Not-so-obvious avenues in abortion comedy 'Obvious Child'

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The new film "Obvious Child" has been billed as an "abortion rom-com," but in fact, it doesn't joke about abortion as much as its trailer would have us believe.

On some level I actually found the film poignant, despite my objection to abortion and failure to find the scatological and gynecological humor of its stand-up comedian protagonist, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), even remotely funny. If the film moved me, it was precisely because this woman's childishness was so sad and her desperation for adult relationships so deep.

Donna is afraid to tell her mother or one-night-stand that she's pregnant. (I can't imagine how agonizing this fear of being shamed must be.) The film's happy ending may have something to do with the "wonderful feeling of relief" abortion can provide “someone who is not ready to be a parent.”

But it probably owes more to the fact that over the course of the film, independent of her decision to abort, Donna finally finds acceptance: telling her mother about her predicament bonds them; her fling becomes a boyfriend who treats her surprisingly well for a change; and when she decides to speak openly about her pregnancy in the comedy club, her audience reacts with heartfelt support.

Needless to say, a lost soul wandering through unfaithful relationships, professional insecurity, the irony and self-absorption of twenty-something life in the hipster capital of the United States (Brooklyn), and the pressures of a patriarchal society will never find such acceptance in the angry chants of picketers outside abortion facilities.

The film's director, Gillian Robespierre, aimed to create a film about abortion whose main character doesn't "torture" herself over her decision. If you believe that a small fetus lacks the moral or ontological status of a human life, then this ambition is not only logical but humane. Still, even bracketing objections about the right to life of the unborn, the film made me wonder whether the complex phenomenon of guilt can be packed away so tidily.

Donna's best friend says of her own abortion what tens of thousands of other good women would say: “I feel sad for my teenage self, but I never regret it.” Yet far from settling the discussion, this statement raises questions. Guiltlessness is not an unambiguous sign of anything. At times it can confirm a choice well made, but on the other hand, what all the poor and exploited ones of the world have in common is that their oppressors, whether active or complicit, never felt guilty while allowing them to die.

Endless self-recrimination is as destructive as the temptation to believe we can do no wrong; but flickers of guilt can reveal something important.

After a string of sophomoric jokes in her opening monologue, Donna teases her audience, "I know, you're thinking, 'You're a horrible person,'" then quickly adds, "I agree!" This is more than a throwaway line; the question is what to do about it. The filmmakers' response is unconditional acceptance, which is vitally important.

But do they take her final monologue equally seriously, when she admits she's always dreamed of being an adult but isn't there yet? This is a more significant longing, and shortcoming, than Donna, who dresses it up with jokes, lets on.

Safeguarding its non-judgmental agenda, the film doesn't allow us into any kind of decision-making process that would make abortion anything other than a foregone conclusion; but it's clearly her "unreadiness" that determines Donna's choice. Essayist Heather King, who has written about her own abortions, might be less willing to let an "obvious child" off the hook, insisting there are worse things than being a "bad mom."

"You don’t know what kind of mother you’re going to be until you're a mother," King writes. "To choose violence is not to cut off the possibility of suffering ... but rather to cut off the possibility of good."

Whatever one makes of King's full analysis, it comes from real anguish. I cannot claim to know personally what an unplanned pregnancy is like or how I would respond, but I do feel deep sympathy for those who are excluded, rightly or wrongly, from the landscape of Robespierre's film because they regret their abortions. This regret cannot be reduced to the blame inflicted on women by conservative forces in society; it is something more primordial than the rhetoric of choice can address, a hauntedness given poetic expression, for instance, by Anne Sexton and Gwendolyn Brooks.

I once heard a story: A dying man confessed to an old friend that once, decades ago, he lazily misshelved a book in his friend's library. The friend couldn't fathom why this poor fellow was still wracked with guilt over such a thing, and was tempted to reassure the dying man that it didn't matter, that he'd done nothing wrong. But ultimately, he realized that something that had agonized someone for so long, for whatever reason, couldn't be lightly dismissed. Instead, he told the dying man he forgave him, which brought his dying friend extraordinary peace.

"Obvious Child" is determined to lighten the burden of women's guilt, including guilt over not feeling guilty. There is a commendable moral instinct at work here, but serious reservations remain. It is easier to reassure people that they've "done nothing wrong" than to acknowledge and wade into the depths of true guilt with a promise of forgiveness.

No film can be faulted for failing to capture the enormous complexity of the reality of abortion. Still, it is important to point out that if this reality does include the underrepresented experiences of people like the characters in "Obvious Child," it also includes the no-less-uncomfortable and neglected, yet ultimately more prophetic, experiences of women like King, Sexton and Brooks.

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