The politics of shmashmortion.

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June 8 2007 3:30 PM

The Politics of Shmashmortion

Knocked Up as litmus test.

Knocked Up. Click image to expand.
Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann in Knocked Up

In last week's review of Knocked Up, I made passing mention of the virtual nonexistence of abortion as a real option for Katherine Heigl's character, Alison Scott, in the film. I speculated that the movie's choice to tiptoe around this issue might have been a marketing decision. As if to prove my point that merely uttering the word abortion is a perilous move, that review provoked more blog posts, Fray discussion, and reader mail than anything I've written in a long time.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Just as abortion has become a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, the treatment of abortion in Knocked Up seems to be emerging as a litmus test for the politics of its viewers. At the National Review Web site, Kathryn Jean Lopez writes approvingly that "in Knocked Up abortion is presented as an option whose time has come and gone," while lefty blogger Ezra Klein seesKnocked Up as "pro-choice in the most literal sense of the term."

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The public conversation about abortion is such a notoriously sticky wicket, so tangled up with both partisan politics and our most personal convictions about nature, religion, and freedom, that when a Slate editor first asked if I'd like to re-address the issue, I thought, Nah, screw it. Why open up that can of worms? But then I recognized in that response the very mealy-mouthedness that had disappointed me in director Judd Apatow's treatment of the subject. So, screw screwing it. Let's pursue the topic of abortion as it exists, or doesn't, in Knocked Up.

Because I didn't want to turn my review of this delightful comedy into a referendum on Roe v. Wade, I mentioned only one of the two moments in the film that address abortion: the scene in which the hero's stoner roommate wonders whether the couple has considered a "shmashmortion." I didn't discuss a brief scene in which Alison's mother brings up the subject at lunch (though if memory serves, the mother never uses the word, either—instead, she euphemizes about "taking care of" the situation). Ross Douthat, an editor for the Atlanticwho also maintains a blog on the Atlantic Web site, faults me for that omission and observes that in the scene, the mother character is explicitly positioned as a moral monster, a "hissable villain." Alison's reason for keeping the child, he writes, is "very clear, in the context of the film's script": She pursues the pregnancy because "an abortion is a really horrible thing to do."

Douthat is right that the lunch scene discredits the mother's moral standing. When the mother (Joanna Kerns, who played the mother on TV's Growing Pains) goes on to tell Alison the story of an acquaintance who had an abortion and later went on to have a "real baby," the subtext is clear: Here is a woman who doesn't value human life. Why should we care about her opinion?

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