EDITORIALS

By Dave Andrusko

Sowing the Seeds of Doubt

For those of you who are, like me, a soccer parent/fan, the term "own goal" is as familiar as "balk" is in baseball. It's when a team inadvertently kicks the ball into its own net, scoring a goal for the opposition.

Peter Ross, writing for the Scottish Sunday Herald newspaper, openly worries that this is what "pro-choice" film maker Julie Black may have done by producing and airing on Britain's Channel Four the documentary My Foetus.

Many critics opined that televising a film that shows a woman, four weeks pregnant, undergoing a vacuum pump procedure (and showing footage of aborted babies at 10, 11, and 21 weeks gestational age) violated one of the few remaining taboos on television. Ross, I gather, couldn't care less about violating taboos. Although he doesn't use the phrase, Ross frets about opening Pandora's Box.

British pro-lifers have tried in the past to run ads on television that show an abortion. They've universally been turned down on "taste" grounds. While Black (and Ross) insists that My Foetus is different, Ross is resigned to the inevitability that pro-lifers "will succeed in including a comparable amount of explicit footage to that shown in My Foetus."

Referring to pro-lifers, Ross comments, "Little wonder that they consider the film a spectacular own goal by the pro-choice movement." Why this may well be true is worth pondering.

To back up a second, why would the daughter of the head of Britian's largest private abortion provider ("Abortion is the family business," Ross writes. "[O]ne might as well ask Paris Hilton to come out against hotels"), a woman who has "always been staunchly pro-choice," choose to make such a film? Black has given any number of marginally persuasive reasons.

Black had an abortion 14 years ago. When she became pregnant again at 34, "it made her think back to her abortion and ask: 'Did I kill a foetus or a baby?'" Ross writes. "Thus the title My Foetus refers both to the life inside her and the life she had previously rejected - - it is an attempt to make a distinction between the two."

At 16 weeks she began "bonding" with her unborn child. We learn that this baby was eight weeks older than the child she had aborted, yet still in the abortion law's legal cross hairs for another eight weeks.

Ross argues, "My Foetus, then, is Black's attempt to examine her instinctive views and see if they hold up under scrutiny." They did - - "she felt at ease with her decision to abort" - - although Black tells us they "took a battering."

Well, maybe. If we believe what Black told Fran Kelly of Australian Public Broadcasting, Black is into either deep denial, evasion, or intellectual incoherence.

"And that's what [is in] the heart of the people who oppose abortion, that's their goal, to make you see the foetus as a baby," she told Kelly. "And I sort of found myself so much swept up in the whole emotion around that abortion equated, you know, [to] the killing of a baby."

What to do? "I had to keep pulling myself back and saying, well, the majority of abortions in Britain, 87 per cent of abortions in Britain, are within the first 12 weeks." So, the solution is to reassure herself - - and by extension us - - that "the foetus that I aborted when I was 21 was not the equivalent of the baby that I was now carrying at very advanced stages."

As a result of making this film, she supposedly is now "able to make a clear distinction between the baby she had and the foetus she didn't." "[M]ore importantly," Ross tells us, Black "is now able to say very clearly, and unashamedly, why she holds that position: 'Ultimately my respect for a woman's rights is more than my respect for the early stages of a potential human being.'"

In other words, Black has taken up the pro-life challenge, which, as Ross describes it, is "that you cannot look at the physical reality of abortion and remain pro-choice" and "won." By showing the images of the aborted babies, she "implicitly asks the public to take the same challenge."

And this is true. If you parse closely what Black says, Black clearly believes that by making the debate an either/or proposition, her film can carry the day.

Black is very defensive when Ross presses her on the unrepresentative character of an abortion performed at four weeks. Few are done this early. But that is, of course, why she chose that age. The child's remains are so small and so smashed to smithereens that Black probably believes the impact will be limited.

Especially if she is able to frame the question to her satisfaction. After all, if (in Ross's words) the baby's remains look like nothing more than "leftover food in the sink," how excited are most people going to get?

Are people going to look at "a swirl of red suspended in clear fluid," and give the "wrong" answer to Black's rhetorical question: should Britain "go back to before 1967 and make it illegal and give the foetus more rights than the woman, or should we move forward and accept that abortion is a responsible decision that women can make for themselves?"

But as lawyers are always advised to do, never ask a question to which you don't know the witness's answer.

While Black may have "passed the test," what Ross and others who support abortion fear is that much of the rest of society will flunk. Ross understands that even at this early stage of pregnancy - - "despite its surface mundanity" - - there are "those who will find this footage extremely distressing."

To pro-abortionists, the danger posed is that the number of "those who will find this footage extremely distressing" will be multiplied if the true face of abortion is ever widely shown. To be a party to an abortion, even if only as a television viewer, and yet be unaffected by the sight of broken limbs and recognizable arms and legs and heads requires a level of emotional detachment few possess.

Watching Ross wrestle with his conscience is of WWF proportions. He sees himself "as a representative example," Ross writes. "I have always been pro-choice, really without thinking too much about why. It's a typically lazy liberal position, requiring no effort to maintain...." In his world, pro-lifers can be "easily dismissed as extremists who fetishise pictures of dead babies."

But I wonder whether Black, who likes to play the provocateur, smiled or felt a shiver of unease run up and down her spine when Ross wrote that while the film "has by no means converted me to the pro-life side," it "has rocked me back on my heels somewhat, forcing me to consider my beliefs."

Ross states the dilemma clearly: "[S]owing the seed of doubt as she does is more helpful for the anti-abortionists than for the pro-choice movement, which to some extent relies on unquestioning liberalism like mine."

But Ross is already further along than he thinks. He says of a pro-life film that showed aborted babies that it was "certainly horrifying, replete with dismembered foetuses, and ends with a slow pan out from a dead eye, not unlike the shower scene in Psycho."

In the end, a troubled Ross offers this: "While making My Foetus has convinced Black of her pro-choice position, there are those who believe it will have the opposite effect on the majority of viewers."

But is it only a reflection of an instinctive revulsion to a display of unspeakable violence? Or is there even more at work? The truth is that the abortion movement is caught in a kind of hard/soft pincer movement both of which, Black captures in her film.

On the one hand, there is the (eminently justifiable) fear that if people actually see what happens in an abortion - - even an "early" one - - they will be so horrified, they will, at a minimum, re-evaluate their indifference to the issue. On the other hand, there is Ross's response.

He insists, "For me, the most powerful images in My Foetus are of life, not death. They come when Black interviews Professor Stuart Campbell, a pioneer in the field of ultrasound scanning. New technology allows for 3D imaging of the foetus in the womb, and we see pictures taken at nine, 12, 18 and 23 weeks - - all within the deadline for abortion." Ross writes that, "It's hard to look at those images of foetuses moving around, sucking their thumbs and so on, and say that it's morally and legally right that we are allowed to end these lives."

But that the spines of the "mushy middle" may stiffen may not be the worst of it, from the pro-abortion perspective.

"Journalist Lauren Booth, a pro-choicer who has also had an abortion, said she recoiled when watching the film's pivotal moment," the Daily Telegraph reported. What exactly was the nature of her response?

"My hand flew to my mouth in shock," she said. "I swallowed.

I didn't want to say it, but the word 'murder' came to my lips."

Dave Andrusko can be reached at dandrusko@nrlc.org.