In the 1942 tearjerker Now, Voyager, suave actor Paul Henreid says to Bette Davis: "Shall we just have a cigarette on it?" As the two gaze deeply into one another’s eyes, Henreid puts two cigarettes into his mouth, lights them, and hands one to Davis.
It was considered the ultimate in sophisticated romance.
Flash forward fifty-seven years. In the hit comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts sits on the floor outside a hotel room, smoking an illicit cigarette. Her friend yanks open the door and snatches the cigarette from her fingers. "I want you to quit this [stuff] before it kills you," he snarls.
It’s the ultimate in social condemnation—and a complete reversal of the cinematic attitudes of yesteryear.
What happened between 1942 and 1997 to generate such a change? The answer shines a spotlight on how we may one day win the abortion debate.
As Frederica Mathewes-Green writes in a collection of essays called Thirty Years after Roe v. Wade, our grandparents embraced values that we now recognize as damaging, like cigarette smoking and heavy drinking. Those attitudes, says Mathewes-Green, were celebrated in movies in much the same way reckless sexual behavior is today. For instance, in the hugely popular Thin Man films, the heavy drinking of both Myrna Loy and William Powell was treated as comic relief. Anyone who objected to this view was dismissed as a moralizing busybody.
But then, something happened on the way from the bijou to the multiplex. Americans began losing friends to lung cancer and emphysema—friends who smoked. And drunk drivers killed thousands of people. As a result, cigarettes—which kill 400,000 Americans a year—are no longer considered glamorous. Drinking to excess—which kills 100,000 more—is no longer considered funny. And for the most part, Hollywood has stopped suggesting that they are.
It’s important to understand, Matthews-Green points out, that it wasn’t all those warning labels on cigarette packages that got people to quit smoking. And it wasn’t the Temperance Union that convinced people to stop getting drunk. It was truth itself and social pressure.
And that’s where the abortion debate comes in. Modern films portray sexual romps as great fun—the height of hipness. Those who object are dismissed as moralizing busybodies. But just as media messages about drinking and smoking were gradually replaced with healthier messages, we will one day see changes in how Hollywood portrays sexuality, predicts Mathewes-Green. This will happen as more and more people are harmed by promiscuous behavior, watch friends die of AIDS, and see sisters, daughters, and girlfriends harmed or even killed by so-called "safe, legal abortions."
So, yes indeed, we should keep talking about the horrors of abortion, its impact on future pregnancies, and its link to depression and breast cancer. We should do so knowing we will be mocked and maligned. But we should also have hope, for the day will surely come when abortion won’t be portrayed as a noble decision by brave women who are harassed by right-wing, religious crazies.
Eventually, the truth will out—and we’ll see it even when we go to the movies.
For further reading and information:
William L. Saunders and Brian C. Robertson, eds., Building a Culture of Life Thirty Years After Roe v. Wade, Family Research Council, 2002.
Frederica Mathewes-Green, "The Lessons of Roe," National Review Online, 22 January 2003.
Teresa R. Wagner, Back to the Drawing Board: The Future of the Pro-Life Movement (Dumb Ox Books, 2003).
Leslie Carbone, "A Humble Assessment: The Past and Future of the Pro-Life Movement," BreakPoint Online, May 12, 2003.
Johannes L. Jacobse, "Women Are Abortion’s Second Victims," BreakPoint Online, January 22, 2003.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 021113, "Staying Power: Wilberforce, Slavery—and Abortion."
Alan Jacobs, A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age (Brazos Press, 2001).