2016-06-30
Barbara Nicolosi is the director of Act One: Writing for Hollywood, a training program for Christian screenwriters. This excerpt reprinted from Back to the Drawing Board: The Future of the Pro-Life Movement with permission of St. Augustine's Press.

There is no arena of American society that has been more consistently and squarely pro-choice than the entertainment industry. Everybody with any real power in movies and television is either hysterically pro-choice, or else indignantly pro-choice, or else so completely engulfed in the abortion mentality that questioning it strikes them as annoyingly bizarre, like questioning the morality of dental floss or Belgian waffles. But thirty years into this total domination of the culture of entertainment, polls continue to show the American public ambivalent about abortion. And strangely, despite the passionate consensus about the glory of the pro-choice cause among entertainment artists and executives, there has not been the full-scale onslaught on this issue that we have seen addressed to other areas of social policy like racism or anti-Semitism, as in the hundreds of Holocaust films. Truly, never have so many powerful people done so little to make an impact on an issue about which they feel so desperately. The question is, "Why?" For answers, we will consider some of the industry's most recent attempts to address abortion rights in cinema and on television. What do these projects have to say to us? Have there been any kind of similar pro-life forays on the screen? Should there be?
..... One of the weirdest aspects of the abortion movies is their attempt to recast the role of the movie hero into the radical providers and protectors of abortion rights. It's a hard sell because traditionally in movies, heroes are those who do the right thing, not those who do a regrettable thing. Universally, the pro-choice hero characters are presented as ambivalent about the difficult choice involved in having an abortion, and their very heroism is couched in their ability to swallow their ambivalence to help women in need. In The Cider House Rules, Dr. Larch cannot do what he does without a daily dose of mind-numbing ether. We catch Cher's abortionist in If These Walls Could Talk in a private tearful moment, before she rolls up her sleeves and exchanges her bulletproof vest for a white coat and suction hose. She is challenged by pregnant Chris with the question, "Why do you still do this?" With painful earnestness, Dr. Thompson expresses the driving force behind her career choice as, "When a woman comes to me and says she doesn't know what she would have done without my help, I know I am doing the right thing." In The Cider House Rules, the climactic moment for the main character, gentle young Homer, comes when he sets aside his own pro-life instincts to perform an abortion. He is a hero, the film suggests, because he doesn't let his conscience stop him from doing the right thing. How weird is that vision of conscience and human moral choices?
Also presented as heroic are the pregnant women who push ahead, trying to make their best choice, even if it causes them anguish. Interestingly, the only ones who don't show any ambivalence about abortion are the post-abortive women. The pro-choice dogma here is that all of a woman's angst comes before the procedure. Once the fetus is terminated, however, so are the doubts and struggles. As one post-abortive woman shrugs in If These Walls Could Talk, "You know, people told me I would feel depressed and guilty. But, honestly, all I felt was relief." We know the filmmakers are being dishonest here because everywhere in America, churches and counselors, family and friends are finding themselves called on to help women pick up the pieces after their abortions. I know. I was there one long evening with a suicidal college junior who had aborted her four-and-a-half-month fetus that day. She had been enthusiastically escorted to the clinic by volunteers from the campus women's center, and then dropped off summarily afterward back at the dorm. The girl was crying at that point and one of the women's center volunteers proposed that she get drunk and then forget about it. I'll never forget her lying in a heap on the floor of her dorm room, smelling of alcohol and pleading with me to tell her that her baby hadn't felt any pain. This is a strong case for us because it is all about the women. We need to present much more clearly and consistently that the real struggle with abortion comes afterward for most women. The argument is ours to make that abortion haunts women much more because of their own nature than because they have been trained by social convention. Overall the movies reveal that pro-choice America cannot evade its own ambivalence. They know that championing abortion feels icky. They are trying to convince themselves that the abolitionists and suffragettes and social reformers must have felt icky too, but deep down inside, they sense that the opposite is true. Certainty about moral convictions is very often the only consolation for long-suffering social heroes. This ambivalence explains why abortion is not ubiquitous in the movies. They'll say the issue is too touchy to be entertaining, but so is racism and anti-Semitism, and the industry doesn't shy away from these. We need to keep the focus on the source of ambivalence here. What is it that makes abortion such a hard choice for women? Why should it be "safe and rare"? Should We Make Pro-life Movies?

The sad fact is that in thirty years, there hasn't been a single mainstream feature film that has articulated what we believe about abortion. The pro-life movement has not responded in the popular culture to the powerful popularization of the abortion mentality that comes through weekly on Law and Order, or ER, or just about any primetime drama except Touched by an Angel. Our whole focus in this issue has been legal and political, and like Aesop's fox staring at the grapes, popular culture has proved too difficult a battlefield for us, so we have branded it as beneath our efforts. In so doing, we have surrendered the most pervasive and powerful pulpit from which to make our case. We need to reverse this defeatist trend, but we have to know what we are doing before we launch into the business of crafting visual parables to support our point of view. I read a script not long ago from a group of Christians who told me it was a "pro-life Cider House Rules." I winced at this moniker, not because of the pro-life part, but because The Cider House Rules was basically a tedious, unentertaining, propaganda film. Sure enough, their script equaled that of The Cider House Rules and was basically tedious, unentertaining propaganda. Why would we want to do that? One of the writers challenged me: "It isn't propaganda if it's true." He was wrong. Propaganda is anything that manipulates emotions to induce a certain kind of behavior. By definition, propaganda is a violation of human freedom. We don't get to do that. Movies are a bad forum for making precise legal or moral arguments the way the parables would be bad as a source from which to derive principles of Canon Law. The Holocaust and racism films work insofar as they are hero accounts, not treatises on public policy. The Cider House Rules would have been a more interesting and honest film if Homer had held to his pro-life instincts even when a supremely difficult case was brought before him. But because it was abortion propaganda ("a movie about abortion"), Homer simply abandoned his pro-life notions in a way that felt artificial, and ultimately made the viewer feel trapped and even annoyed. The film never deals with what Homer saw in the bucket. It just presumes that viewers will see the sense in abortion for a poor girl raped by her father. My sense of pro-choice films is that they principally serve to delight and affirm pro-choice America. It might be nice to be able to reward some of our pro-life heroes up there on the big screen, but chances are, if we had that power, we would also succumb to the sinful urge to vilify and caricature our opponents. And we would be twice as culpable because we have been on the other side. A Long-Term Strategy

This doesn't mean that we can abandon popular entertainment. To say that we should not produce propaganda films is not to discourage us from making art that reflects the truth about abortion. Parables are a powerful means of helping people grow. It's just a matter of knowing what makes a good parable and maximizing its potential. Movies don't sell arguments; they sell the ramifications of arguments, or worldviews. Hollywood simply doesn't need to make a lot of abortion movies because the abortion worldview is a given there and has also largely been adopted by the viewing public. It is the worldview of primetime sit-coms and romantic comedies which, in the end, are much more insidious than all the abortion films put together. The worldview of the most successful shows, like Friends and Sex in the City and Will and Grace, is one in which sex is pure recreation and without any moral component. It includes the conviction that looks and possessions make life worthwhile. It excludes any moral compass other than one's own needs. It holds that the worst thing that can happen to a human being is suffering, and that a life without limits is the goal. A society with this worldview will not tolerate legislation against abortion. Challenging this worldview will require some rethinking on our part. In particular, we must rethink the importance of the arts in keeping a society whole and good. The absence of the pro-life crowd indeed, the absence of many people who love God and virtue--from the entertainment arena for the last fifty years has been devastating to society. We need a new generation of deeply committed, skilled artists who can offer a richer (and truer) view of human life than what is now on the screen.
And yes, critical to those efforts will be movie-making and images showing the advantages of embracing the Gospel of Life. We need to tell stories, including stories about the cost of abortion to American women and their families. We need visual stories that confirm in viewers that no matter how wounded it gets, or how small it is, a human being is special in all of creation because it is a vessel of love. Love is poured in, and love spills out on those around it; human value resides secure in this distinct potential. Abortion movies do not fail as entertainment because of bad production, flawed writing, incompetent directing, or uneven performances. They fail because you can't sell a lie. There will never be a pro-choice To Kill a Mockingbird, because Mockingbird speaks the truth about racism. Pro-life filmmakers have the truth on their side. They just need to come up with parables that bring that truth to light.

We have a long road ahead. We must be willing to plant seeds that will be tended by future generations and will bear fruit in the decades, and maybe centuries, to come. I once visited a cathedral in Orvieto, Italy, that took 700 years to build. Our tour guide shook his head with wonder, saying, "The architect who started the project knew he would never see its end. He knew his son wouldn't even see its end." Nowadays, we have no concept of beginning a venture that has a resolution hundreds of years in the future. It requires a tremendous spirit of hope.

more from beliefnet and our partners