Abortion debate finds screen time

Entertainment illustrates the polarity of the issue

Although no issue is more polarizing than abortion, a reasonable person can see what motivates both sides, beyond those engaged in political calculus: people who fervently believe a woman should have the right to make such a personal decision, and those — often motivated by their faith — who find an overriding concern about the sanctity of human life.

Because abortion remains such a hot button, TV generally treads cautiously in this area, mindful of the advertiser resistance that has surrounded such situations. Dramatic characters facing an unwanted pregnancy usually agonize over the decision.

Even so, media have become more stratified. And part of that can be seen in two projects demonstrating how far we are from the kind of middle ground Bill Clinton was thinking about when he said that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”

This week, a movie opened throughout the U.S. that doesn’t figure to generate much attention in Hollywood. “October Baby” will nevertheless play on around 350 screens, and features such familiar faces as John Schneider and Jasmine Guy in supporting roles.

Backed by American Family Studios — an arm of the American Family Assn., which supports “traditional values” and frequently rails against Hollywood — the plot focuses on a college student who discovers not only that she was adopted, but survived a “failed abortion.” The particulars remain a trifle vague (a saline procedure gone wrong), but her pain and journey to find and confront her birth mother — meant to exalt how every life is precious — reinforces how heavy-handed and moralizing pro-life crusaders can appear.

“I didn’t want to make a political film … (or) villainize anyone,” says director Jon Erwin, adding that his goal was to “reframe the issue” and “spark conversation” through art.

Yet Erwin, who wrote the movie and produced and directed it with his brother Andrew, has chosen an example so extreme as to likely raise the hackles of anyone who isn’t adamantly anti-abortion.

On the flip side is “Girls,” a new HBO series focusing on twentysomething young women trying to find themselves in Manhattan. Created by Lena Dunham — whose “Tiny Furniture” was a film festival-circuit hit — the program’s second episode features a character seeking an abortion. Far from soul-searching, though, it’s striking how almost cavalier these young women sound discussing the procedure.

Granted, HBO is a pay channel, and thus needn’t fret about whether Procter & Gamble is comfortable with its storylines. The unsentimental approach is also bracing precisely because it doesn’t ape what’s become a cliche in broadcast circles, where “very special” episodes deal with similar subject matter.

That said, the characters’ dialogue will surely be perceived as a thumb in the eye of foes of abortion rights — especially those on high alert for any slight, real or imagined, from the elite media.

Because women remain the predominant audience for most primetime TV (and certainly for something like “Girls”), plots about having children strike a chord with audiences. Programmers have responded on multiple fronts, including such unscripted fare as MTV’s “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant,” which caused a stir, tellingly, when it featured a December 2010 special about a young woman who chose to have an abortion.

The key here is that “Girls” and “October Baby” don’t just reflect opposing viewpoints. As constructed, they barely speak the same language. And if entertainment once had an educational, discussion-generating effect — witness the impact of “ER” on health knowledge in its heyday — it’s now simply another medium that highlights the cultural divide.

Erwin, co-director of “October Baby,” sounds sincere describing himself as “a person of deep faith who doesn’t see the world as black and white,” adding in regard to the Christian community’s suspicions toward popular entertainment, “I think the evangelical and faith-based world has played the victim card for far too long.”

Even so, in light of the recent debate over contraception, there’s a clear desire to re-litigate the 1960s — including the sexual revolution — where opposing sides can’t even settle on rules of engagement, and civility is a frequent casualty.

Against that backdrop, far from art having a unifying or conversation-facilitating effect, these two explorations of abortion only illustrate the expansive width of the divide — a gap so broad, it seems, the parties can’t even hear each other, much less talk.

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