From Rights to Beauty: The Protection of Unborn Children in Contemporary Cinema
For a long while, proponents of the right to life from the moment of conception have used legal arguments such as “Roe v. Wade is wrong because it is for the states to decide the question of abortion,” or “Planned Parenthood v. Casey is wrong because the mystery passage has no foundation in the Constitution of the United States,” or “the right to life is implicitly protected by the 14th amendment,” or “autonomy rights of the mother cannot trump the life of an unborn person.” Whether this type of argumentation is conducive to the actual flourishing of the right to life and whether that kind of reasoning is effective in practice are questions open to discussion. In this column, I would like to underline instead the conduciveness and effectiveness of a different line of argument: the one that uses culture—and in particular, movies—in order to promote the flourishing of the right to life of the unborn. This is a more specific version of a more general idea expressed by Tim Bradley and Hailey Vrdolyak in an essay for The Observer on October 14, 2015: “more important than law, though, is culture.”
I will use for the purposes of my reflection the award-winning film Juno (2007), which I consider the best example of cinema at the service of the pro-life movement. I note in the first place that it seems not to have been the intention of the director of the movie or the writer of the script to produce or write a pro-life film; that the main pro-life character is performed with natural dexterity by an actress (Ellen Page) who describes herself as a “pro-choice feminist,” according to Wikipedia; and that the script was written by a former stripper by the name of Diablo. (This is not a joke.)
I note all this to stress that the cinematic defense of the unborn can happen—and seems to have happened in the case of Juno—without the intention or even the knowledge of producers, writers, or actors. This is almost a miracle and, certainly, a mystery; a mystery somehow related to the amazing (and at times confusing) circumstance that some unintended pro-life films (of which Juno is an example, but Eastern Promises or Knocked Up are better ones still) tell a story that mixes sound ideas in a partly or mainly immoral bowl.
The key scene in Juno starts with Juno, a pregnant 16-year-old junior in high school, calling an abortion clinic and casually explaining on a hamburger-phone that she wants to procure a hasty abortion. She goes to the clinic, where there is an Asian girl protesting at the gates of the clinic and shouting, “All babies have a right to be born! All babies have a right to be born!” Juno greets the girl, Su-Chin, and they strike up a short conversation. Basically, it seems quite clear that Juno could not care less. In fact, she probably thinks Su-Chin is a simpleton and that what she is shouting about is sheer fundamentalism.
Juno continues walking toward the door of the abortion clinic and then Su-Chin completely changes her line of argument and says, “Juno, do you know that the baby has nails?” The pregnant teenager is shocked. She is perhaps two months into the pregnancy and Su-Chin’s remark affects her profoundly. While Juno is waiting at the abortion clinic, those words resonate with her, and she decides not to abort but rather to carry on and give the baby up for adoption. I think this outcome, however fictional, is interesting when we think of pro-life strategy.
Let us briefly reflect on Su-Chin’s change of discourse: from a rights-based to a nails-based approach, so to speak. The effect that this change has on Juno is noteworthy. Regardless of how old she is, she is above all someone of our age and therefore someone who privileges sensorial experience over the rational; feelings over argumentation. Why does Juno decide not to abort as a result of her friend’s reference to a body part? Maybe because some women like to paint their nails, and that action perhaps has some connection to beauty. What is clear is that the more abstract, initial strategy of the activist has zero effect on Juno, while the more sentimental line works. Intuition prevails over reasoning; aesthetic experience over justice.
The pro-life strategy implicit in Juno is neither religious nor philosophical. Likewise, it cannot be tagged as conservative. Unlike in other releases such as the impeccable Bella—where it seems quite clear that the production was made with a pro-life point in mind—in Juno you can sense a certain lightness that even bothers your average “fundamentalist pro-lifer;” there is a disconcerting tone throughout that leads you to receive what is coming—Juno’s decision to give her baby up for adoption—without foreseeing that it is coming. It is like those wonderful nurses who administer a vaccine without you even noticing it is happening.
I believe too that Juno is more successful than its pro-choice counterparts such as the recent Obvious Child, where a similar abortion clinic scene actually ends up in an abortion. Other than technical considerations—Juno is artistically superior—I would like to argue that the pro-life film carries with it the advantage of conveying a truthful message, while the other one carries the burden of suggesting something immoral—so much so that even in the subtly pro-choice Obvious Child, the main character cries when the abortion is being performed on her. (The subtlety is such that I had to see the scene a couple of times to confirm that those tears were actually there.)
David Brooks recently wrote in The New York Times that “a person who has appreciated physical grace may have a finer sense of how to move with graciousness through the tribulations of life.” The path of movies is one of many expressions of the peculiar reality of vicarious experience. Expressions of culture, more generally, constitute an apt avenue for beauty to strike. And when beauty strikes, good things are more likely to happen. Juno’s story—and Juno the movie—is an optimistic reminder of this perennial truth.
Santiago Legarre, Visiting Professor of Law, is teaching a lively mini-course titled Law and Morality at the Notre Dame Law School. This article was the basis for a talk he gave at the Law School on January 27, 2016, cosponsored by Jus Vitae and the Irish Rover.