'Cider House's' abortion: right vs. what works

Abortion isn't mentioned in the trailer or in advertising for "The Cider House Rules," the recent film from John Irving's acclaimed 1985 novel. Considering that abortion is the central moral issue in the story, this omission is about as strange as if promotional material for "Saving Private Ryan" had left out the little matter of, oh, World War II.

Or maybe it's not so strange, given the forthright pro-abortion stance of the film about a young man who learns that abortion is a "miracle" (Irving's word) that spares mothers and unwanted children of pain and suffering. Given the squeamishness that most Americans feel about the topic, it's not hard to surmise why its distributor, Miramax Films, is promoting "Cider House" so peculiarly.

Remember, too, that Miramax is owned by Disney, which is routinely hammered by religious conservatives.

"Cider House" certainly doesn't merit protest from the usual suspects. It's a serious, artistically accomplished film, well adapted by Irving from his worthy novel. It makes a compelling case for abortion rights. And while I doubt that any pro-lifers will be converted, they must come to grips with the excruciating moral dilemmas at the heart of "Cider House" - even as the story displays all the courage and confidence of a Miramax publicist when it comes to facing strong pro-life arguments.

"Cider House" is a coming-of-age story about a foundling named Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), who is raised by the head of the orphanage, Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), to be his protg.

Dr. Larch teaches Homer all the tricks of the medical trade. Homer can do everything the doctor does, except one thing: perform abortions.

The movie hints that the roots of Homer's deep, though unarticulated, objection to abortion are in his own outcast status. Homer realizes that his very existence is the result of an unwanted pregnancy and of his anonymous mother's refusal to terminate that pregnancy. It's a relevant point, and the film's refusal to give it a hearing reveals how heavily the rhetorical deck is stacked in favor of abortion rights.

Larch is a zealous advocate of legalized abortion and considers the safe but illegal abortions he performs on desperate women to be a humanitarian service. He is both a libertarian and a utilitarian. He doesn't urge women to have abortions - indeed, he will happily deliver and take in unwanted babies - but he offers them the service if they so choose.

"I deliver babies," he says, "and I also deliver mothers."

One day, Homer leaves the orphanage to work in an apple orchard, seeking his own happiness and personal fulfillment. The doctor tries to lure him back, to have him put his gifts to use in the service of orphans and desperate unwed mothers.

One aspect of the film that both committed pro-lifers and pro-choicers can agree on is Larch's attack on Homer's "personally opposed, but ..." stance. Homer would rather avoid making a hard decision about the morality of abortion, but Larch insists that to evade the question when women are suffering (or, from the pro-life side, when unborn babies are being killed) is to be a coward.

Homer still refuses - until he's confronted with a situation in which even some pro-lifers might condone abortion. His "naive," unthought-out ideals give way when he's faced with a woman he cares about who finds herself in an agonizing situation that's not of her own making.

"The Cider House Rules" takes its name from a list of regulations tacked to the wall of the barracks where the apple pickers live. And it's here that we get to the heart of the movie's moral message. The rules are judged by Homer and his fellow workers to have little or nothing to do with the lives they actually live and with their true needs.

So they discard these outdated rules and embrace rules that complement the way they want to live.

"Cider House" asks: Does the law exist to serve man, or man to serve the law?

One character says to Homer after he has performed his friend's abortion, "Sometimes you gotta break the rules to make things straight."

The phrase is telling: not right but straight.

Abstract ideals of right and wrong mean nothing in the Larchian moral universe. What should obtain is what makes it easier for people to live the lives they would choose.

The movie utterly fails, though, to account for the enormous implications of dethroning "the law."

When we cast out the law - by which I mean the idea of objective moral truth - we choose blindness. If we don't consider ourselves subject to moral teachings that exist independent of our own perceived needs and desires, morality becomes a matter of contingency, of expediency, of situational ethics - and the weak will almost always suffer.

When people cease to ask, "What's right?" and instead ask, "What works?" any number of sins can be justified. The movie's utilitarianism is nihilism with a human face.

And the history of the 20th century demonstrates that despite the best intentions, the face of the man who would play God (as Dr. Larch admits he does) doesn't remain human for long.

*Rod Dreher is a news columnist for the New York Post and the film critic of Our Sunday Visitor. This article is reprinted with permission from www.beliefnet.com a venture-capital-backed, multifaith Web site on religion, spirituality, and morality.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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