The Politics of Shmashmortion

Knocked Up as litmus test.

Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann in Knocked Up

In last week’s review of Knocked Up, I made passing mention of the virtual nonexistence of abortion as a real option for Katherine Heigl’s character, Alison Scott, in the film. I speculated that the movie’s choice to tiptoe around this issue might have been a marketing decision. As if to prove my point that merely uttering the word abortion is a perilous move, that review provoked more blog posts, Fray discussion, and reader mail than anything I’ve written in a long time.

Just as abortion has become a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, the treatment of abortion in Knocked Up seems to be emerging as a litmus test for the politics of its viewers. At the National Review Web site, Kathryn Jean Lopez writes approvingly that “in Knocked Up abortion is presented as an option whose time has come and gone,” while lefty blogger Ezra Klein seesKnocked Up as “pro-choice in the most literal sense of the term.”

The public conversation about abortion is such a notoriously sticky wicket, so tangled up with both partisan politics and our most personal convictions about nature, religion, and freedom, that when a Slate editor first asked if I’d like to re-address the issue, I thought, Nah, screw it. Why open up that can of worms? But then I recognized in that response the very mealy-mouthedness that had disappointed me in director Judd Apatow’s treatment of the subject. So, screw screwing it. Let’s pursue the topic of abortion as it exists, or doesn’t, in Knocked Up.

Because I didn’t want to turn my review of this delightful comedy into a referendum on Roe v. Wade, I mentioned only one of the two moments in the film that address abortion: the scene in which the hero’s stoner roommate wonders whether the couple has considered a “shmashmortion.” I didn’t discuss a brief scene in which Alison’s mother brings up the subject at lunch (though if memory serves, the mother never uses the word, either—instead, she euphemizes about “taking care of” the situation). Ross Douthat, an editor for the Atlanticwho also maintains a blog on the Atlantic Web site, faults me for that omission and observes that in the scene, the mother character is explicitly positioned as a moral monster, a “hissable villain.” Alison’s reason for keeping the child, he writes, is “very clear, in the context of the film’s script”: She pursues the pregnancy because “an abortion is a really horrible thing to do.”

Douthat is right that the lunch scene discredits the mother’s moral standing. When the mother (Joanna Kerns, who played the mother on TV’s Growing Pains) goes on to tell Alison the story of an acquaintance who had an abortion and later went on to have a “real baby,” the subtext is clear: Here is a woman who doesn’t value human life. Why should we care about her opinion?

The question is, from whose point of view is it that abortion is “a really horrible thing to do”? Apatow’s? We have no idea from the film what the filmmaker’s personal abortion politics are—I’d imagine that he votes pro-choice, whatever his reservations as an individual—but for the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t matter. Apatow’s reticence on the subject seems to spring less from personal conviction than from the fear of offending his audience’s sensibilities. This kind of Trojan horse moralism is maddeningly common in pop-culture representations of abortion, which seem muzzled, invisibly policed, by either the pro-life lobby or the fear of it.

It wasn’t always thus, of course—Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dirty Dancing were just two of the ‘80s coming-of-age stories that used a character’s abortion as an important plot point without fainting in horror at the notion. These days—and it’s hard not to track “these days” in conjunction with the movement for a federal abortion ban—a fictional heroine has two choices, if she wants to maintain the audience’s goodwill: carry the baby to term or have a convenient miscarriage. The only recent exception I can think of is Six Feet Under’s Claire (Lauren Ambrose), who visits an abortion clinic in Season 3—but not without being visited in the next episode by a dream of her baby as an angel being cared for by dead relatives in heaven. Even Citizen Ruth, Alexander Payne’s superb 1996 comedy about the absurdity of the abortion debate (in which both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” groups are sent up with wicked precision), ends with Laura Dern’s paint-sniffing, knocked-up Ruth miscarrying the very morning she’s scheduled to abort. A decade later, we’re allowed to debate the procedure as an abstract policy issue, hand-wringing all the while about “safe, legal, and rare,” but God forbid that anyone on television or the movies has one, talks about having one, or (apparently most reprehensible of all) advises anyone to have one.

As the mother of a 1-year-old daughter, I think I can say that if she turned up pregnant in her early 20s under exactly Alison’s circumstances—single, barely acquainted with the father, financially dependent (she lives with her married sister), weeping miserably at her first sonogram—I would encourage her to at least consider the possibility of abortion, without in any way impugning the “realness” of the child should she decide to keep it. In that same hypothetical conversation (which I hope to forestall by lecturing her about birth control till she squirms), I would certainly tell my beloved girl that, like most of my close female friends (and like Barbara Ehrenreich–see her remarkable 2004 Times op-ed on this subject), I had an abortion myself around that age, and while it was far from the high point of the decade, it’s a decision I look back on now with neither anguish nor regret. (Any readers planning to send me hate mail can direct their letters to the Supreme Court, which, touchingly, still insists on paper correspondence.)

That same Atlantic blog post concludes with the opinion that the movie is “almost naively pro-life”—that Alison decides to keep her baby because “killing it” would be “obviously and terribly wrong,” and Alison, bless her heart, is not a “bad person” who would do such a thing. The 77 percent of Americans who support abortion rights—and the 40 percent or more of American women who have exercised that right—can be excused for wondering where that supposedly obvious moral consensus is coming from. Roe v. Wade may be in perpetual danger of erosion, but look on the bright side: We still have more choices than most pregnant women in the movies.