‘Philomena’ and Abortion Politics

I don't particularly enjoy writing about abortion because I tend to make everyone angry.* But there's something that needs to be discussed in response to those who are freaking out about the New York Post‘s Kyle Smith mentioning abortion in his response to Harvey Weinstein's attack on his review of Philomena.

Some background, since the second sentence in that first paragraph probably didn't make a ton of sense to you. Philomena is a recently released film about an Irish Catholic woman (played by Judi Dench) who gave up her son after becoming pregnant in her teens. Unwed and shamed, she was taken in by a convent that specialized in such cases. The film tracks her efforts 50 years after the boy's birth to discover what became of him. Philomena has been praised, for the most part: It is currently "92 percent fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes.

One of the few dissenters was Kyle Smith, whose one star review was headlined, "‘Philomena' another hateful and boring attack on Catholics." Harvey Weinstein, whose distribution company is handling the movie's release in the United States, saw a chance to make a few bucks and placed a full page advertisement in the Post‘s hometown rival, the New York Times, blasting Smith by name. Smith returned fire this weekend in the Post in a lengthy condemnation of the film, its creators, and the boorish, anti-Catholic Weinstein. In his response, Smith stated that there are fewer Philomenas searching for their adopted children because of abortion:

We all know how cruel it was for the mid-century Catholic Church to provide shelter for scorned women written off as dead by their families, help them give birth to their children and place the adoptees in loving homes. Today we’d be much more compassionate: We’d simply abort all those kids. Problem solved!

Today’s Philomenas don’t have to wonder what happened to their babies. They’re out back, in the Dumpster. But better that than growing up to be a Republican.

A bit provocative, perhaps, but this is more or less beyond dispute; indeed, it's one of the more popular arguments made by the pro-choice set. Fewer unwanted pregnancies mean fewer unwanted babies. Some on Twitter, however, were not thrilled by his pointing it out.

They are wrong in being vexed. Philomena‘s ugliest aspect is not its degradation of specific Catholic institutions or even the insinuation that the convent our protagonist stayed at was selling babies to rich Americans. No, the ugliest portion of the film was its insinuation that Catholics want unwed mothers to bear babies to term as a punishment.

It's a trope that comes up several times in the film. When Philomena is giving birth in the convent, one of the nuns/nurses says they must call a doctor as the birth is a breach (that is, the baby is coming out feet first). No, another nun replies. "This is her penance," the nun says. If she dies, she dies. Fortunately, Philomena doesn't die—nor is she given medical aid or painkillers. "This," after all, "is her penance." Then, toward the end of the film, an elderly, hate-filled nun explains why she felt justified in keeping Philomena and her son, then in his 40s and dying of AIDS, apart:

Let me tell you something. I have kept my vow of chastity my whole life. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh. That’s what brings us closer to God. Those girls have nobody to blame but themselves—and their own carnal incontinence.

In other words: "The slut had it coming. And part of her punishment was never getting to know her grown son."

Abortion, as best as I can tell, is not mentioned in the film. But it doesn't really need to be. What the filmmakers are doing here is implicitly tearing down the foundation of Catholic opposition to abortion. Philomena wants us to know that religious conservatives are not interested in the sanctity of life or any of that silliness. No no. All they want is to punish slatterns for their harlotry.** They don't care about protecting the innocent. They want to harm the guilty.

Part of the reason our discussions about abortion are so messed up is that a large portion of the left—the portion of the left this film is aimed at and that Harvey Weinstein is trying to get to cough up $12 to see in a theater—explicitly agrees with that notion. They don't see how conservative Catholics and their kin can oppose abortion for the reasons they claim. They come into the argument from a position of bad faith.

Philomena only contributes to this degradation of our discourse. Kyle Smith wasn't only well within his rights when he called the movie "hateful"—he was correct to do so.

*Short version: I think Roe v. Wade should be overturned because it is horrific constitutional law, that abortion through the first trimester-plus should nevertheless be legal, and that late term abortion should be outlawed regardless of the cause of the pregnancy or whatever birth defects the child has because it is infanticide. Like I said, something there for everyone to hate!

**Second time in less than a week I've gotten the word "slattern" on the site. Score!