When Hollywood dispatches its most important people to enlighten us on a most important subject, one can only pray for a power failure. But we didn't get one when, last October, HBO aired If These Walls Could Talk, its much-touted movie about abortion. If These Walls Could Talk follows the lives of three pregnant women during 1952, 1974, and 1996, as each in turn decides whether or not to abort her child. Oh, and they all happen to have lived in the same house over the years, which is where the walls come in, and are played by no less than Demi Moore, Sissy Spacek, and Cher (who also directed the film, with Nancy Savoca).
Cher's position on abortion, you'll recall, is that it is not only a positive good but indeed “a family tradition”—of a very odd sort, presumably, since practicing it would preclude passing it on. In Cher's tale the first and third mothers—one widowed and pregnant by her dead husband's brother, the other single and pregnant by a married man—opt for abortions, and the second mother, who is married, decides to keep her baby. The decisions to abort are given elaborate justification. “I can't have this baby!” Demi Moore says frantically over and over again, as she ponders, panics, and paces all over the house. “I really need to get this done!” The other mother who aborts also does not take her decision lightly, and even goes to the trouble of asking the clinic nurse if her baby can feel any pain during the abortion. “Look, I know that's what the people outside are saying,” she is told, “and I've asked the same question to people I trust in the medical profession, and they say that it's not true. There is no pain involved . . . none at all.” These are not hasty women, you see. These are women who get all the facts before making informed choices.
While the decisions to abort are arrived at after much deliberation and pacing, the decision to keep the baby is left very mysterious. The Sissy Spacek character never advances any reasons for doing so. It's just her “choice,” one out of many options a mother could exercise, and it happens this time to be the one she rather arbitrarily makes. Here one can certainly sympathize with Cher's dilemma. She recognizes that she can't have everyone aborting, and so she makes a valiant effort to include at least one mother who keeps her child. But she can't possibly imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing. As a result this is the boring third of the movie, since keeping babies can only be for boring homemakers. Feminism has left Sissy Spacek behind, and because she does not lead the kind of exciting life the other women lead, in forbidden trysts with married men and late husband's brothers, this is all the poor thing has.
A pro-life movie is relatively simple to make; the basic facts of the procedure, if you can bring yourself to see them, speak for themselves. This is why the pro-choice crowd has long objected to film as an unfair medium to explore the issue, since it is far too direct for their more nuanced purposes. Yet if you have ever had the opportunity to witness any of their reactions to a pro-life film (or more recently, to the depiction of partial-birth abortion on the House floor)-“disgusting! too gruesome! too bloody! such extreme scare tactics! I hear they show dead babies and not fetuses! It's so sad that they'll go to such lengths!”—you would have been extremely heartened by their howls, for each reveals something more wonderful about human nature than the next. When most people are given the chance to see what actually goes on in an abortion, they immediately recognize its horrible nature. The debate is really between those who want to blame the procedure for that horror, and those who prefer to blame the messenger for bringing attention to what the procedure is.
Since so much of the pro-choice position depends on deception—about when life begins, about when this “tissue mass” feels pain, about the experience of women during and after having abortions, and most crucially about the details of the abortion itself—one is curious how a two-hour movie on abortion could possibly be made without giving it all away, particularly when it promised “graphic content and mature subject matter which may be upsetting to some individuals.” Would Cher actually show an abortion? And if so, how could she possibly manage a pro-abortion spin on it?
Well, it can apparently be done. First our director must solve the problem of letting pro-lifers speak on-screen without risking that they might say something that could make a viewer sympathetic. It's no easy task, one must admit, simply because of the sheer screen-time pro-lifers must occupy in a movie about abortion, but if you are careful to film only the kind of pro-lifers who seldom talk about abortion, but are instead prone to evil outbursts on other subjects, these outbursts can then reveal for us who they all “really are.” Thus do Cher's pro-lifers scream things like, “If you'd arrest all the fags and lesbians this would all be over, man!” or simply, “You're heading straight to hell!” We must infer that these people are pro-life from their presence at the rally, since the relationship between their eruptions and abortion is left so unclear. “God forgive us women for taking roles that aren't ours to take,” they incoherently clamor. “Let him break the curse of independence in women's hearts!”
As if it were not sufficient to drive home that pro-lifers are stupid, homophobic, and sexist to boot, we must also understand that they are psychotic. The pro-lifers portrayed in this movie are so deranged, so creepy, that even I ended up gripping my couch tightly whenever one would appear on screen. All are pale and seem to be in some kind of trance—whether induced by chemicals or hypnosis we do not learn—a trance characterized by a wide, vacant expression in the eyes, and an eerie fixed Cheshire grin at the lips. Even their tone of voice is scary: detached valium sing-songy with an occasional devilish twist, like a demented alien trying to lure you to his lair but doing a very poor job of it.
“We can help you keeeeeep your baaaaby,” one protester chirrups to our heroine as another blocks her path to the clinic. To illustrate what is meant by this, the raving protester grips her baby tightly to her chest and begins to stroke him fanatically. But in case you have trouble translating devilish expressions and baby-fetishizing into the proper message, that these women are lying and trying to trick you, we later learn from the beautiful and hip clinic escorts that the whole demonstration was all a ploy, that even the baby used in the demonstration was just a prop-“wasn't even that woman's baby to begin with!” And if by now you are still missing the point, another pretty nurse instructs helpfully, “Those people are craaaaazy.”
The only normal pro-lifer in this movie is the best friend of “Christine,” our third and last mother-to-be (or not be, as the case may be). Luckily, salvation for Christine's pro-life friend is within grasp; since she is, after all, of sound mind, she soon enough comes to see the error of her naughty pro-life ways. Before she evolved she had told a dismayed Christine, “If you get this abortion I swear you are on your own,” but eventually chastened and seeing the darkness of intolerance, will from that point forward support Christine in whatever decision she makes. The exchange at this pivotal moment is very wrenching and dramatic for all concerned, as Christine's pro-life friend is a bit of a hard sell: when Christine pleads with her friend, “Oh, would you just throw away your morals for once?” our pro-lifer eagerly rebounds, “That's cool!” So much for her morals. On, then, to the clinic.
Significantly, in neither abortion, whether legal or illegal, do we see any “tissue mass” removed. The camera is always careful to remain steadily on the woman, fixed on her brave expression as her “choice” unfurls about her (and below her too, presumably, though we wouldn't know it). Still Demi Moore's 1952 abortion is horrid and almost unbearable to watch: the money-hungry abortionist is cold and cruel, and after counting the cash commands her to “lie down! lie down!” on the kitchen table. Demi's character “Claire” screams and writhes in excruciating pain, but can't get away from him because “The more you move, the more it's going to hurt, so don't move!” There is blood everywhere, and Demi's character eventually bleeds to death.
Luckily, as the abortion which takes place in 1996 will later make clear, everything unpleasant here is simply attributable to the illegality of the procedure. Well! For a moment there it almost looked as though there might be something disturbing going on in an abortion. But no—as we soon learn, abortions which take place in the nineties aren't so much abortions as they are sacraments. Cher as “Doctor Dorothy Thompson” flies into her clinic twice a week, wears a bulletproof vest, and is described by her all-female staff as generally “a tough lady” all around. On the operating table our now gratefully horizontal heroine Christine, eyes brimming with tears, manages nonetheless to choke out a long stream of wonderment directed at her redeemer. “With all you have to deal with, why do you still do this?”
Get with it, Christine. C'mon—you really mean to say you haven't figured it out yet? Why, Cher is a feminist abortionist, of course, dodging bullets and plowing through barricades to fight for her noble calling. For unlike the male abortionist, who was bad, Cher is good. She isn't just making a living, no sir. She is here because she “doesn't want to see those days come again.” Those dreary days when all was not so sweet and disinfected at the abortion table, and when women weren't allowed to bond closely with their abortionists and engage them in meaningful pre-abortion dialogue.
Meanwhile, out at the loony bin, all is not so serene. The camera lurches once more to the restless protesters, whose pitch and irrelevance is increasing at a rapid clip. One unhinged priest is screaming, to loud cheers, about the need for mind control: “Who will controoooool the miiiinds of our children for the next one huuuuundred years? That is the struggle that is before us today, people!”
Cut back to the operating room, where now the actual abortion is taking place. Cher benevolently smiles down on the mother stretched out before her, stooping fondly and clucking at her splayed legs how it is all “so normal, perfectly normal.” She is so reassuring, so beatifically smiling, in fact, that we can only call this portrayal positively Mary-like. Only here the end product is the Immaculate Abortion, with nary a drop of blood. Nary a drop, that is, until one of the unstable pro-lifers bursts on this idyllic scene and spoils all the fun by shooting up everyone.
Since the strongest argument for abortion If These Walls Could Talk advances is that pro-lifers are murderous and evil, are we to draw from this that for pro-lifers to gain favor they must prove that in fact they are soft and cuddly? Succeeding in conducting the debate as far away as possible from the actual grounds in dispute has understandably proven a great windfall for the pro-choice movement, but why must we cooperate when they try so desperately to change the subject? Perhaps it is only natural that the initial instinct of pro-lifers would be to defend themselves and immediately join the we're-not-all-that-bad-so-let's-compromise club, but to the extent this simply hasn't worked, perhaps it's time to start the debate over and on our terms this time.
In The New Our Bodies, Ourselves: Updated and Expanded for the ‘90's, there appears a most interesting diagram of a vacuum-suction abortion, one not unlike the picture of abortion portrayed in If These Walls Could Talk. It is a very complete diagram we find on page 357, with three different pictures revealing all of the mystical interior of a woman. The uterus and amniotic sac are drawn in very detailed fashion, and then we move on to the speculum, the vacurette, and observe exactly where and how a vacuum so brandished goes about its business in there, where precisely it attaches to a vacuum curettage unit, and so on. Only, get this, the uterus is completely empty. There is nothing in there. Not even an undifferentiated mass or representational cloud—just entirely empty. So again we find the Immaculate Abortion, the abortion without anything to abort. One is only left to wonder why such a woman would need an abortion, when she is not pregnant in the first place.
This is the crux of the pro-choice deception, when and how a life begins, and it is because everything depends on it that our arbiters of the status quo—from the New York Times to the Hollywood elite to the Women's Health Collective that publishes Our Bodies, Ourselves—will give anything to avoid this question. Even our most highly regarded legal minds hope to get away with running from it. Just like Justice Blackmun in Roe v. Wade, Ronald Dworkin prefers to relegate the question of when life begins to a category where it may be avoided. As his view is expressed in (the rather misleadingly titled) Life's Dominion, “Once again it would be wise, therefore, to set aside the question of whether a fetus is a person, not because that question is unanswerable or metaphysical . . . but because it is too ambiguous to be helpful.”
One might naively have thought just the opposite: that because of the importance of what is riding on this question, any ambiguity would be seen as reason to explore the matter further, not abandon it altogether. Moreover, if one insists on giving up, it would seem natural then at least to err on the side of caution, on the side of life. It is a strange form of arrogance that permits a Dworkin to cleanse himself of the inconvenience of considering such a question while making a decision that necessarily implicates it. But in this he is typical, no different from a Demi Moore or a Cher (except, to be sure, that Cher gets to cast herself as dying for our sins in the finale, while Dworkin merely dies for the positivists).
If These Walls Could Talk is a very helpful and important film for the pro-life movement, more helpful even than a hundred specious arguments delivered to us by Ronald Dworkin. By showing us so plainly and in such furiously caricatured form what pro-choicers wish we wouldn't talk about, it teaches us what we must.
Wendy D. Shalit is a senior at Williams College.