I share a parking lot with a Catholic school. All during the school year, I park next to cars with bumper stickers that proclaim things like “It’s not a choice, it’s a life.”
And “God is pro-life.” And even “abortion is murder.”
Not all of us Presbyterians share these sentiments, of course. We are, judging by our General Assembly pronouncements anyway, reluctant pro-choicers. We say we don’t condone abortion as a form of belated birth control and that the decision should never be taken lightly. But, especially in the cases of rape and incest, the choice needs to be available, without undue hassle. My father-in-law, a retired physician, has always been vigorously pro-choice because of his operating room internship where he witnessed what happens if abortion isn’t legal: women cutting themselves with coat hangers. And back when I was a very young pastor, I was asked to counsel a mom with her 14-year-old daughter who was gang-raped in a barn. And though abortion was illegal in that state at that time, I had no problem then counseling to seek that procedure elsewhere. Now that I’m a much older pastor, I’m not sure I would counsel anything differently. Though what’s changed since then is the overall cultural level of guilt, shame and community stigma surrounding teenage pregnancy.
There’s nothing funny about any of it, but somehow the film “Obvious Child” turns abortion into a comedy. Or rather, it takes a funny, charming young woman, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), and follows her into this apparent moral quagmire with a minimum of seriousness.
This film is disarmingly frank about many things, including female body parts and young adult sexuality. It revels in “overshare,” or “too much information” about intimate personal details. Its dialogue is consistently and proudly raunchy. But a stand-up comedy routine about deciding to have an abortion? Yeah, that and all the racial/gender caricatures and there’s enough here to offend almost everyone. They even try mixing in a little “romantic comedy” formula, with the guy, Max (Jake Lacy) bringing flowers, and the girl, Donna, confiding to her best friend, Nellie (Gabby Hoffman), about the unexpected pregnancy that she somehow can’t bring herself to reveal to Max. But the “romance” part is definitely underplayed. This is really just about a one-night stand with unplanned consequences.
Of course, part of the controversy of the whole abortion debate is, “Who has a right to weigh in here?” Is it the sole responsibility of the pregnant woman (definitely the point of view of this film)? What about the father? What about other family members? (And how does it change the dynamics if they’re no longer together?) What about religion? (Here, they just make fun of their Jewishness and figure they’ve waved at religion enough.) What about the political aspect, with laws governing what can be done in certain trimesters and at certain ages and what counsel must be received by the pregnant woman?
Well, at one level, it’s brave to approach such an explosive topic as this so cavalierly. But the absence of any moral consideration will put off most. As for old-fashioned guilt, shame and community stigma? Forget about it. Somehow the procedure is reduced to the level of extracting a mole, which would greatly offend all the teachers in my shared parking lot. And maybe a few other people, as well.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.