Monday, April 27, 2009

Mid-Century Abortion

Yesterday, I watched Vera Drake and finished the book, Revolutionary Road. I'm always amazed when life lines up tidy coincidences. Both deal, fictionally, with the topic of abortion in the 1950's/ 60's; both make detailed note of the abortion procedure with a bulb syringe and both have semi-tragic consequences with in the context of the nuclear family. The two narratives are separated by about a span of about 10 years. Vera Drake is set in working class London. Vera is a selfless, sweet-hearted woman who "helps young girls out". Revolutionary Road is about an unhappily married "bohemian" couple who live in the suburbs of New York city. April, the wife of the protagonist dies at the end due to a self induced abortion that seems closer to suicide.

Here are a couple of my thoughts:
- Vera Drake does a wonderful job looking at the at how abortion experiences differ based on class. The movie shows an abortion process for a young woman of wealth who has been raped. We initially feel sorry for her because of the stern coldness of the doctor and psychiatrist who have to "recommend" her abortion. There is a lovely shot of the young woman sitting in her fancy room, awaiting the procedure, pulling out graceful, feathered bedroom slippers from her traveling case. Our first glimpse of Vera's house visits show her putting the kettle on as if to make tea. She is a gentle, compassionate figure who efficiently goes about her work. The viewer later gets clued into the system of procuring an illegal abortion and realizes that even with Vera's sweetness, these young women are still subject to much judgment through the "middle-woman", Lily.
- I was struck with how the two "eccentric" male characters in each narrative, Reg in V.D. and John Givings in R.R., can ultimately see the truth about the abortions in their respective contexts. Reg talks of his own home when he learns that Vera has been "helping girls" and says of his mother's six children "if you can't feed them how can you love them?". John tells April that he wouldn't want to be her unborn child.
-On this side-by-side comparison, the notion of entitlement is interesting to me. In V.D. all of the women seem to "have merited" an abortion: the rape victim, the single career gal, the mother with too many children, the poor, young, black woman, etc. The cinematic gaze is compassionate and the viewer knows that Vera is a fortunate option for these women who other-wise would have "ruined" lives. The tone in R.R. is entirely different. Through out the entirety of the novel April is portrayed as a unemotional, aloof woman. At end, her abortion and subsequent death are treated as prime neighborhood gossip and the reader is left with the feeling that this privileged, suburban woman was just being selfish.

Here is a bit more about the history of modern abortion; it's an excerpt from the book The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, as posted on

Have you seen Vera Drake or read Revolutionary Road? What are your thoughts? Do you know any one who had an illegal abortion in this time period?

No comments: