More than 2,000 years ago, the Roman playwright Plautus described a scene in which two fathers are talking with each other, as neighbors would talk over the fence in a modern suburb. One father laments that his son got a girl pregnant. The second father warns him that should he react too strongly, the first father will lose not only a son, but a daughter just as he did when his son got a girl pregnant. My Latin professor was quick to point out that it’s the same old story. People have been getting pregnant outside of marriage for thousands of years and life goes on.
In the past 30 years or so, only pro-life activists have been forced to counter the social stigma of a pregnant young woman or teen. Ironically, these activists are generally part of the same group of social conservatives who believe that the ideal context for sex is within a permanent marriage between a man and a woman. While social conservatives won’t endorse the behavior, they don’t condemn the person. This same group sees the increase in out-of-wedlock births (more than a third of all births are to single women) as something that should be mitigated. They see the connection between the increase in unwed mothers and the disintegration of the nuclear family and a host of other social ills.
Presumably, as more marriages fail, the children of these marriages lack the real life examples needed for their own healthy relationships and settle for a variety of substitutes. Sex doesn’t wait just because marriages are delayed. And children arrive though marriage is delayed and contraceptives abound.
BUT THE IRONY continues. The fact that unwed motherhood no longer carries the social stigma it once did now makes it more plausible to hold pro-life views concerning abortion. Knocked Up and Juno, two recent films, are unabashedly pro-life, anti-abortion, and even pro-marriage. Neither film made an explicit appeal to a socially conservative audience. The films appear to come from a completely secular culture. Judging by their successes, they have been well received.
While Knocked Up may not be suitable for family viewing (f-bombs probably make up half the dialogue), director Judd Apatow, who also directed The 40 Year Old Virgin, tells the story of Alison, a beautiful 24-year-old who goes out to celebrate a promotion at work. At a bar, she meets Ben, a twenty-something who spends his days smoking pot and watching movies for a semi-pornographic website that he and his friends plan to develop. Their meeting results in a one-night fling. Not much more is needed than the sobriety of the following morning to convince Alison that the relationship won’t be developing further.
Several weeks later, Alison learns that she’s pregnant and contacts Ben. The movie shows no other intention than that Alison will have and keep the baby. Surprisingly, Ben steps up to the plate. Sure, one could say that Hollywood is just making another idealistic movie. But when did Hollywood idealism become a story about two people who face an unplanned pregnancy, decide to have the baby, develop a relationship and actually become better people because of their sacrifices?
A subplot in the movie touches on the marriage of Alison’s sister. Although it is less than ideal, the couple faces the challenges set before them. By the end of the movie, the marriage destined for divorce seems to be on good footing. Not bad for an R-rated film that isn’t family friendly.
Just this past Christmas, another surprisingly pro-life movie was released in theaters: the independent film Juno by the same director of the hilariously funny, albeit crude, Thank You for Smoking. Juno is a 16-year-old high school junior who ends up pregnant after having sex with her best friend Bleeker. After a brief experience in an abortion clinic, she leaves, determined to have her baby and give it up for adoption.
Quirky, smart, and worldly, Juno is no ordinary teenager. Or perhaps she is since those same adjectives could describe a lot of teens. Her father and his wife express their disappointment at her pregnancy but agree to support her in her decision. Poor Bleeker gets relegated to the sidelines of her life until the end of the pregnancy. The adopting couple end up having their own drama and decide to divorce before the baby is born. Nonetheless, Juno still gives the baby to the woman to raise as a single mother.
(At the end of the movie, one can’t help but wonder if the baby wouldn’t have been better off with Juno and her supportive parents who have a five year-old daughter themselves. But that’s not the main point of the story.)
The movie ends with Juno and Bleeker, now girlfriend and boyfriend, finishing up senior year of high school like ordinary teens. There’s even something innocent about them. Juno has learned that she wants something more than the relationship of the adopting/divorcing couple and something more than what her own parents had. Having the baby and giving him up for adoption seems to bring Juno to a healthier youth than she had before. She’s learned a lot about love.
BOTH MOVIES indicate a substantial shift in public thinking about unplanned pregnancy and abortion. In both movies, it is only the middle-aged mother and stepmother who recommend an abortion, suggesting a generational difference, even a faux pas. The abortion clinic scene in Juno features a variety of bizarre and strange characters, again suggesting something that’s not quite normal.
In a sense, these movies are much more realistic about sex than most cultural influences, including Hollywood, secularism, radical feminism, and the abortion lobby. People have sex, pregnancy happens, a fact backed up by Planned Parenthood’s research arm, the Alan Guttmacher Institute. The Institute reports that 46 percent of all women who have abortions were not using contraception when they got pregnant. But then that means that 54 percent were using contraception. Planned Parenthood and company offer abortion as a way to make the woman un-pregnant. If these movies are any indication, however, people are realizing that sex can lead to pregnancy and that pregnancy means a new life is now involved. Perhaps there’s even a realization that a pregnancy can’t be undone, not even with an abortion.
Caitlyn Flanagan in the May 2007 issue of the Atlantic Monthly wrote a provocative piece titled “The Sanguine Sex.” In her characteristically forthright and honest style she presents her sympathy for abortion by linking stories of difficult situations faced by women. But as she continues in her honest approach, she writes:
The demands pro-life advocates make of pregnant women are modest: All they want is a little bit of time. All they are asking, in a societal climate in which out-of-wedlock pregnancy is without stigma, is that pregnant women give the tiny bodies growing inside of them a few months, until the little creatures are large enough to be on their way, to loving homes.
Times have changed, as both movies demonstrate. The New York Times saw fit to publish a front-page piece, above the fold, about the pregnancy of Britney Spears’s younger sister Jamie Lynn. The article surveys some teens and parents and references the two movies in discussion.
While the teens don’t appear to understand that sex may be something worth waiting for, they do understand that sex involves pregnancy. One student explains that Jamie Lynn will need to take time away from her television show, “You need time to figure your stuff out.” “And you’re going to have to take care of a human being.”
Abortion is still a common procedure in this country and much must be done to make abortion not only illegal, but unthinkable and undesirable. But in some ways, it seems like more progress has been made in the area of abortion than the area of sex and marriage.
A pregnant professional can keep her job even when the pregnancy is discovered. A pregnant high school girl continues attending her high school and isn’t shuttered away at a distant relative’s or in an abortion doctor’s office. In part, both of these things are possible because single moms are no longer stigmatized as before. Sex outside of marriage is generally accepted, tolerated, and even celebrated.
While actions or behaviors that result in unmarried parents may not be laudable for social conservatives, it’s important to recall that social conservatives were the first to admit that sex and pregnancy are part of life even if people aren’t married. It was the abortion lobby that wanted to deny that and further implicated women by suggesting that they have abortions in these unseemly situations. In the end, it seems that social conservatives have been the most realistic about sex.
If that realism continues, we may even reach the point where the culture as a whole sees marriage as the best context for sex, as both movies suggest. Nonetheless, sex will still happen outside of marriage; but only by being as realistic as possible can we avoid regressing to a pseudo Victorian era that would have no place for unmarried mothers.
Sex happens, babies are conceived, life goes on. After all, it’s been happening for thousands of years.