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A sad, solemn, necessary thing

I wasn’t going to write about why July 1, 2008 was a landmark day in women’s history. I needed time to understand my own feelings, and people with axes to grind were creating quite enough noise already.

If you live in Canada, you know what happened on July 1—Canada Day—to the jubilation of many and the fist-shaking horror of others. Our Governor General bestowed this country’s highest civilian honour, the Order of Canada, on Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the 85-year-old Auschwitz survivor who has repeatedly and unstintingly risked his life to champion abortion rights for women. If you’re one of my American visitors, I can practically hear your first thought (wherever you stand on abortion): “Nothing like this could possibly happen in the U.S.”

I had the same thought. On one level, I felt grateful to be a citizen of a country that would honour a man who went to jail for performing thousands of then-illegal abortions, who persevered despite death threats and the bombing of his Toronto clinic, and whose protracted legal battles eventually convinced the Supreme Court of Canada that the law of the land violated our Charter of Rights. Dr. Morgentaler’s supporters have been asking why the Order of Canada came so late, but I find myself amazed that it has come only three years after his last explosively controversial accolade. When the University of Western Ontario gave him an honorary degree, thousands of people demanded that it be rescinded and an irate donor cancelled a $2 million bequest. Most Canadians believe that abortion should be between a woman and her doctor, although a strident minority still denounce Dr. Morgentaler as a baby-killer. Predictably, they insist that his Order of Canada should be wrenched away. But it’s his and always will be. Rightly so.

AbortionYet while I think of myself as a feminist, I could not rejoice this past Canada Day. To cheer would have felt like clapping at a funeral. Dr. Morgentaler’s Order of Canada seemed to me a sad, solemn, necessary thing, as the right to abortion also does. I had no words to frame my thoughts; I just knew that no one on the op-ed pages was speaking for me. At such moments, I don’t need another pundit or self-appointed expert; I need the clarifying power of art. As luck would have it, my husband went to the video store. He came home with a Romanian movie called 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“All the reviews have been terrific,” he said. “It’s about illegal abortion during the Ceausescu regime.”

Watching this brave, brutal movie is as close as anyone can come to having a black-market abortion. I have never needed an abortion, legal or otherwise, yet I experienced the abject terror of the two protagonists: feckless Gabita, a student who has vainly tried to wish her far-advanced pregnancy away instead of facing the truth, and her far more resourceful roommate Otilia, whose determination to help Gabi catapults her into an emotional and physical ordeal beyond her worst imaginings. They both know that if they’re caught, they’ll face prison terms. But they’d rather take their chances than accept the certain misery of Gabi’s raising an unwanted child under the hob-nailed boot of the state.

Everything goes wrong, thanks to Gabi’s fearful, almost willful incompetence. She books a room at the wrong hotel, ignoring the instructions of the chillingly shrewd abortionist (who, like the regime he has learned to dodge, is a power-obsessed enforcer with rules that must be followed). She has told neither Otilia nor the abortionist how far along she really is. Then he ups the fee, and the pair have no more money. I’ll let you see for yourself, if you have the nerve, the degrading, desperate bargain that he pushes Otilia to make.

Critics have marveled at the eloquence of the acting and the spare, assured touch of the director, who uses no sound track or flashy effects to pull your attention away from the women’s dilemma. There’s been lots of comment about particular shiver-inducing moments—always the same ones. Two that lingered on my mind have gone unremarked, as far I’ve been able to determine. The first is the tabortionist’s offhand parting instructions to the women, delivered with as much emotion as a grocery list: the fetus must be discarded in a convenient garbage chute (it would clog the toilet). The second is the shot of the aborted, fully formed fetus on the bathroom floor. The camera lingers; you’re supposed to look. It’s not easy to talk about the experience of looking, but not to do so would reduce this many-shaded drama to a black-and-white morality play. The film captures more powerfully than anything I’ve yet seen or read why abortion must be safe and readily available. But it doesn’t flinch from the ugliness of late-term abortion—which of course would never be necessary if women everywhere had the early access they deserve.

In Chile, where my husband and I spent a week this past spring, abortion is illegal under any and all circumstances. Women go to jail for terminating their pregnancies, but every year almost one woman in 20 between the ages of 15 and 49 feels compelled to take that risk (the country is tied with Peru for the dubious distinction of having the highest abortion rate in Latin America).

In the U.S., teenagers must run a gauntlet of obstacles to have an abortion. Their problems come nowhere close to those faced by the two women in 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days. But I still thought of those imperiled friends when I read this blog post by an anonymous young American.


Posted by Rona

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