The Opposite of Choice

Sarah Seltzer

Where are the movies about the women whose paths lie in between the extremes portrayed in "Juno" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" -- who may be legally able to do whatever they want with their bodies but feel pressure that limits their freedom to choose?

It appears that the conventional wisdom has labeled "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" the anti-"Juno." It's true that the films are polar opposites: "Juno" is a sunny and clever look at a young woman who does not get an abortion in America, while "4 Months" is a dark, harrowing portrait of a young woman, Otilia, who arranges an abortion for her friend in communist Romania.

The transformations that our heroines undergo diverge dramatically as well. Juno uses her own reproductive choice to help another woman become a mother and in the process, learns to trust a man enough to fall in love with him. Otilia sacrifices her own bodily integrity to help another woman secure an abortion and it annihilates her trust in the man she loves. Juno grows from an angsty teen into a self-assured young adult. Otilia goes from a confident young woman to a diminished version of her former self.

While each movie stands alone on artistic merits and each is worthy of dozens of essays (who'd have thought that two movies that touch on abortion would be among the year's most lauded?) their contrast is remarkable. Together, they paint a complete picture of the value of reproductive choice. Without her freedom to choose, Juno would be a lot more like Otilia: she would lose the humor and independence that makes her lovable, her energy subsumed by a society that lays claim to her body.

With Juno's reproductive freedom comes her ability to be a fully realized human being, to use hamburger-shaped phones, jam on her guitar and fall in love.

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"Juno" is a refreshing film mostly because of its female protagonist. For once, audiences were flocking to a serious movie that was written by a woman, about a woman. Juno is written and acted as though she's a (gasp!) real person. Her jokes are hilarious, she's a hundred times more intelligent than the bland love interests in Judd Apatow's raunch-fests, and she avoids the jello-mold of romantic comedy heroines. As the film progresses, we understand Juno more and more: her hip one-liners are a defense mechanism masking teenage insecurity and sadness over her parents' breakup. But the cutesiness dies down as Juno learns to accept life's many imperfections-giving her baby to a single mother, embracing her gawky best friend in his short shorts, deciding that her flawed family, dog-obsessed stepmother and all, is okay by her. Juno's character arc complete, we shed a few happy tears, and leave the theater satisfied.

And yet, the mechanics of Juno's choice are understated, to say the least. There's an offhand reference to parental notification at one clinic, and then at the magically conjured second clinic there's a lone protestor (a fellow classmate of Juno's, armed with memories of Juno's gossip-worthy hijinks). Once Juno goes ahead with the pregnancy, she receives some nasty looks, but even for a teen in a comfortable suburb, she basically gets a free pass. Not so realistic. Okay, so the screenwriters and director have made a decision to skirt the complexities of choice in America in order to show deeper character development. Juno's pregnancy is a device to illustrate her personal growth, which is most definitely a luxury of setting a film in a place where choices are readily available.

This is why it's so ridiculous that some anti-choicers have appropriated "Juno." From the crayoned-in opening credits onward, "Juno" takes place in a near-utopian world of near-complete freedom of choice, a world where a character can say, "Hey, look at all these reproductive options! I'm going to browse around and pick the one that jives with my own personal sensibilities and emotional needs. Groovy."

That strain of decision making in a vacuum is totally absent in the distant world of "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," where the state aggressively tries to co-opt reproduction. Otilia, the star of this nightmare, must therefore be a less fully realized character than Juno. We never learn what motivates her, what rock bands and hairstyles she prefers, because she is almost entirely focused on survival–and the illegal medical procedure that enables that survival. At first, Otilia seems brisk and confident, with an almost mechanical precision in her ability to bargain her way through the grey hallways and bleak streets of her totalitarian homeland. Fueled by a constant black-market cigarette habit, the wiry, intense Otilia carefully balances her obligations. On the one hand is her friend Gabita, a naive girl who has already lost most of her agency, and on the other is Otilia's own well-meaning but boorish boyfriend. But the balance is thrown off when Otilia realizes how perilous her calmly-assumed task actually is, and how impossible it is to be on equal terms with a man in a society that limits women's choices. She asks her boyfriend what he'd do if "it" happened to her; his evasive non-answers are as shocking to the audience as the graphic abortion scene itself. Otilia's subsequent inability to function in normal, jovial company, revealed during an excruciating dinner party, reflects her loss of humanity. Her final accusatory stare reminds us that she will have to struggle to get that humanity back. (And it's hardly necessary to point out that no matter how painful and brutal the ordeal of these two women becomes, not once do they decide that the abortion is not worth the trouble. In their minds, there is no other option.)

There are plenty of Junos in the world, empowered by their reproductive freedom. But there are far more Otilias, women who are psychologically crippled by restrictions on those freedoms. Many of these Otilias exist in America's present and past, and their absence from the big screen in favor of a parade of winsome young mamas (see "Saved," "Waitress," "Knocked Up" and "Juno") says a lot about our national psyche.

Where are the movies about American Otilias? And where are the movies about the women whose paths lie in between these two extremes — who may be legally able to do whatever they want with their bodies but feel pressure from parents, boyfriends, employers, communities and the religious right, pressure that limits their freedom to choose? In today's climate, it's hard to imagine a movie that honors these women, a movie that treats abortion as neither a mortal danger nor a tossed-out option on the road to babyland.

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News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.