If Hollywood were to offer us a movie in which a father, guilty of incest with his daughter, was treated as a dignified, even sympathetic character, would anyone be offended? Would anyone notice? And if this same movie treated abortion as a sacramental rite of passage, akin to confirmation or bar mitzvah, would anyone notice that? Apparently not, judging from the reaction to the film version of John Irving’s Cider House Rules.
The film has received seven Academy Award nominations. What’s more, the national president of Planned Parenthood is delighted with the film. Referring to the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Gloria Feldt said, "The timing of this release couldn’t be better." Planned Parenthood plans to host "private screenings, fundraisers, and discussion groups led by local film critics," all with the goal of "reminding viewers of the threats to reproductive choice." I have even heard members of the pro-life movement pronounce it "a beautiful movie." I’ve heard no one describe it as cynical or pernicious. It is both.
Set in the 1940’s, when abortion was illegal, the movie opens with the local orphanage’s physician, Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), saying, "Here in St. Cloud’s not even the decision to get off the train is easily made, for it requires an earlier, more difficult decision: Add a child to your life, or leave one behind."
Well, not exactly. "Being left behind" at St. Cloud’s means either being born or being aborted, going into the orphanage or into the incinerator. Is one fate preferable to the other? Not necessarily, in the doctor’s view. An unadopted orphan is still an unwanted child, the result of an unwanted pregnancy.
A compassionate man, the doctor never "interferes" in such choices. "I do not even recommend," he says. "I just give them what they want: an abortion or an orphan." (Imagine as a general rule of medicine, a doctor who never recommended anything.) In the only scene that compares these alternativesjuxtaposed in such a way that we can’t help making the comparisona woman who gives birth leaves the orphanage an emotional and physical wreck, while a woman whose child is aborted recovers amazingly quickly and even becomes closer to the father.
The only character opposed to abortion is Dr. Larch’s orphan apprentice, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire). Though Homer has never attended high school, he has acquired, thanks to Dr. Larch’s private tutorials, "near-perfect obstetrical and gynecological procedure." Yet Homer refuses to use such skill to perform abortions, and the best reason he can come up with is "it is illegal." Dr. Larch, clearly annoyed and impatient with his protégé’s refusal to perform abortions, assigns him the task of disposing of the aborted fetuses in the incinerator. Dr. Larch’s compassion does not spare him this, and one can’t help wondering if it is actually part of the doctor’s tutorial plan for Homer.
If there were a reeducation camp for reluctant abortionists, the commandant would speak as Dr. Larch does to Homer as he tries to hector him into performing abortions. As Homer and Dr. Larch examine a woman suffering from a botched abortion, a crochet hook still inside her, Dr. Larch says to Homer, "If she had come to you four months ago and asked for a simple D&C, what would you have decided to do? Nothing? This is what nothing gets you. It means that someone else is going to do the jobsome moron who doesn’t know how!" Never mind that if she had come to Homer she would have come to an orphanage, a place populated by living alternatives to "doing nothing." But no such alternative finds a voice in this film, and Irving has made it clear why. Any attempt to restrict abortion, he has argued, is a form of fascism, an expression of "religious fervor run amok." Thus the film merely presents the only alternative worthy of serious consideration: choice for the chooser, regardless of its consequences for anyone else. Since Homer’s objection to abortion is based on nothing stronger than a personal preference, we know it can’t last. And it doesn’t.
Once Homer leaves the orphanage he has a conversion. He sees that for a truly compassionate man, a rule need never become a principle. Homer puts away childish things and accepts his manly duty to perform an abortion. We’ve been told, by such groups as Planned Parenthood, that abortion can be a "maturing experience" for a woman. This film now tells us that abortion can be a coming-of-age experience for the abortionist, provided only that he has the requisite skills. This is the most sinister aspect of "The Cider House Rules": To become a real man, just say yes to abortion. Only after performing an abortion can Homer return to the orphanage as the qualified and worthy successor to Dr. Larch.
The context within which Homer is forced to opt for abortion is one of incest. But in the moral terms of the movie itself, there is no reason why we should find incest any more objectionable than abortion. We know from Mr. Irving’s earlier work that he doesn’t necessarily regard incest as a problem. In this movie, however, Homer’s conversion makes no sense unless we find incest morally repellant. Most people, thank God, still do.
But my complaint is not with Mr. Irving; it is with us.
Abortion as a maturing, coming-of-age experience, as a myth to live byis this what we’re willing to swallow? Apparently. And this is what makes the film a cultural watershed, for it could not have been made even 10 years ago. In fact, it took Mr. Irving 14 years and four directors to get from novel to film. He had to wait for his audience to catch up with him. That we have done so is testimony not to his courage or foresight, but to our own corruption. More than a quarter century of state-sanctioned abortion in our midst has changed us. Today’s college seniors have never known a time when abortion was not legal. From their birth to their graduation they have lived in a society in which legal protection for unborn life has inexorably disappeared. How could they not be affected? High school freshmen, who require no "parental guidance" to see this film, have probably never heard a cogent argument against abortion. For them, what a movie like this presents as credible serves as a truth claim. What they are not apt to hear from their teachers (and certainly not from Hollywood) is the dark truth about how terribly convenient abortion has been for irresponsible men. Nor will they hear that "unwanted babies" come from unwanted mothers, abandoned by the men who once claimed they loved them. This movie can now freely concede what was once an embarrassment even to the pro-choice camp: Is abortion the killing of a child? Of course. So what? In the words of Dr. Larch, "I just give them what they want." When is the last time we heard a discussion of what we "ought" to want? No, a quarter century has made us all accomplices, whether by deed or by embarrassed silence.
There is, at times, a kind of wisdom expressed in the reaction of spontaneous revulsion. We don’t argue our way to a prohibition of incest, and if we thought it necessary to do so we would already have lost sight of what is at stake. Incest is seen as evil only if we have first seen the good of which it is destructive. In a healthy society such a spontaneous revulsion extends, as a minimum, to incest, cannibalism and murder. But when such a reaction becomes sufficiently atrophied, then the time has arrived for a major studio (Miramax) to offer us a celebration of the compassionate abortionist and his apprentice as part of an evening’s entertainment. A society capable of swallowing anything has lost the capacity to distinguish nourishment from poison.
The Boston Globe gives as reasons for the movie’s PG-13 rating: "Strongly portrayed themes of abortion, incest; sick child dying; semi-explicit sexual situation; drug abuse; fighting; drinking; smoking; profanity." Parents trying to decide whether their 13-year-olds should see the movie can take comfort in this: No one actually smokes while fighting or performing an abortion.
Paul W. McNellis, S.J., is a professor of social ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy.