves Vera Drake. Even lunchtime showings
of Mike Leigh's film about backstreet abortion
are filling two city cinemas. It seems strange
to me, a visitor, that the stewed tea, rigid
morals and lurid wallpaper of Fifties England
should jump cultures so easily, but why not?
Manhattan may not be big on nostalgia or faded
Constable prints, but it takes its sexual politics
When the Republican convention came to town two
months ago, tens of thousands of pro-abortionists
marched over Brooklyn Bridge. Same-sex couples
outnumber heterosexual ones at many restaurants,
and the wedding pages of the New York Times
feature gay commitment ceremonies alongside
brides in veils.
Vera Drake fits well with this progressive backdrop.
Imelda Staunton's motherly cleaning lady is
also a social pioneer, moving from one council
flat to the next with her biscuit tin containing
rubber tubing and carbolic soap to 'help out'
girls with nowhere else to turn. Her impulse,
never financial but not self-consciously charitable
either, is the reflex altruism of someone who
sees a need and meets it.
Finally, Vera, who judges no one, meets the forces
of censoriousness. Her son considers her a
killer, her employers treat her as a pariah,
and she must make her case before a law that
regards abortionists, except for those providing
a discreet service for the rich, as murderers
and corrupters. Leigh's homages to the poor
are sometimes cloying, but this one has a special
relevance for a Britain in which pro-lifers
urge tighter curbs on terminating pregnancies.
It is also an eerily apt fable for today's
Vera Drake's 20 years of back bedroom abortions
begin a timeline that has always been more
erratic in the US than the UK. In 1965, all
50 states retained a ban. In 1973, the case
of Roe v Wade legalised abortion. In 1984,
three clinics were bombed on Christmas Day
and the perpetrators called their actions 'a
birthday gift for Jesus'.
And in 2004, on the cusp of a new presidential
term, Vera Drake is less a snapshot of an ancient
world than a glimpse of how tomorrow's America
may look. If George W Bush wins, he will be
able to replace four retiring supreme court
judges with candidates who share his beliefs,
thus opening the way to state bans on abortion
and a God-driven social creed.
Liberal Europe is horrified that Rocco Buttiglione,
who thinks that homosexuality is sinful and
that marriage is for breeding, is on the brink
of becoming justice commissioner. That prospect,
though obnoxious, is less alarming than the
apex of the US judiciary moving wholesale to
the grip of neocons.
When the stakes are so high, it is not surprising
that the election is being fought out over
a petri dish. John Kerry, whose campaign resembles
a biology GCSE course, promises to overturn
Bush's block on funding embryonic stem cell
research. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Nancy
Reagan, Christopher Reeve's widow and a large
chunk of 100 million sick Americans are on
God is not, though. The Catholic church opposes
therapeutic cloning and wrangles over Kerry's
pro-abortion stance. Right-wingers want him
excommunicated, while Vatican sources say banishment
should be reserved for those who 'procure or
perform' an abortion. Mr Kerry is no Vera Drake,
but neither is he palatable to the churches
or to family fundamentalist groups which call
their other fight, against gay marriage, 'our
How, commentators are suddenly wondering, did
religion and politics get so entwined? But
why should anyone be surprised, when Bush signalled
from the start his intention to merge heaven
and the state? In the beginning was Pastor
Marvin Olasky, his first guru and prophet of
'compassionate conservatism'. More recently,
when asked by Bob Woodward if he took his father's
advice, the President said: 'There is a higher
father I appeal to.' If God-Botherers Anonymous
existed, then Mr Bush, an addictive personality
who holds cabinet prayer sessions, would have
joined up long ago.
What's new in this election is the collision
of faith and tactics. More than 40 per cent
of Americans say they have been born again,
while a quarter of the electorate are white
evangelical Protestants. Of that group, four
million did not vote in 2000. Among Catholic
grandees, debates about Kerry's dissident behaviour
have eclipsed church reservations over the
Iraq war. No wonder that Karl Rove, Bush's
political strategist, saw God's way as salvation
In secular Britain, the Almighty is more problematic.
Tony Blair's Bible-by-the-bed godliness soothes
few voters. His comment about answering to
'my maker' for the deaths of British soldiers
was met with alarm, and advisers vetoed his
wish to end a prewar broadcast with the benediction:
'God bless you.'
There is nothing furtive about George Bush's
faith and yet objectors are only just waking
up to the double danger of lobotomised evangelism.
The first threat is a supreme court likely,
if Bush wins, to skew the law against compassion
and science. Already, Bush has brought in a
ban on late abortions. Many of the 70,000 women
who die each year of botched terminations,
mostly in the developing world, might be saved
but for the rule forbidding NGOs with US funding
for family planning from providing abortions.
The second danger is aired by Ron Suskind in
his New York Times essay, published last week,
on faith. Though Suskind's analysis is masterful,
it should be no shock that Bush has adopted
a knit-your-own reality based on hunch and
the arrogance of the unquestioning. Simplistic
notions of good and evil and the sacrificing
of objective truth to God-given certainty were
evident long before 9/11.
Those of us educated by nuns saw early on how
this sort of implacability works. At my Catholic
primary, it was a sin for girls to wear trousers
and missing Mass led straight to hell. Such
dubious certitudes seemed out of vogue until
Mr Bush, a hardline Methodist, took over the
White House. He might as well have hung a sign
marked 'Narnia' on the gate.
This fantasy land inhabited by the US President
- and occupied by Mr Blair on a time-share
basis over the Iraq war - has odd rules on
killing. You cannot harm a blastocyst, but
you can execute a young prisoner on death row.
Embryos are sacred, but the children of Falluja
are expendable. Science promises cures and
miracles, but the most advanced country in
the world risks heading back down a Via Dolorosa
to the time of Vera Drake .
George W Bush has marked out the election battlefield
as a fight over the sanctity of existence.
He is right. The argument about the destruction
of human beings is critical, but it should
not be focused on driving abortion into the
backstreets or halting scientific progress.
It should dwell, instead, on a war mandated
by God and run by idiots.
The question is which candidate is more likely
to forge domestic and foreign policies ordaining
suffering and squandered lives. And the answer
is that people of every faith and none should
wish, for all our sakes, that John Kerry wins.
<< The Guardian -- 10/24/04 >>
this page to a friend