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In the movie Knocked Up, blond-and-beautiful television producer Alison is tapped for her on-air dream job, but while celebrating she gets pregnant during a one-night stand. She decides not only to keep the baby but also to build a relationship with the father.
In Bella, a soccer star's life is upended when he kills a young girl in a traffic accident. Realizing a new reverence for life, he convinces a friend to carry her unplanned pregnancy to term.
In Noelle, a priest whose job is to shut down ailing parishes encourages an unmarried woman to keep her baby, the fruit of a liaison with the arrogant heir of a wealthy family.
In the comedy Juno, the title character, a pregnant teenager, decides to carry to term and place her child for adoption-because a pro-life teen picketing the abortion clinic where Juno had gone to terminate her pregnancy points out that Juno's baby already has fingernails. The film is nominated for a Golden Globe Award.
Has Hollywood tilted off its reliably pro-abortion axis? With the 2007 debut of these films, has the American abortion debate finally reached a tipping point, where more art now imitates pro-life?
Yes, says Steve McEveety, producer of Braveheart and executive producer of Bella and The Passion of the Christ. He believes moviegoers will see "a lot more films" with an underlying reverence for the unborn "and a lot more pro-life people coming into the film industry based on pure logic."
McEveety is among those working in Hollywood who say a subtle cultural shift, one that also reaches into television, is underway. Some peg the change to ultrasound technology, others to a changing of the guard among filmmakers. But all agree that Hollywood has awakened to this fact: Abortion is not only unarguably un-sexy, but also un-heroic. And without sex and heroes, Hollywood would have few bankable stories to tell.
The New York Times in June raised an alarm about the pro-life current threading through recent hit films. In a story headlined, "On Abortion, Hollywood is No-Choice," writer Mireya Navarro maintained that since data from federal surveys show that nearly two-thirds of unwanted pregnancies end in abortion, then Hollywood's rash of films showing unexpectedly pregnant women keeping their babies is a sign the movie industry is going out of its way to sidestep real life.
In the 2007 hit indie film Waitress, for example, the lead character Jenna (Keri Russell) is about to leave her abusive husband when she learns she is pregnant. Jenna is "more likely to ponder selling the baby than to consider having" an abortion, Navarro pointed out. In Knocked Up, television producer Alison "is torn over whether to keep the man, not the baby," and the closest anyone comes to uttering the A-word is to say, "it rhymes with 'smashtortion.'"
But are such films avoiding reality?
No, said screenwriter and Biola University film professor Michael Gonzales. Despite attempts by Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion groups to depict abortion as no more uncommon or morally fraught than having a tooth pulled, filmmakers realize that even after 35 years of legality, abortion has not shed its "ick" factor.
"To make a movie on abortion is just not sexy," Gonzales said. "To hear Meg Ryan, for example, say at a party, 'Oh, I really want to do this abortion movie'-people would just kind of shriek inside. They kind of shudder."
Further, from a dramatic standpoint, abortion not only makes it difficult to create a sympathetic character; it also ends the story. "You might deal with the aftermath, the psychological trauma the character has to go through," Gonzales said, "but that's a story nobody wants to hear."
Paradoxically, Hollywood-with its stock in trade the kind of sex that leads to unplanned pregnancy-may be subtly turning away from the easy fix. Instead, in movies like Knocked Up, twentysomething, party-animal anti-heroes like Ben (Seth Rogen) are stepping up to meet their responsibilities as new parents. And though Knocked Up is a coarse, profanity-filled film, it may affect its Gen-X and Millennial target audience in ways that reach beyond cheap laughs.
"Stories work in society by putting in front of us better than the real-ideal choices that shame us about the choices we really make," said screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, chairman of Act One, a group that trains Christians for the film industry. "Audiences bond to the heroic choices made by the main character."
That seems to be the case with Juno, the film in which a spunky teen (Golden Globe nominee Ellen Page) changes her mind about abortion after hearing about her baby's fingernails. Inside the clinic, as Juno fills out the necessary forms, she suddenly becomes conscious of all the women waiting with her-nervously tapping their nails, clicking their nails, biting their nails. As the disparate sounds gel into a kind of heartbeat, Juno suddenly realizes her fetus is a human being.
When she bursts out of the clinic, a teen pro-life picketer outside cries, "God appreciates your miracle!" Astonishingly, the pivotal, life-affirming moment passes without a flicker of condescension.
"Even if what Juno is showing is 'unrealistic' according to The New York Times," said Nicolosi, "the movie is saying the character's choice is heroic, and audiences are responding by saying, yes, it is heroic. And if you're a 16-year-old girl watching the movie, it shows you a different 'choice.'"
Even liberal critics are heaping kudos on the film. KPBS called Juno "a gift every film lover should want this holiday season." The Los Angeles Times dubbed it "poignant and unexpected." Even Rolling Stone praised the movie for taking "the girl view by letting teenage Juno . . . bypass a hasty abortion in favor of having the baby."
Steve McEveety half-jokes that Hollywood's slow shift toward life is all Quentin Tarantino's fault.
In Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Tarantino's 2004 installment in a two-part bloodbath, two female assassins wind up stalking each other. "There's this scene where one of the hit women just found out she's pregnant," McEveety said. "The other hit woman . . . decides not to kill her because she would be killing two people. Nobody got it except for the young kids who saw the film. That's the next generation of filmmakers."
Those would-be filmmakers-and many already making movies-are influenced heavily by ultrasound technology, said McEveety, a Roman Catholic who is very vocal about his own pro-life views: "You can go on the internet now and find video of a 24-day-old baby and see the heart beating. Technology is catching up to the lies. You can't dispute the images."
Nicolosi agrees. "These filmmakers are people who grew up with ultrasound pictures on the refrigerator," she said. "And they're saying, you know what? I've got eyes to see. Don't try to tell me that's not a baby."
At a Feminists for Life event at UCLA, keynote speaker and actress Patricia Heaton asked the crowd of about 100 how many were pro-life and how many were pro-choice. A show of hands revealed a mixed group, but heavy on pro-life views. Heaton then asked a pro-life member of the audience to explain why she held that view.
"I don't want to judge my parents because they did what was right for them," said one young woman. "But I've grown up knowing that they aborted two of my siblings. I've grown up my whole life wondering if they were glad they kept me."
Like that young woman, many of today's filmmakers grew up ravaged both by the divorce culture and the promises of the sexual revolution, Nicolosi said: "The pro-life themes in their films aren't political statements-they're cultural statements. Gen-X and Millennial filmmakers understand that an abortion most often means mom just didn't want to be inconvenienced, in the same way she just didn't want to stay married to dad."
It's possible to argue that Hollywood's startling new egalitarianism on abortion started on the small screen then leapt to the large. While some shows, like Law & Order, have in recent years painted pro-life activists as murderous vigilantes, others have been more fair. On CSI Miami in October 2002, for example, lead character Horatio Caine (David Caruso) watches a technician remove an early-term fetus from its mother's womb following a car crash: "Not just skin cells, is it?" Caine says.
HBO's Six Feet Under in a July 2003 episode had main character Claire terminating her pregnancy at a local abortion clinic. Producers of the episode portrayed the clinic as a sterile, unfriendly place, running women through like cattle at a slaughterhouse. Still, Claire moved through the scenes emotionally detached. After the procedure, a friend drove her home to recover and that was that. But a later episode mirrored real life: Though Claire, like many women, experienced mainly relief in the immediate wake of her abortion, a breakdown followed. Asked to babysit her infant niece, she becomes ill. Then she has a dream in which she meets her aborted child in heaven.
House dealt with abortion twice in 2007. At first the rude, unsentimental, yet somehow lovable Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) sticks to his pro-abortion guns. In a Jan. 20 episode, House advises a rape victim to "terminate" the resulting pregnancy.
"Abortion is murder!" the young woman objects.
"True, it's a life," he replies: "And you should end it."
Later in the conversation, the woman says of abortion, "It's murder-I'm against it . . . You for it?"
"Not as a general rule," he says, referring to murder.
She presses him, "Just for unborn children?"
"Yes," he says.
Later, House and the woman discuss God. (She believes in Him; House doesn't.) The episode is remarkable because, though House is always condescending, the scriptwriters allow the woman to state her faith-based, pro-life case without making her seem silly or blindly hyper-religious. Inexplicably, though, the woman has the abortion.
"House does not shrink from controversy," said Robert Knight, director of the Virginia-based Culture and Media Institute. "And the most controversial thing you can do on TV is challenge political correctness on social issues."
An April 3, 2007, installment of House went further. This time, Dr. House and his team treat Emma, a photographer about 19 weeks pregnant with a life-threatening heart condition. House's basic message: The "fetus" is threatening your life. Abort or die. But Emma refuses to abort and demands that House save them both.
House's boss, physician Lisa Cuddy, refuses to back House's recommendation to terminate. That sends the medical team, now led by Cuddy, in search of new treatment. Later, when House agrees to participate in exploratory in utero surgery, the hand of the "fetus" emerges from the incision and briefly grasps House's finger. He freezes in astonishment and-in something wholly alien to his grizzled character-rapt wonder.
"It was some of the most shocking footage on abortion ever seen on TV," Knight said of the reenactment of the controversial 1999 photo in which a 21-week-old baby seems to reach from his mother's womb during prenatal surgery and grasp the surgeon's hand.
"House was stunned," Knight said. And, in a stunningly un-Hollywood development, House thereafter refers to the "fetus" as a "baby."
Emma thanks House after he saves mother and child. Thank Dr. Cuddy, he replies. He would have killed the baby to save the mother. And so House remains House: Prickly, pragmatic-and pro-choice.
It isn't as though he or any of Hollywood's cast of more open-minded characters seems ready to picket Planned Parenthood. And pro-abortion messages still crop up in film and television. But filmmakers today seem less willing to blindly endorse the pro-abortion agenda typified by 1999's Oscar-winner The Cider House Rules, in which the abortionist Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) is styled as a woman-saving hero.
The question is, is the new pro-life ethic emerging in film and television here to stay? With ultrasound and the internet spreading truth about what's inside the womb, Steve McEveety says the answer is yes: "And I blame it all on Quentin Tarantino."
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