"Cinematic Treatment of Abortion: Alfie (1965) and The Cider House Rules (1999)"


1 Some scholars have already begun to address the other life issues. See, for example, Michael Burleigh's analysis of Nazi films-not only documentaries, but also fictional accounts-meant to persuade the public to adopt euthanasia, such as Ich klage an [I Accuse] (1941), and Martin S. Pernick's work on The Black Stork (1917), an infanticide and euthanasia film by the American eugenicist Harry Haiselden. [Back]

2 For discussion of The Cider House Rules I particularly recommend Josie P. Campbell's John Irving: a Critical Companion (Greenwood, 1998), Rod Dreher's "'Cider House's' Abortion: Right vs. What Works" (a review in The Christian Science Monitor), and Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson's John Irving (Twayne, 1986). [Back]

3 Other critics attempt to revile these pro-films using terminology that borders on ad hominem. Consider, for example, Jessie Givner's analysis of the importance of the unborn child in The Silent Scream, paraphrasing concepts from several critics:

If the fetus is placed in a sacred, holy sphere the technologies which image the fetus are similarly associated with that sacred realm. [....] The notion of the sacred fetus and the sacred high-tech image of the fetus belongs to a whole fantasy of immaculate conception. (235) [Back]

4 Of course, not all anti-life criticism should be ignored, especially when it can be used by pro-life theorists as well. For example, besides stating that "Argument scholars must recognize the value of [personal testimonies of mothers who aborted]," Barbara A. Pickering also suggests that "incorporating the subjective realm of personal testimony as an acceptable form of proof is crucial to building a model of argument theory which embraces feminist thought" (20). Thus, for Pickering,

Personal experience in the form of women's voices must be incorporated as a legitimate form of proof if argumentation theory is to expand beyond its traditional parameters to a more inclusive theory which values the contributions that feminist theories can make to our understanding of argument in public policy discourse. (21)

Since the majority of women are pro-life, and since being feminist necessarily means supporting the first civil right to life, applying Pickering's principles would greatly help to validate the voices of pro-life women who support the first civil right to life when they express their desire for pro-life legislation. [Back]

5 The only other reference to religious principles in the novel is a casual one about purgatory and heaven. In his typically skewered sense of life, Alfie assets that

When you get down to it, the average man must know in his own heart what a rotten bleeder he is[;] he don't want someone good around to keep reminding him of it. That's why a good bloke will always prefer to marry a real bitch. It means he's doing his purgatory on earth. Every time she does the dirty on him he's got another reason for looking up to heaven. (153) [Back]

6 The film almost exactly matches the original drama of 1963. While the abortion episode summarized above is followed closely in all three texts, there are some differences in the film. As if to convey to the audience that he isn't such a bad character after all as to arrange for an abortionist, Alfie restores the twenty-five quid that Lily paid to the abortionist by secreting the money in her purse. In the stage production, Alfie quibbles with Lily over how much to pay to the abortionist and does not return the money to her. Another difference is that, immediately after he sees the body of his aborted child, Alfie runs out of his apartment and needs to confide in a male friend, an episode missing from the other texts. [Back]

7 Boggs and Petrie discuss the emotional reactions to various colors in chapter seven of their The Art of Watching Films (McGraw-Hill, 2004). [Back]

8 The novel states Alfie's anguish more emphatically:

Then I think how he had been quite perfect, and the thought crossed my mind: "You know what you did, Alfie, you murdered him." I mean what a stroke for the mind to come out with, a thing like that. "Yes, mate, you set it all up and for thirty nicker you had him done to death." And then it struck me that the main idea in my head had been how to get it done a fiver cheaper. (207; italics in original) [Back]

9 It is probably purely coincidental that Michael Caine, who, in the role of Alfie, arranged the abortion in the earlier film, becomes the abortionist himself in this later film. [Back]

10 Homer does not, however, have any moral qualms about being complicit in abortion. Chapter three of the DVD shows Homer carrying aborted remains to the incinerator outside the orphanage. [Back]

11 Consider, for example, the following excerpt, where Irving's hostility toward right-to-lifers is evident by the use of derogatory terminology and ad hominem:

Think of the Right-to-Life movement today. It is fueled by something stronger than a concern for the rights of the unborn. (Proponents of the Right-to-Life position show very little concern for children once they're born.) What underlies the Right-to-Life message is a part of this country's fundamental sexual puritanism. Right-to-Lifers believe that what they perceive as promiscuity should not go unpunished; girls who get pregnant should pay the piper [....] Let doctors practice medicine. Let religious zealots practice their religion, but let them keep their religion to themselves. (My Movie 38-9; emphasis in original)

Moreover, in an essay titled "My Dinner at the White House", Irving admits that he "gave a rousing speech in favor of abortion rights, and lambasting [President] George Bush-from an exclusively Planned Parenthood perspective, mind you" (Trying 166). [Back]

12 Chapter two on the DVD version of the film contains the key philosophical foundation of this abortion movie. It is here that the abortionist Larch utters his belief that people should be "of use." [Back]

13 This scene is chapter twenty-four of the DVD. [Back]

14 This scene is chapter thirty-two of the DVD. The use of the many italicized terms suggests that Mr. Rose's words should be pronounced forcefully. However, the actor recites the words in a dejected, quiet tone. Perhaps this is not so much bad acting as evidence that the father is so demoralized after committing incest with his daughter and then having an abortion performed on her that he cannot even assert himself regarding a set of relatively innocuous rules. [Back]

15 The idea that abortion could serve a sacerdotal or divine function was explicitly formulated about five years after the novel was published by the anti-life author Ginette Paris, whose 1992 work The Sacrament of Abortion considers abortion a sacred act (8), "a kind of sacrifice" (34), merely "another way of choosing death over life" (51; italics in original), and, finally, "a sacrifice to Artemis" (107). [Back]

Works Cited

Works Consulted

1, 2,