“Babies are box-office…”

“…so we won’t be seeing a movie on ‘Bridget Jones’ Abortion’ any time soon.

The ultrasound scanner has magnified the drama of pregnancy…

Everyone seems to love Bridget Jones. The cinema was full – 98 per cent female – and the audience laughed, clapped and empathised with Bridget (the fabulous Renee Zellweger) and her zany antics. She drinks a bottle of vodka at a rock concert, falls on her face in the mud, and then falls into bed with a hunky stranger in his yurt.

Bumping into her ex at a christening party, she slugs back the wine and he slugs back the whiskey and the next thing they’re deep into the four-poster bed, and, as one American movie critic so reticently puts it, nature duly takes its course. What a lark!

And that’s how they came to make the popular movie “Bridget Jones’s Baby”, currently showing. But wait: why didn’t director Sharon Maguire and producers Working Title consider a film called “Bridget Jones’s Abortion”? Look at the facts. Bridget is 43: she’s got a top media job with a London television channel: she carries around a dolphin-friendly female contraceptive (so very ecological), which indicates that she’s intending to avoid a pregnancy: and she can’t figure out which of the two guys might be the father of the baby.

And yet, in this whole scenario, the one word never, ever mentioned is “abortion”. The more euphemistic allusion to “choice” isn’t even brought up.

This is completely unrealistic. There were 185,824 terminations of pregnancy in England and Wales last year, and the biggest rise in abortion statistics was among women over 40 who, like Bridget, had become unexpectedly pregnant.

There’s a high chance that a real-life 43-year-old London singleton, pregnant by reckless accident and by ambiguous paternity, would have gone straight to the abortion clinic. And that it would surely have been suggested.

But no. The matter is never brought up. Bridget though comically confused, and her usual adorable ditzy self, is soon undergoing an early ultrascan, briskly encouraged by Emma Thompson as the no-nonsense doctor, and waving at the small human image on the ultrascan screen: “Hello baby!”

Her predicament and the interaction of the putative fathers, (Colin Firth as the stoical Englishman, Patrick Dempsey as the genial Yank) are of course part of the gag. A movie called “Bridget Jones’s Abortion”, would have ended there and then. No development, both literally and narratively. End of story. That’s one reason why film-makers generally shy away from the topic, and even TV writers are keener to keep a pregnancy going because it provides more story-line development.

In the riveting American drama series, “Homeland”, the ruthless, neurotic CIA agent Carrie Mathison also gets pregnant, although with no desire for a baby. But an abortion would literally terminate the story-line, so the pregnancy is continued. In the compelling French series “Spiral”, tough, driven Paris police chief Laure Berthaud keeps flunking opportunities to pursue an abortion – and by seconds, misses a train to Amsterdam, where late abortions are available – until everyone, including herself, gets involved with the expected baby. Soap operas do introduce abortion as a dilemma, but in general, they prefer to develop the story-line by ushering forth the baby.

So story-line is one reason why baby rather than termination is the preferred option. It makes for both better comedy and better drama.

The second reason is that babies are box-office – movie about babies make money (“Juno”, “Knocked Up”) – whereas movies about abortion are seldom hits. There was an American film last year about abortion called “Grandma” – an acerbic grandmother, played by Lily Tomlin, helps her teenage grand-daughter find the money for an abortion, and although it was nominated for awards, it struggled to get widespread release. (Yet even this movie, made with a sympathetic approach to abortion, includes a melancholy warning by “Grandma” that this episode will stay in the girl’s memory all her life.) In terms of audience popularity, the film flopped.

And in 2004, the social-realist director Mike Leigh made an acclaimed movie, “Vera Drake”, about a back-street abortionist in the 1950s, who sincerely believed she was just helping young women “in trouble”. Imelda Staunton gave a superb performance, but I remember watching it in a sparsely-attended cinema.

The blatant truth is that audiences like stories about babies, and they are, for the most part, averse to stories about abortion. It can be – and is, currently, in Ireland – a political debate, and it is a debate around which there will always be personal and ethical issues. But in story, in fiction, in movies, drama or poetry, it has been remarkable its low appearance level. There are some well-observed and thoughtful short stories – “Beached” by Jennifer Farrell, in the recently published Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015 is a sensitive and rueful account of an abortion remembered in middle age; and Ian McEwan’s latest novel, “Nutshell” is told from the sympathetic viewpoint of the unborn/foetus (both words are used).

Because of the amazing new developments in embryology and fetology, I believe we will see more opening-up of the drama possibilities around pregnancy – surrogate pregnancy is full of drama potential: what happens when the surrogate changes her mind halfway through? – and we’ll see increasing explorations of the human dilemmas around the beginning of life. Depicting pregnancy has been magnified visually by the ultrasound scanner: even Mr Fintan O’Toole would be hard put to disparage Bridget Jones as “zygopathic” (his word for those who support the Eighth Amendment) when our heroine waves “hello baby!”, and the baby, to the audience’s delight, seems to wave back. @MaryKenny4

 

Mary will speak at the “Institute of Ideas” debate on the morality of abortion on Saturday 22 October at the Barbican, London.