In Minnesota, a pregnant teenager under the age of 18 who wants an abortion is legally required to comply with that state’s parental notification law.
This fact is just one reality glossed over in the hit movie Juno. In the film, 16-year-old Juno McGuff schedules an appointment over the phone for an abortion at a local Minneapolis clinic. But once there an encounter with an anti-abortion protester (who tells her "all fetuses have fingernails") and the clinic’s sleazy atmosphere lead to second thoughts. She decides she will have the baby and give it up for adoption.
All this is a done deal by the time Juno decides to let her father and stepmother in on the news. But the larger unreality of that scene is the film’s grubby portrayal of the abortion clinic. Is the typical abortion clinic a hole-in-the-wall operation staffed by front desk personnel whose manner suggests their last job was cashier at some alternative comic book store? Not likely. Not since abortion became legal in the United States, at least.
When I saw Juno, my first reaction was to let these facts slide, captivated as I otherwise was by actress Ellen Page’s quirky odd-girl-out portrayal of the film’s young protagonist. Juno is not one of “the pretty girls,” but a precocious and thoughtful nonconformist who Page skillfully plays as a wise beyond her years adolescent who is also still….well, an adolescent. But then along come the predictable voices of the anti-abortion movement to spoil the fun. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, former Republican Senator Rick Santorum embraces Juno (and other recent films in which women make the apparently controversial choice to have a baby) as a sign of hope for our otherwise supposedly depraved liberal culture. "The recognition of the life in the womb is going mainstream," concludes the man who never met a gay sex act he didn’t want to ban. But considering that Santorum’s life-affirming vision also includes such stands as dropping bunker-buster bombs on Iran, excuse me if I pass on the ex-senator’s hope for the future festival.
Frankly, if those who oppose abortion rights want to embrace any and every film where a young woman explicitly rejects abortion, let them. The film overall is more nuanced than that. In fact, Juno shows a young woman pondering her choices, coming of age on her own terms. She’s supported in this by her parents, the teenage father and her best friend, all of whom make it clear they’re with her, whatever her decision. This is progress compared to the fate of many pregnant teenagers of past generations, who more likely were kicked out of school, then forced against a backdrop of secrecy and shame to give their babies up for adoption. Or, desperate, forced to seek potentially unsafe back-alley abortions.
But that clinic scene remains a nagger. Why would the filmmaker portray the clinic in such negative terms? Was it just a comic plot device to set up Juno’s decision to have the baby? Only the writer and director can answer that. Unfortunately, the words of the “pro-life” protestor resonate to conspicuous effect in Juno’s second thoughts as she fixates on the fingernails of the people in the clinic’s lobby. The end result regrettably is a kind of whispered backdrop to the story in which having an abortion is perceived as somehow less noble—less right—than embracing the heroic course of pregnancy.
Writing in The Nation, Katha Pollit reminds us that the women’s movement destigmatized single parenthood a long time ago. In the old days, single and mother combined were another way of spelling parenthood for losers. It was also a common reason for an abortion, the illegal kind women used to get. Ironically, Juno’s happy ending also involves single parenthood, which has something to do with the adoptive parents turning out to be not quite the happy couple.
The right wing has failed in their fundamental quest to overturn Roe vs. Wade, but they have managed over the years to enact laws that restrict abortion access. They’ve also managed to infest popular culture with the notion that abortion is an inherently troublesome proposition. Supposedly, responsible people on both sides of the issue are meant to wring their collective hands over this “difficult,” “morally ambiguous,” issue. Sorry, but not everyone buys the consensus. The “pro-life” position that human life begins at conception, end of story, is hardly that. Medically speaking, a fetus is part of a woman’s body. Shouldn’t this reality be the end of the story; if, that is, you favor basic civil rights for women?
Juno is not meant to be a social sermon. It’s not even meant to be a serious drama. But any popular American film that explores the abortion issue, even comically, seems in this day and age destined to controversy. We can thank decades of hostile Christian Right hysteria over women’s reproductive rights for that.
As for Rick Santorum and his fellow travelers, let them celebrate the virtue of their zygotes and bunker-buster bombs. Those who embrace a more humane vision of life recognize that women should be able to make the decision about when to give birth. Or not. At least Juno McGuff does that.