October Baby is, on its surface, the tale of a young woman who survived a failed abortion and sets out to find her birth mother. But the movie, which has garnered surprisingly good box office results for a Christian film in limited release, goes beyond a cultural critique of abortion. By offering a portrait of modern womanhood with its priorities all messed up—women choosing careers over family, aided and abetted by abortion, contraception, and sexual licentiousness—it meshes neatly with what we’ve been hearing from certain Republicans lately.
The film’s protagonist is Hannah, a college student with an array of physical and mental problems who discovers her birth mother (Shari Rigby) attempted to abort her at 24 weeks. Salon described the unlikely circumstances of this botched procedure as akin to “being struck by lightning and eaten by a shark at the same time,” and the same could be said for the events that then lead Hannah to track down her biological mother. They involve her arrest by a kind and exceedingly helpful cop, and her tracking down the nurse who remembers with remarkable precision the details of Hannah’s birth almost two decades earlier. But equally unbelievable is the film’s two-dimensional portrayal of Hannah’s biological mother, a tough-minded striver who sought a late-term abortion at 18 because, as the abortion nurse recalls, “she had to go to school, she had to have a career.”
Hannah (Rachel Hendrix) confronts her biological mother, now a successful lawyer who seems to have nearly forgotten she ever attempted an abortion. Just then, the woman’s husband walks in, and in a show of cruel self-protection, she denies her daughter’s existence. “I don’t know what you’re referring to,” she says, before hopping off to a luncheon in her Mercedes with her husband and no-doubt-exquisitely-timed baby daughter.
The message is perfectly of-the-moment and demonstrates how anti-abortion and anti-woman messaging often overlap. We have a presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, who a few years ago warned about “radical feminism’s misogynistic crusade” to force women to work “outside the home.” We have Rush Limbaugh slut-shaming the uppity, suit-wearing Georgetown law school student who dared argue health insurance companies should be required to pay for contraception. We have, in other words, October Baby’s false argument writ large and very real—the idea that abortion and family planning are made necessary by women’s unfortunate progress, instead of being needs as old as humanity.
Set in the context of other political pushes—the Blunt Amendment, state fights over making vaginal ultrasounds mandatory before abortions, Santorum’s view of contraception as “a license” to sexual behavior that’s “counter to how things are supposed to be”—it’s tempting to see the GOP’s latest handling of sexual politics as an effort, as Frank Rich has put it, “to turn back the clock to that supposedly halcyon time when Ralph Kramden was king of his domestic castle.”
Female ambition is the red herring in our culture war over family planning and sexual autonomy. As if to prove the point, the Wall Street Journal ran a series of essays on the sexual revolution, including one succinctly titled “Has the Sexual Revolution Been Good for Women? No,” suggesting that the problem with the last 50 years of “advances in the work force and education” is that it’s given women too many darn options. (Too much choice gives women a perpetual sense that “the grass is greener elsewhere,” argues conservative Mary Eberstadt.) Such arguments inevitably set women’s professional and personal ambitions against child-rearing, as if the two things preclude one another.
A few years ago, Annie Murphy Paul reported in Slate that an apparent recession-related spike in abortions was being described by anti-abortion activists as evidence that women were “choosing their own material comfort over the life of their unborn children.” This thinking, echoed in October Baby, suggests that women choose abortion as a matter of convenience, that they opt for posh lifestyles and fancy cars as opposed to seriously weighing their ability to feed and clothe a future child. In fact the reasons real women give, as outlined in a study by the Guttmacher Institute, suggests they feel they have run through their options. They can’t afford a baby; they can’t have a baby and keep their job; they don’t think they can hack it as single parents. Many have other children to think about. In contrast to the portrait offered by October Baby, the majority of women seeking abortions are past their teens, and the majority already have at least one other child to think about. Almost a quarter say they “can’t afford the basic needs of life.”
But this more nuanced portrait of abortion as both deeply troubling and sometimes necessary wouldn’t work so well in an anti-abortion film. The movie’s portrayal of a self-involved, career-minded woman is a useful distortion—not only because it amounts to a powerful wedge in the culture wars but because it implies that women’s reasons for seeking abortion are so flimsy they’d collapse if only women thought them through. If you subscribe to the most black-and-white view of conception, if you support personhood bills and believe abortion at any stage is so blatantly wrong that only someone morally suspect or self-deceiving could get one, the caricature of a modern woman dizzied by ambition is the perfect candidate for the description. Delusions of progress and dreams of a comfortable life have clouded her connection to her maternal intuition. As the former abortion nurse played by Jasmine Guy puts it, the other women who came through the clinic for abortions “really knew what they wanted, they were sure of it.”
But “your mother,” she tells Hannah, “she was conflicted. … She tried to convince me that she was making the right decision, but you know she was really trying to convince herself.”
We are meant to believe, then, that all women would resist abortions if they followed their hearts over their heads. And, indeed, Hannah’s biological mother must again be confronted by what she did. Only then does she listen to her conscience and collapse with regret. October Baby couldn’t have it any other way.