Tonight, my husband and I finally got to watch Vera Drake, which had been waiting patiently for us to pop it into the DVD player for who knows how long. If you missed it or don't remember, the Mike Leigh movie tells the story of a loving working-class woman in England circa 1950 who performs abortions. It was a crime to do so, and things don't go well for Vera because they didn't go well for one of the women she tried to help out. But the film highlights the impossible situations women found themselves in without easy access to reliable contraception or legal abortions.
Throughout the film, I kept thinking of a review essay by Caitlin Flanagan from a while back in The Atlantic. If I remember correctly, the essay is typical Flangan -- beautifully written, well-argued, with some kind of weird flash of the knife at the end, but it's worth reading. It covers two books, one called The Girls Who Went Away and the other called The Choices We Made, about women who had abortions before they were legal. The abortion stories Flanagan re-tells are from the perspective of women who ended pregnancies and they're awful. Vera Drake's story as a provider is one of understanding. She sees herself as helping those in need, women who find themselves in an untenable situation.
Most of the women in the movie who are not among those ending pregnancies share a secret if whispered code. They understand how in a flash everything can go wrong, and Vera Drake is found and steps in to help. It's dangerous, her help, non-medical abortions put women at grave risk, but her story reminded me of how close in time we remain to such extreme medical marginalization. For so long, the kind of help Vera could offer was all many women could afford. The film showed how viscerally some women get the risks of sex and the ways others bury those risks in condescension and judgment. Turning off the TV, all I can say is it's a good thing safe abortions are now legal; as for the judgment of others, good thing Obama will be appointing our next set of Supreme Court justices.